“I’ve already sent the script to a couple of gurus,”
said a writer to me at the New Renaissance Film Festival. I’d just delivered a masterclass in storytelling and I think the implication was that I was a guru – or a demi-guru at the very least. I must confess that I don’t think of myself as a guru – or a doctor, or even an expert as the film festival brochure so flatteringly described me. I’m just someone who’s read a lot, watched a lot, written a lot, had the good luck to work with people who are a lot more talented and has learnt a lot from people who are a lot more knowledgeable and articulate. And if you spend as much time as I do thinking about stories, how they work and why they matter, occasionally you like to put those thoughts out into the world to see what other people think. Some agree, some don’t; some are inspired, some aren’t. And that’s how we learn and grow.
But beyond the subtly flattery, the writer’s comment implied something much more important. Why had he sent his script to a couple of gurus? Had the first guru not given him the feedback he’d expected? Was he hoping that the second guru would be more in tune with what he was trying to say? Had the first guru been unable to articulate his critique in a way that made sense to the writer so he’d felt compelled to send it on to someone else? And how many gurus was he planning to send his script to before he’d had his fill of gurus and their opinions?
It seemed to me that the writer was searching for something - something that is as elusive as a good idea and as precious as a perfectly constructed sentence: he was looking for his own Tay Hohoff. It is generally accepted that without Tay Hohoff ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ would not exist in the version we all know and love. It was Tay Hohoff, in her role as editor at the publishing firm J. B. Lippincott & Co., who looked at the earliest draft of ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ and recognised a talented writer who hadn’t found the right story. And it was Tay Hohoff who guided Harper Lee through three years of re-writes, three years in which Lee lost faith more than once and even threw the manuscript out of her window, until ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ was the book we know today.
Every creative needs their own Tay Hohoff – that person who can look at what we’ve made, what we’ve toiled over, what we apprehensively hand over and can see what works in it and what doesn’t. That person who, with knowledge and tact, can show us where we’ve gone wrong and guide us to the road that will make it better. That person who can say ‘This is good but I know you can do better.’ That person might be your agent, who after years of working in the industry, has a sixth sense for what works and what doesn’t; it might be a young editor fresh of a literature degree who just loves stories or it might be a guru who has made a career of analysing stories and advising writers. Whoever it is, we all need that person because telling a simple story well is an inordinately difficult thing to do and most of us can’t do it alone.
Just how important, precious and fragile this relationship is was highlighted for me by the writer Michel Faber whose Tay Hohoff was his wife, Eva. In an interview in The Guardian Faber explains how it was Eva who pulled him out of a depressive funk when they met in Melbourne in 1987, how it was Eva who convinced him to move to Scotland away from the harsh Australian sunshine that gave him migraines and how it was Eva who “supplied characters for the novella The Courage Consort, demanded a “more luminous” ending for The Book of Strange New Things, and helped to shape the mood and plot of all his books. “I would have been a different writer without her,” he says.”
Eva died in 2014 and Faber ends the interview: “I’m still trying to write a bit…I would like to think that in the future, if something has to give it’ll be the writing, rather than being a human among other humans.”
We all need our own Tay Hohoff: that person who has faith in us; that person we can trust completely. That person who can say ‘This is good but I know you can do better.’ And, for our own sanity and for them, we will.
“Ghost: If thou didst ever thy father love-
Hamlet: Oh God!
Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
so goes the exchange between old King Hamlet and his son Hamlet amongst the battlements of the castle in Denmark. King Hamlet’s desire for his son to kill the man who poisoned him sets in motion a sequence of events that doesn’t end well for anyone – except maybe Fortinbras. I’ve seen many Hamlets over the years: Mark Rylance found the humour in the character whilst playing the part in his pyjamas; Daniel Day-Lewis at the National Theatre in London collapsed because he immersed himself so deeply in the ‘antic disposition’ he saw his own dead father; Jude Law was a towering presence, not necessarily a good thing, in the West End; Rory Kinnear was competent at the National again – there have been others. But the one man whose career seemed to be hurtling towards a definitive Hamlet was Mel Gibson.
Gibson? you say. But he’s no Laurence Olivier, no John Gielgud, no Kenneth Branagh.
No. But very early on Mel Gibson found his niche and he was very good at it.
