Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Sorry for the lack of content over the past six months or so. I’ve been both very busy with my day job AND very uninspired in my writing. But all of that is changing. Here’s my second post of 2014:

IMDb Logo

I recently discovered that IMDb, the Internet Movie DataBase, has an incredible collection of keywords tagging the movies in their database.

How can a writer use this?

  • To predict the popularity of what they are writing.
  • To choose between potential plot points.
  • and most certainly many more…

Visit: http://www.imdb.com/Sections/Keywords/ for the MoKA home page. If you scroll down, there are lists of all the keywords broken down by starting letter, keyword length (!), and tag count.

I think the list of keywords tagged on 10,000 or more movies is quite revealing:

  • Death (11,357)
  • Family Relationships (10,721)
  • Father Son Relationship (12,334)
  • Female Nudity (14,770)
  • Husband Wife Relationship (10,371)
  • Love (13,509)
  • Murder (20,994)
  • Sex (13,022)

So there we have it. There have been more movies about Murder and Death, Family Relationships, and Love and Sex than on any other topics.

So should we all be writing murder-death-kill thrillers about families involved in complicated love quadrangles featuring kinky sex scenes?

Of course not.

Write what you know. Write what you love. Write what you would enjoy reading. This is only one measure of success. But a writer should always use multiple metrics because past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Charles Goodhart put it another way: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. 

So we must use IMDb’s MoKA appropriately. It is interesting information, but it is an indicator, a measure, a metric, and not your writing goal. It is a tool best used to hone existing material. If used prescriptively when creating material, you will have relied on it too much and the quality and direction of your writing will likely suffer.

Note: I removed the following non-plot keywords from the list above:

  • Based On Novel (29,833)
  • Based On Play (13,908)
  • Character Name In Title (42,430)
  • Independent Film (35,628)
  • Number In Title (13,716)
  • TV Mini-Series (10,145)

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Time is precious to me. I don’t like it when other people recommend something that causes me to waste my time. That’s one reason why I don’t post regularly or recommend many things on this blog but this video is exceptional. It is utterly incredible. It’s 46 minutes long, but if you want to write psychologically rich characters, then it is absolutely worth every second of your time. You might even have to watch it a second time (like me).

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Popular books and video games, especially franchises, are commonly adapted into movie versions. Books include Harry Potter, Twilight, and the new Jack Reacher film. Video games include Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil. There are many, many more.

Sometimes the movies are considered good but more often the adaptations are not as popular as the book or game the movie is based on. Here’s why:

In the movie-making industry, there is a general belief that movies are the highest form of art. This belief is rarely stated out loud but many surely hold this view and that’s where I believe most movie adaptations fall flat.

Because this is no longer true. It probably was once, but this is no longer the case.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When consumers are given a choice of mediums only one will be considered canon.  

Video games that provide the player with only 10 or 20 hours of entertainment are considered short. Role-playing games (RPGs) are expected to contain 40 to 60 hours of gameplay. Other genres vary, but all contain enough content for many hours of entertainment. In comparison, most movies come in at a paltry 2 hours of running time and thus simply can’t compete with other forms of a given story for dominance. 

One of the reason popular books and movies get adapted in the first place is that they have a built-in fanbase. The fans become the first set of movie-goers but they always expect to see their beloved story dramatized on the big screen. In the case of video games, which are already in a visual format, there is simply so much more content, so much more depth, that any movie will always feel small or rushed in comparison. Additionally in the case of books, the reader’s imagination is employed to visualize the story which is inherently personal and subjective. More often than not, the high expectations of the fanbase (which grew up around the original format for the story) are not met and sometimes they are virtually dashed to pieces.

Unfortunately for Hollywood, the highest form of art is a preference chosen by the consumer. Thus fans of the franchise, having spent much more time with the original version, of any given material will, when faced with the choice of two competing interpretations of the same story, usually choose the original.

Lastly, while books are almost always linear (the Choose Your Own Adventure series is a notable exception), video games excel at creating custom stories tailored to the choices of the player which usually result in very non-linear stories. Movies are purely linear (with notable exceptions like Clue (1985) which included 3 different endings). Thus movies simply can’t compete with the detailed, multi-dimensionally-rich stories available to players of a video game.

Avoiding these traps is simple. Make sure your movie isn’t trying to compete with the source material for dominance. Shape this dynamic as a both-and scenario rather than letting it devolve into an either-or competition. This means the screenplay must either tell the exact same story (exactly matching the source material or be very, very close) or tell a side story (something that can stand alone but adds to the mythos or the world of the franchise but is not required knowledge for engagement with the source material). Fans are usually not lenient of excessive creative license. And since a movie rises or falls based on the perceptions of its fanbase, it’s first viewers, it’s best to keep them happy. If they don’t like a movie, they will tell their friends to stay home.

Let’s apply this dynamic to two well-known franchises: Harry Potter and Twilight.

Which Harry Potter Movies get this Right?

