Archive for August 18th, 2011
The tricky thing about defending plot is that you occasionally get it from both sides. On the literary end, you have critics like John Lucas of the Guardian, who is clearly suspicious of most plotted fiction, or James Wood of the New Yorker, who is famously fed up with the conventions of literary realism. Meanwhile, on the other end, you have those who want to get rid of story altogether, but for radically different reasons. And I suspect that the likes of Lucas and Wood might ease up on their invective if they realized that plot was, in fact, literature’s last stand against an even more insidious opponent, embodied, at least this week, by Andy Hendrickson, Chief Technology Officer of Disney Studios, who was quoted in Variety as saying: “People say ‘It’s all about the story.’ When you’re making tentpole films, bullshit.”
To state the obvious, I’d rather be defending story against the likes of Lucas and Wood, who at least claim to be aspiring to something more, than Hendrickson, who is pushing toward something much less. On a superficial level, though, he seems to have a point—at least when it comes to the movies that consistently generate large audiences. Citing a chart of the top 12 movies of all time, including Disney’s own Alice in Wonderland, Hendrickson notes that visual effects are what tend to drive box office—”and Johnny Depp didn’t hurt,” he concludes. Which is true enough. Most of these movies are triumphs of visuals over narrative, based on existing brands or properties, to the point where story seems almost incidental. Even a movie like The Dark Knight, which cares deeply about plot and narrative complexity, feels like little more than an aberration.
But this only tells half the story. For one thing, the list that Hendrickson provides isn’t adjusted for inflation, and the list of the real highest-grossing movies of all time yields a much different picture. There are some clunkers here, too (nobody, I trust, went to see The Ten Commandments because of the script), but for the most part, these are movies driven by story and spectacle: Gone With the Wind. E.T. Star Wars. The Sound of Music. Even Avatar, which had a few problems in the screenplay department, was an ambitious attempt to create a fully realized original story that would fuel the dreamlife of millions. And these are the most lucrative movies ever made. To be content with a disposable tentpole picture that barely makes back its production and marketing costs strikes me as a lack of ambition. And it should strike Disney shareholders the same way.
Moreover, even the movies that Hendrickson cites are more driven by story than he acknowledges. Alice in Wonderland was a book before it became a terrible movie, after all, and it’s safe to say that box office was driven as much by goodwill toward Lewis Carroll’s creations as toward Johnny Depp. The same is true for Spider-Man, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and most other major franchises, all of which were built on the work of solitary geniuses. In short, someone still needs to do the work of story. Aside from exceptions like Pixar or Inception, the primary creative work may not be done in Hollywood itself, but in novels, comics, and other media where true artists continue to gravitate, and where the movies will eventually turn. Hendrickson may hate to admit it, but he still depends on storytellers, even if they’ve fled his own department. Life, as a certain famous franchise reminds us, always finds a way. And story does as well.