Gibson was in his early twenties when he appeared in George Miller’s 1979 film ‘Mad Max’. ‘Mad Max’ is the story of an idealistic young policeman in a dystopian near future whose battle against a marauding bike gang becomes personal when they kill his child and fatally wound his wife. In ‘Lethal Weapon’, Richard Donner’s 1987 film, Gibson’s Martin Riggs is struggling to cope with his wife’s death and in the 1989 sequel he discovers who killed her and gets his revenge. In his own 1995 film ‘Braveheart’ Gibson’s William Wallace is a pacifist until an English soldier kills his wife. The IMDb summary of Gibson’s 2000 film ‘The Patriot’ reads: ‘Peaceful farmer Benjamin Martin is driven to lead the Colonial Militia during the American Revolution when a sadistic British officer murders his son.’
Gibson might have made other films – enjoyable comedies such as ‘Bird on a Wire’ and ‘Maverick’; slight character pieces such as ‘The Man Without a Face’ and ‘Forever Young’ - but time and again he returned to playing an avenging angel who sets out to revenge the foul and unnatural murder of someone he loves.
So it was inevitable that he would play Hamlet. There’s no Macbeth in Gibson, no Lear and certainly no Caesar. But Hamlet’s angst he seems to have in spades. So why, in 1990, in a film by Franco Zeffirelli – whose ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was the first film to make me cry and whose ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is the definitive story of Christ even for an orthodox atheist – did Gibson not light up the screen in a role he was clearly born to play?
He failed to bring a still intensity to the role that defined Olivier’s Hamlet; he completely missed the humour that Rylance brought to his interpretation on the stage; there was no sense of an epic struggle that Branagh tried to capture in his four-hour wide screen version.
Perhaps the reason is simply that Gibson was playing the wrong Hamlet.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is not an avenging angel. He is a man of letters who is trying to be a man of action: he wants to fulfil his father’s command but he needs to return to Wittenberg and his studies. Time and again he comes up with reasons not to kill his uncle and in the end he only acts when he is dying, along with Laertes and his mother. It’s hard to imagine any of Gibson’s heroes needing that much motivation.
Hamlet, King of Denmark, the father, is the avenging angel. King Hamlet is the one who wants revenge against a brother who poisoned him and now sleeps with his wife. He appears on the battlements, in full military garb, governed by the same passion that Stephen King wrote of his antagonist in ‘Christine’: a single-minded purpose, an unending fury. It is the same single-minded purpose, the same unending fury that drives Mad Max, Martin Riggs, William Wallace, Benjamin Martin.
What a Ghost Gibson would have made: that manic intensity, that barely controlled rage, that burning need to capture his enemy and kill him. But this time frustrated because he is imprisoned in death; this time forced to abdicate the role to his son.
‘Hamlet’ is a character driven story about a young man who cannot act and that isn’t Gibson’s strength. But you can imagine that if the boot was on the other foot and it was King Hamlet who was tasked with avenging his son things would be very different: King Hamlet would drive the plot like a large stake right through head of the man who killed his son – and that was Gibson’s niche and he was very good at it.
“Unfortunately no one can be told what the matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”
Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus tells Keanu Reeves’ Neo in the 1999 film by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. I am reminded of this line every time I stand up in front of a class of students or conduct a workshop or masterclass. So many faces looking back at me as I explain the inciting incident or the turner points or the fourth act climax; so many faces eager to learn, to find the answer – but not quite getting it. Faces that mirror exactly my face as I sat through Robert McKee’s Story Seminar or John Truby’s Screenwriting Masterclass. What they say makes perfect sense in principal – of course something must happen to get the story going, of course your main character will be faced with choices, of course it’s all leading to a climax – of course it is, otherwise it wouldn’t be a story. But what do any of these beats in a story actually look like?
For me the moment of revelation came when I sat down to watch Frank Capra’s 1946 film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. I’d heard of it, of course, as the story of a man who gets to see what life would be like if he’d never been born, but, as with so many of the classics - films and books alike - it takes a while to find the time to watch them.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is full of many perfect moments but the moment in the story that branded itself onto my brain is the mid-point. How many times had I read about the mid-point in script writing books? How many times had I heard it mentioned in masterclasses? How many times had I looked out for it but not seen it? And then suddenly there it was in front of me, perfectly realised.