The 1st through 4th Harry Potter movies get this dynamic right along with 7A. Watching these movies is essentially reading the books although book 4 is notable for being so long that a lot of details had to be left out and the plot simplified.

Movie 7B gets this dynamic wrong. Book 7 ends quite differently with all the loose ends nicely tied up. Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, decided to make changes to Rowling’s great ending in an attempt to give us something different when what the fans wanted to see was the book’s ending. My viewing of 7B was … disappointing.

By the way, Harry Potter 5 is a special case (and the primary exception to this dynamic) in that the source material wasn’t conducive to the big screen. Book 5 contains a lot of introspection by Harry which is difficult to visualize so the movie strays a lot from the book. The beginning and ending are essentially the same but everything in between had to be completely restructured to be suitable for a movie. (This movie also breaks continuity when the walls to the Room of Requirement are destroyed, an event that does not happen in the books and is depicted as being impossible. That room remaining intact is required for book 7’s plot so lots of problems here.)

Harry Potter 6 was, in my opinion, another exception to this dynamic. I think the movie was an improvement over the book version which I felt wandered a bit. In the movie version of book 6, the sides and stakes are made much clearer than in the book.

Which Twilight Movies get this Right?

Twilight 1 is like Harry Potter 6. The existing content from the book was restructured to make a stronger story. Except for a few scenes in the book that didn’t make it into the movie, I prefer the movie version.

Twilight movies 2, 3, and 4A get the dynamic right. They essentially provide fans the movie versions of the same stories from the books without much creative license.

Twilight movie 4B, however, pulls a fast one. The movie breaks continuity by putting us into the mind of the villain as he watches the future unfold from touching Alice. This is a neat visual trick but like Harry Potter 7B it is played for the shock value of offering something different. The chapters in the book corresponding to the final battle are highly introspective on the part of Bella (like Harry Potter 5) making this perhaps the best choice. I think they get away with it even though it breaks continuity regarding Alice’s gift.


Screenwriters, Directors, and Producers: Meet the expectations of the fans by telling them the story they already love, the story that was strong enough to convince you to make the movie in the first place. If this isn’t possible, craft a completely new story to supplement the source material. The fans will love you for expanding the story universe and your movie will be popular because it will be the only place they can get this new content.

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Pixar is an amazing company.

Thirteen releases and thirteen critically-acclaimed box office hits.

As Scott Myers says on his excellent Get Into The Story blog, let that sink in for a moment.

Thirteen releases and thirteen hits. Wow. This is the holy grail of Hollywood and no other studio has ever come close.

Now fast forward back to reality. Some say Pixar dropped the ball with Cars 2. Personally, I enjoyed the movie but it’s true that the story and character motivations were a little off.

To explain about Cars 2, if you’ve seen both movies you’ll note some striking differences. The first movie is all about Lightning McQueen learning to be humble. Everything about the first Cars movie supports this concept and it’s done well. The second movie is a sequel to the first but only sort of. The beloved tow truck Mater is the star of Cars 2. Maybe that’s why it feels “off” but I see it as a story issue because Mater doesn’t significantly change over the course of the film. Change isn’t a requirement for a good story, and Mater does come to accept his silliness and how others see him, but he doesn’t really change. The Mater at the end is the same as at the beginning. In contrast, Lightning McQueen does change. He goes from not wanting Mater around to accepting his friendship whenever and wherever. For Lightning, it’s a story about acceptance and friendship. If the character with the most to learn is supposed to be the protagonist then Lightning should be the protagonist just like in the first movie – but Mater is the star of Cars 2. It’s a strange story structure that seems to have subverted the traditional Pixar emotional story for a James Bond-style plot however entertaining that might be.

Brave Logo

So how does Brave compare? My thoughts:

  1. Brave shouldn’t have been titled ‘Brave’. The story really has nothing to do with bravery. Merida is a fiercely independent teenage girl whose actions can be described as defiant, at times assertive or arrogant, but never brave. She does accept responsibility for her actions and asks for forgiveness by the end of the movie which requires courage but it’s a stretch to call that bravery. Maybe the title was a marketing decision. I think “Strive” would have fit the movie better because Merida is constantly striving for something.
  2. The ubiquitous bow and arrow have little to do with the story. They are plot devices. Merida does get into trouble for winning an archery tournament a la Robin Hood style near the beginning. And Merida’s mother does throw Merida’s bow into the fire which triggers Merida to run away, but that is using it as a story talisman. Her excellent bow skills don’t help Merida in her first battle with the bear Mor’du. They are useful for catching fish for her mother’s breakfast but the pair could have foraged for berries just as well. Bottom line, they don’t help her win the final battle in any way and are therefore meaningless to the overall story (unlike another popular female protagonist).
  3. We don’t know who to root for. Merida only half changes as does her mother. Merida accepts responsibility for causing her mother to transform, but never apologizes for her earlier insubordination. Merida’s mother retreats from maintaining the status quo with regards to Merida’s betrothal but never actually apologizes for controlling her daughter’s life. In the end they both come to understand one another by a kind of role reversal but is having two characters only half change satisfying? Perhaps we are supposed to be happy that they ‘met in the middle’.
  4. Brave is two halves of a movie. One builds forward from the beginning while the other reaches back from the end and neither quite fits with the other. The forward-building concepts include destiny, the imagery of the bow and arrow, the title, and the intent to change fate. The back-reaching parts are the stone circle, the concept of falling rocks, the bear Mor’du, and accepting the status quo. Both sets of concepts are fascinating in their own right but neither set is fully developed. What could this movie have been with just the starting concepts? A truly brave Merida using her archery skills to defeat a villainous enemy released in a pandora’s box-style story would have been epic. And this is what sold the movie. However, the back-reaching concepts do not an epic story build.
  5. There should have been five clans. The story would have been much more satisfying if the four current clans were descended from four surviving princes of the ancient kingdom. There could have been five brothers with the eldest becoming Mor’du. The remaining four brothers could have imprisoned him somehow and then become the current clans. Such a simple story fix would have raised the emotional stakes overall and energized the existing connections between Merida and Mor’du. It would also have avoided the need for Merida’s convoluted explanation to the clan leaders while her mother was sneaking back into the tapestry room. The chessboard scene would have had to go but the use of falling chess pieces seemed out-of-character for the always proper queen to me anyway.
  6. The ending doesn’t fit. Yes, Merida and her mother make up. Yes, Merida solves the riddle and fixes the mess she made. But no, it doesn’t fit. The back-reaching story parts seem lifted from another movie, Disney’s Brother Bear. However, Brother Bear didn’t claim to be an epic story about bravery whereas Brave does. Brother Bear is about a human who gets transformed into a bear to teach him that actions have consequences, how nature works, and to not act in anger. It is a surprisingly well done emotional journey through the northern wilderness and should have received more attention, critical acclaim, and box office success than it did. Brave doesn’t start out like Brother Bear yet it has a similar emotional ending and these two halves don’t fit.
  7. The ending isn’t satisfying. Pixar is known for making movies with great endings. Great endings resolve the external, relational, and internal stakes of the story simultaneously. However, Merida doesn’t defeat Mor’du. Her mother does. So, again, whose story is it? And what about Merida’s archery skills? Does Merida show bravery in the stone circle during the final battle? At least she makes up with her mother afterwards and accepts her role in causing the disaster but this ending is not great. Enough said.

But there is one more aspect of story that has bearing on Brave.

  1. The ending is satisfying to women. The ending of Brave is a woman’s ending but I don’t mean that disrespectfully. Most movies are for and by men. Stereotypically, men focus on conflict and competition. By contrast, women are concerned with restoring relationships and cooperation. With that understanding, Brave delivers a very satisfying ending in that Merida’s relationship with her mother is completely restored through their cooperative actions. But it still doesn’t match the more male-focused beginning.

While writing this post I ran across the wikipedia article for Brave which noted that Pixar rewrote their proprietary animation software while making this movie. As a computer professional I know how much time and effort such a major undertaking requires. So maybe this movie is an ironic consequence of Pixar’s corporate strive for excellence. Simply put, Brave might be the learning movie for their new software and that’s not a bad thing. It means Pixar’s future movies should return to – and will likely surpass – the level of excellence we know, expect, and love.

And Pixar’s worst film is usually miles ahead of the vast majority of Hollywood productions.

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    Screenplay by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Based on the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
    Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Based on the novel by Mario Puzo
    Written by Robert Towne
    Written by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
    Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Based on “The Wisdom of Eve,” a short story and radio play by Mary Orr
    Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
    Written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr.
    Written by Paddy Chayefsky
    Screenplay by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond. Based on “Fanfare of Love,” a German film written by Robert Thoeren and M. Logan
    Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo. Based on Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather”

This is a nice list though I haven’t seen all of these movies. Visit the Writer’s Guild of America site for the full version with all 101 movies.

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This undated form rejection from Essanay Film Manufacturing Company (which was in existence from 1907-1925) is a sweet little snapshot into the mores of the time — and the bits that haven’t changed since. According to the Old Hollywood Tumblr, “[Essnay is] mostly remembered today for its series of Charlie Chaplin films.”

via Old film rejection slip: “All scenes of an unpleasant nature should be eliminated” – Boing Boing.

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Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) holding his life in his hands.

Stranger Than Fiction is a 2006 movie starring Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and a brilliant Emma Thompson. It has elements of comedy, romance, and fantasy all rolled into one. Here’s the synopsis from IMDB:

Everybody knows that your life is a story. But what if a story was your life? Harold Crick is your average IRS agent: monotonous, boring, and repetitive. But one day this all changes when Harold begins to hear an author inside his head narrating his life. The narrator it is extraordinarily accurate, and Harold recognizes the voice as an esteemed author he saw on TV. But when the narration reveals that he is going to die, Harold must find the author of the story, and ultimately his life, to convince her to change the ending of the story before it is too late. (Written by the lexster) (edits, mine)

It’s definitely worth a watch for any aspiring author. Just watch the trailer. Hope you enjoy it.

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