To understand the mid-point of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ you first have to realise that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is not the story of a man who gets to see what life would have been like if he’d never been born – that is the story of the final act. Instead it is the story of a good man who spends his entire life trying to escape from the only place in the world where he truly belongs: his home.
One of the first things we learn about George Bailey when we meet him as a young boy is that he has ambitions of being an explorer: he has subscribed to National Geographic and he’s leaving Bedford Falls just as soon as he possibly can. That is his conscious desire and it is reiterated again and again: when he is a young man, now played by James Stewart, he’s off to college – but then his father dies and he has to take over the Bailey’s Buildings and Loan; when his younger brother returns after going to college, George is hoping to get a job that would allow him to travel - but his brother has gotten married and his father-in-law has offered him a job. Every time George Bailey thinks he’s about to get away from Bedford Falls something stops him.
This constant anticipation and disappointment brings us to the mid-point and to Mary played by Donna Reed. Mary and George have had a thing for each other ever since they were children but nothing has ever come of it…until now. Still mulling over the fact that his ambition to leave Bedford Falls has been thwarted once again, George takes his mother’s advice that he should go say hi to Mary who has recently returned. The meeting is awkward: she tries to recreate the joy they had felt the last time they’d seen each other but he is distant and taciturn. He leaves in a sombre mood and she smashes a record she’d hoped would remind him of the happy times they’d had together. Then the phone rings: it’s an old school friend. And George returns having forgotten his hat. The old friend has a business proposition for both of them and the only way they can hear him is by sharing the phone.
And that’s when it happens: the mid-point.
Trapped on the phone, imprisoned in 4:3 aspect ratio of a 1946 film, the two forces that define George Bailey collide and you see it etched in every muscle on his face - because George Bailey wants to leave Bedford Falls but George Bailey needs to stay. We see the emotional agony of this collision in every fibre of James Stewart’s performance.
And that’s when I realised what the mid-point in a character driven story looks like: it looks like the expression on George Bailey’s face as he struggles to choose between the woman he loves and the dream he has had since he was a child.
Of course, I can tell you what story beats are until I'm blue in the face. But only you can see them for yourself.
“You maniacs! You blew it up! God, damn you, god damn you all to hell!”
shouts Charlton Heston’s George Taylor as he pounds the sand at the end of ‘Planet of the Apes’. After spending two hours trying to convince the apes that man is an intelligent species, Taylor comes across the Statue of Liberty half buried in a beach and he realises the horrifying truth: after drifting through space for hundreds of years he’d crash landed back on Earth.
There is a profound power to this sequence: I’ve seen the film tens of times, for years the picture on the front of the DVD was of Heston slumped on the beach with the Statue of Liberty towering over him and all the way through the film there are clues that Taylor is on Earth – yet when we see Taylor and Nova on horseback travelling along the beach and the camera pulls back to reveal those long spikes on Lady Liberty’s crown, I still feel a shiver. What must it have felt like to be an innocent audience member back in 1968 – someone who’d managed to miss all the teasers and spoilers – to be confronted with that final image?
Stories with a truly satisfying twist are few and far between (the twist at the end of Tim Burton’s 2001 ‘Planet of the Apes’ remake was just baffling and the current Apes sequence starts from the very beginning with Caesar as a child). But occasionally it does happen: I must confess I was completely clueless when I went in to see ‘The Matrix’ for the first time and I was as shocked as Neo to discover that the entire world was not what it seemed; I really had no idea what ‘The Usual Suspects’ was about nor any inclining as to who Keyser Soze was when I first saw Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s film; and I sat through the whole of Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ wondering where the hell Franklin was.
But for me the film that really gave me a sense of what those audience members must have felt back in 1968 is the Joe Eszterhas penned ‘Jagged Edge’. In it Glenn Close plays Teddy Barnes, a lawyer who hasn’t handled a criminal case for years, but is thrust into the limelight when she has to defend Jeff Bridges’ Jack Forrester who is accused of murdering his beautiful heiress wife. The brilliant and under-appreciated Peter Coyote is Thomas Krasny, the prosecutor who is convinced of Jack’s guilt. If you’re as obsessed with crime stories as I am the film has no real surprises: Jack and Teddy inevitably end up in bed together; Thomas doggedly pursues his version of the truth; and all the evidence seems to point to Jack as the culprit.
What you’re waiting for is that crucial piece of evidence that will turn the whole case on its head: the telephone records that show Jack was somewhere else; the surprise witness who saw Jack at such-and-such a place; the secret lover no one knew about.
That’s what you’re waiting for - even after Jack is found not guilty in a court of law you still want that piece of evidence that will put his innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt. And you wait. And you wait.
Until you get to the final sequence where Teddy is in bed with a gun in her hand and a masked intruder enters the room. He stands in front of her, calmly preparing to murder her. She shoots. The intruder collapses. Robert Loggia’s Sam Ransom runs into the room, takes in the scene and pulls off the intruder’s mask.
The script is so brilliantly constructed that I thought it could be anyone under that mask - even Peter Coyote.
But it isn’t. It’s exactly who it should be. And I sat there speechless, not quite knowing what to think.
“-a lot of these problems could be forgiven if Gravity didn’t commit the worst sin of all: being intensely boring.”
wrote Alan Evans in his Nov 2014 blog on The Guardian film site. It was a sentiment echoed by my son as we stepped out into the early October evening having just watched Alfonso Cuaron's ‘Gravity’ at the Gaumont Cinema in France. And it was an opinion shared by my colleagues at the BBC’s Writersroom who went to see the film on my recommendation.
I was flabbergasted – ‘Gravity’, boring?
When I stepped out into that October evening my brain was numb – I literally couldn’t think I was so overwhelmed. This sense of awe wasn’t because I had been sitting in the Gaumont’s largest screen marvelling at the technical wizardry (I try to avoid ‘making of’ documentaries before I see the film), nor because of the pared down narrative structure that takes Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and condenses it to its absolute essential beats and not because the film had a female lead in what would normally have been a man’s role.
I was completely and utterly overwhelmed because for the first time in my cinema-going life I shared a kinship with those nascent cinephiles who turned up to watch ‘L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat’ by the Lumiere Brothers in January 1896. The myth is that when the audience saw the train bearing down on them many screamed and ran to the back of the cinema. Completely silent and in one continuous take the train moves from long shot, to mid-shot to close up. In 1896 it was thrilling, enthralling and inexplicable: it was a piece of cinema.
And that is why I was so stunned by ‘Gravity’: it is an entity that couldn’t exist in any other medium – not as a novel, nor as a play, or as a television drama. ‘Gravity’ was a piece of entertainment that had to be seen on the biggest screen possible in a dark room with a crowd of people all grabbing onto their seats as Dr. Ryan Stone struggled to survive in space. From the opening 13mins single shot that weaves in and out of the astronauts and the shuttle, to the camera sliding into Sandra Bullock’s helmet so we get her POV and then sliding back out again, to the wide shots of the space capsule framed by the aurora in the bg, to the pull focus onto a single tear so we can see Bullock refracted in it, to the final low angle shot looking up at Bullock as she gets to her feet on dry land, a titan who has survived, everything about ‘Gravity’ screams cinema.
Of course it doesn’t have the weighty subtext of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, nor the popcorn operatics of Lucas’ ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ and not the feminist agenda of Ursula S. Guin - but it doesn’t set out to do any of these things.
‘Gravity’ sets out to be a piece of pure cinema and in that it succeeds.
“Well – nobody’s perfect.”
says Joe E. Brown’s Osgood Fielding III to Jack Lemmon’s Jerry at the end of ‘Some Like It Hot’ just after Jerry has whipped off his wig and confessed that he is a man and not the voluptuous hunk of female wonderfulness Osgood had fallen in love with.
I was reminded of this line recently in a meeting with a company exec. When asked what my big plan was, I answered, as I invariably do, to write a good romantic comedy. The exec harrumphed and dismissed this ambition because he was no fan of the rom-com. Well, I thought, nobody’s perfect.
The rom-com is synonymous with chic-lit, both of which are marketing constructs aimed at appealing to a certain section of the audience and, by implication, to exclude everyone else. But if your passion is for a good story well told, then you don’t really care about marketing constructs. And if you believe, as I do, that at the heart of every great story there is a love story, and that the primary purpose of entertainment is to entertain, then there is no greater form of narrative entertainment than a good romantic comedy.
And yet there is no feverish anticipation for the arrival of the next rom-com; no talk of creating a romantic comedy cinematic universe; no appetite at all for a ‘Some Like It Hot Again’ and a ‘When Harry Met Sally 2’.
We all know why rom-coms are derided, largely dismissed and treated with a profound lack of respect. Why, if they arrive at all, they are scheduled as counter-programming to the main event which is an affects laden behemoth aimed at teenage boys (films I quite enjoy having been a teenage boy myself once and now having a teenage boy of my own). And because of this profound lack of respect it is assumed that it is easy to make a rom-com when, of course, it isn’t.
You see this same lack of respect with entertainment produced for children. Stick a few aliens running around over there, a couple of sparkly explosions going off inexplicably over here and a few dim-witted adults falling over each other every so often and you have the perfect children’s story.
But then people like J.K. Rowling will come along, and John Lasseter and Ed Catmull at Pixar or Hayao Mayazaki at Studio Ghibli. People who know that great children’s stories aren’t childish.
Occasionally the same happens with the rom-com: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond knew that a good romantic comedy has the same requirements as any good story: interesting characters facing an intriguing dilemma with a satisfactory conclusion. Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner knew it, so did Ron Howard and Brian Glazer, and Tom Stoppard and John Madden and even Richard Curtis.
But the golden age of the romantic comedy has yet to come: the time when the rom-com isn’t counter-programming but is the main event; the time when we scour the entertainment pages to see when the next one will be out and who will be in it. The time when we treat stories that make us love and laugh with respect.
So the next time I’m in a meeting and an exec asks me what the big plan is, I’ll say what I always say: to write a good romantic comedy. Because someday I’ll meet someone who’ll say a good romantic comedy is the most perfect form of narrative entertainment. And we’ll start to talk about two characters who are so obviously right for each other from the moment they first meet and we’ll come up with intrinsic ways to keep them apart until the very last scene at which point they’ll fall into each other’s arms. And the audience – women, children and men – will be with them all the way and will feel the joy when they finally get together.
Because all great stories are love stories - and a love story that also makes us laugh is like the brightest star in the night sky.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!"
Shouts Peter Sellers as President Muffley in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb”. He is addressing George C. Scott’s warmongering General Turgidson who has just grabbed Peter Bull’s Russian Ambassador.
Kubrick’s contribution to cinematic iconography is legendary: virtually every shot in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, his long tracking shots through the trenches in “Paths of Glory”, the oysters and snails scene in 'Spartacus', his slow-motion acts of violence set to classical music in “A Clockwork Orange”, the lifts opening to disgorge an ocean of blood in “The Shining”, the candlelit mannerisms of “Barry Lyndon” and the long, brutal takes of “Full Metal Jacket”.
But in that single line of dialogue he and his scriptwriters Terry Southern and Peter George did what we writers are constantly striving to achieve: in the fewest words possible they summed it all up.
True, the line doesn’t have the easy pop culture pleasing qualities of “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates”, “I’ll have what she’s having.” and “You had me at hello.” nor the genre transcending qualities of “May the force be with you” and “Live long and prosper” and certainly not the generation defining qualities of “As if!” and “The first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.” It will never top the tables of the most quoted film lines ever like “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
But “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” does what “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” did: it takes a complex issue and simplifies it without losing any of the complexity.
The line speaks to us of the unpleasant brutishness of fighting but the gentlemanly pursuit of waging war; of the disconnect between those who suffer and those who cause the suffering; of the difference between a perceived ignorance and those who assume a high-mindedness.
It was a line written at the height of the Cold War at a time of the Bay of Pigs and nuclear proliferation and yet it reminds us of Tony Blair’s and George W. Bush’s bromance and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.
It is a line that resonates with that other great oxymoron of conflict: The bigger the lie the more people who will believe it. A concept attributed to the English by Goebbels, refined by Hitler, and used to great effect in the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign.
In all its beautiful absurdness “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” is as relevant now as it was half a century ago and will be as relevant half a century hence.
It is, quite simply, a line that sums it all up.
John Yorke ‘takes us on a journey to the heart of storytelling, revealing that there truly is a unifying shape to narrative forms…’
So says the burb on the back of John Yorke’s excellent book ‘Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story’. I was on John’s ‘Writers’ Academy’ at the BBC where he introduced me to the five act structure and, as a visiting lecturer in screenwriting, I found myself telling my students about it.
I chose ‘Jaws’ as an example but you can pick virtually any good Hollywood film - although ‘Jaws’ fits the paradigm with sublime ease: in Act 1, the Introduction, we meet Martin Brody, the New York police chief who has re-located to a small island community but is afraid of water; in Act 2, the New World, he has to deal with a community under siege from a marauding man-eating shark; in Act 3, the Mid-Point, he realises that he cannot defeat the shark from the safety of dry land but must follow it into its lair, which is the thing he is most afraid of: the water; Act 4 sees Brody dealing with the consequences of the Mid-point as he, Quint and Hooper try to kill the shark; and finally Act 5, the climax, where Brody faces the shark alone, is triumphant and overcomes his fear of the ocean.
Were Steven Spielberg and his writers Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb aware that they were following the five act structure? Of course they weren’t. They were influenced, just like we all are, be the narrative heritage of the culture in which they grew up. Ours, whether we like it or not, is an Aristotelian/Shakespearean heritage.
But it does not offer us a unifying shape to all narrative forms.
“Their version of storytelling is different and it’s not based on Greek or Shakespearean storytelling,” said Hollywood producer, Bill Borden on the ever excellent ‘The Business’ on KCRW public radio with Kim Masters. He was trying to explain why ‘The Mermaid’, a story he originally pitched in Hollywood but which was eventually made in China, went on to become such a phenomenal success, grossing half a billion dollars – but only in China. The Chinese audience, which will soon become the largest cinema going audience in the world, is brought up on a different set of archetypes and narratives than a Western audience and that is why, Borden explains, most Hollywood studios are struggling to make an impact in there.
Chinese stories are more episodic and more mythic with certain archetypes repeated – the journey to the west, the creation of the gods, the monkey king, Borden says. And you don’t have to travel far from China to come to the biggest film-making country in the world: India. Their culture is different again: a simple Bollywood romantic comedy will stretch over three and a half hours and might become a thriller, an action adventure, or a murder mystery half-way through, because their heritage is vast religious melodramas. And you could go on and on, travelling the world, finding ever smaller communities, with ever more esoteric story structures.
In China, Korean and Japan there is a four act structure known as ‘kishōtenketsu’. Stories that follow this form have no conflict.
Imagine, a story with no conflict.
It would be nice to think there is one unifying mono-structure that all stories follow. But, of course, there isn’t. Every culture has its own way of telling stories, its own narrative heritage.
And this diversity is a good thing.
“What is Superman’s motivation?”
This question pops up now and again in creative writing workshops because knowing what the main character is striving to achieve and why is the backbone of any good story. Superman presents a conundrum: why does this superhuman alien while away his days trying to fix our mess? Two answers are always given to this question:
These answers are both wrong.
The crime genre aficionados amongst you know that every detective from Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff in ‘Moonstone’ to Sally Wainwright’s Catherine Cawood in ‘Happy Valley’ is fighting for truth and justice (let’s assume ‘the American way’ is to endorse robust democracy and the rule of law so is synonymous with the first two). Whether they do it with a razor sharp intellect like Sherlock Holmes or a dogged tenacity like Columbo they are all trying to catch the bad guys to see them punished for their crimes – just like Superman. But, and you don’t need to be an aficionado to know this, at some point in any good detective story the crime will become personal. Jack Reacher, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade will all, at some point, stake their reputations, their relationships and even their lives on getting to the truth and they’ll do it for hubris, love and occasionally the greater good – but whatever their reason they’ll have a stake in the outcome.
Which is where, we assume, Lois Lane enters the fray.
In his infamous, unproduced, screenplay ‘Superman Lives’ Kevin Smith sums up Superman’s take on their relationship like this: “Yes, I do it all for the multitude. But when I save lives, or fight for the weak, I’m saving one life, fighting for one person – again, and again, and again. It’s her, don’t you see? She represents all of them - their hopes, their fragility, their passion. And if ever I feel like no matter how much I do, it’s not enough, I think of Lois. And then I’m off, faster than a speeding bullet…”
So really the two answers are one: Superman’s motivation is to fight for truth, justice and the American way because of Lois Lane. But there’s an unfulfilling myopia to this answer that’s borderline racist: we’re an indistinguishable mass to Superman. And it begs the question: if Superman had never met Lois Lane and he came across a child standing in the street with a car hurtling towards it would he let the child die? Of course he wouldn’t – he’s Superman.
In my opinion the puzzle as to what is Superman’s motivation has only been successfully solved once: in 1978 in a story by Mario Puzo, in a screenplay re-written by Tom Mankiewicz, in a film directed by Richard Donner.
Standing over Jonathan Kent’s grave, his arm around his mother, the rolling Kansas countryside bathed in afternoon sunlight around them, a young Clark Kent utters these words: “All of those things I can do, all those powers and I couldn’t even save him.” From that moment until the end of the film his motivation is clear and simple: on the day he first meets Lois he stops a bullet that would have killed her, he catches her when she falls out of a helicopter, he saves Air Force One when an engine is destroyed by lightening, he stops armed robbers and he catches a thief who falls off a building. Superman is doing for others what he couldn’t do for his father: he is stopping death.
But it isn’t enough to cheat death; he must defeat death and this is where Lex Luther comes in. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the antagonist of a story must be the equal to or stronger than the protagonist. Lex Luther is not the antagonist because he will never be stronger than Superman…but he can align himself with something that is: before we know anything about Lex’s fiendish scheme we learn that it involves killing a lot of people - death is coming, in a big way. As the story develops Lex (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) taunts Superman that no matter how hard he tries he will not save everyone. And, it transpires, Lex is right: alone on a dirt road, Lois’ car gets wedged into a crevice and she is buried alive. Death has won. In a moment of pure rage, Superman defies his father, Jor-El’s edict that he should never interfere with human history and he turns back time. He brings Lois Lane back from the dead.
So the answer to the question what is Superman’s motivation?
Superman’s motivation is to defeat the only force in the universe that is stronger than he is: death.
In 1978 Superman won round one. I’m still waiting for round two.
(this post is about the cinematic interpretations of Superman and does not refer to the comics or the television series ‘Lois and Clark’ and ‘Smallville’ although comments and thoughts about these are welcome.)
“Orphans always make the best agents.”
says Judi Dench’s M to Daniel Craig’s Bond as they look out across the bleak Scottish Highlands to Bond’s family home, Skyfall. ‘Skyfall’ was a phenomenal success: the most successful film ever at the UK box office and (at the time of writing) the 16th most successful film ever made having grossed over $1.1 billion. To understand how extraordinary this is you just need to look at the Bond film that immediately preceded it, ‘Quantum of Solace’, which grossed less than half that sum, and the one that immediately succeeded it, ‘Spectre’, which grossed around $300 million less. And, of course, it is in a completely different league to the James Bond films that didn’t star Daniel Craig.
Some say it was due to the residual good will felt after the 2012 London Olympics, where Craig’s Bond escorted the Queen to Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony and they parachuted into the stadium together. Others that it was because it was Bond's 50th anniversary and some that it was simply the best Bond film with the best Bond.
I think it was because of the story that ‘Skyfall’ tells. The story of ‘Skyfall’ is summed up like this on its IMDB page: ‘Bond's loyalty to M is tested when her past comes back to haunt her. Whilst MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.’
This is not the story that I saw. The story that I saw has been told many thousands of times in many hundreds of iterations. There are two famous versions of this story in the Western cannon: one in the Old Testament and the other is the foundation myth of Rome.
The one in the Old Testament tells the story of two brothers, Cain and Abel. As they grew up, Abel became a shepherd and Cain tended the land. When the time came Cain presented some of his crops to the Lord and Abel presented the first born of his flock. The Lord preferred Abel’s gift. This drove Cain into a jealous rage and he killed Abel.
The creation myth of Rome also tells the story of two brothers, Romulus and Remus. Abandoned to die on the Tiber River when they were young, they were saved by a she-wolf who suckles them and a woodpecker who fed them. They grow up to be natural leaders but instead of returning to inherit their ancestral home they decided to found a new city. But they argued about the location and in a rage Romulus killed Remus.
Which brings us back to ‘Skyfall’ and “Orphans always make the best agents.” The story that I saw was the story of two brothers vying for their mother’s love. The brother who expresses his love through a feigned indifference, who disappears for months on end, who breaks all the rules, the mother loves him and would do anything to protect him. But the older brother who does exactly what his mother says, who follows her orders slavishly, who would die for her is vilified and she doesn’t love him anywhere near as much as she loves his brother. And this drives him mad. He sets out to possess his mother completely and to do this he must kill his brother.
This is the story that I saw, an archetypal narrative - much like Joseph Campbell’s monomyth - that resonates across cultures because there is a version of it in every culture: the story of sibling rivalry.