Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The hero paradox

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Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Every year, the Academy Awards telecast makes us sit through a bunch of pointless montages, and every year, we get to complain about it. As I mentioned last week, I’ve long since gotten over most of the weird choices made by the Oscars—I like to remind myself that the ceremony isn’t designed for the television audience, but for the movers and shakers sitting in the auditorium itself—and I’ve resigned myself to the prospect of a few pointless production numbers. But the montages always seem particularly strange. They don’t add much in the way of entertainment value, and the opportunity cost for what is already an overlong show is unforgivably high: one fewer montage, and perhaps we might have had room for Dennis Farina in the In Memoriam reel, not to mention the canceled appearance by Batkid. This year’s ceremony, with its “salute to heroes” theme, resulted in an even more random assortment of clips than usual: here’s Gandhi, and Lawrence of Arabia, and just as we start to think there’s a pattern emerging, here’s Sidney Poitier as Mr. Tibbs. (I actually had to look up In the Heat of the Night to reassure myself that it hadn’t been based on a true story.)

The result was inexplicable enough that it inspired Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club to tweet: “Next year: A tribute to protagonists!” But it also raises the larger question of what a hero really is, at least in terms of what we look for in storytelling. From a producer’s point of view, the answer is simple: a hero is the actor with the greatest amount of screen time, or whose face takes up the most room on the poster. (Or as the producer Scott Rudin once said when asked what a movie was about: “It’s about two movie stars.”) A writer might put it somewhat differently. The protagonist of a movie is the character whose actions and decisions drive the plot, and if he or she happens to embody qualities that we associate with heroism—courage, integrity, selflessness, resourcefulness—it’s because these attributes lend themselves both to wishful identification from the audience and to interesting choices and behavior within the confines of the story. All things being equal, a brave, committed individual will end up doing things on camera that we’ll hopefully want to watch. It has nothing to do with morality; it’s a logistical choice that results in more entertaining narratives. Or at least it should be.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

The trouble, of course, is that when you’re not sure about your own story, you tend to fixate more on what the hero is than the more crucial matter of what he does. Screenwriters are always told to make their leading characters more heroic and likable, as if this were something that could be separated from the narrative itself. At worst, the movie simply serves up a chosen one, either explicitly or implicitly, which is often an excuse to give us a protagonist who is interesting and important just because we’re told he is. Sometimes, this problem can be a subtle one. Watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for the first time over the weekend, I felt that even though Jennifer Lawrence sells the hell out of the part, Katniss Everdeen herself is something of a wet blanket. This isn’t anyone’s fault: Katniss as written is almost unplayable, since she needs to be admirable enough to inspire a revolution and carry a franchise, vulnerable enough to serve as one corner of a love triangle, and a resourceful warrior who also hates the idea of killing. That’s a lot for any one character to shoulder, and it means that poor Katniss herself is often the least interesting person on the screen.

In general, though, it’s hard for a hero to come to life in the way a more incidental character can, simply because he’s under so much pressure to advance the plot. The great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky hinted at this last week on Reddit:

The difference between character actors and the leading men is that everything the leading men do is on film. Character actors have to invent that life off screen and bring that reality on screen. It’s much more imaginative work and the hours are better.

That’s why we often find ourselves wishing that we could spend more time with the supporting cast of a television show: they’re so much more full of life and vitality than the lead, whose every action is designed to carry forward a huge, creaking machine. Being a hero is a thankless role, both in fiction and in real life, and it inevitably leads to a loss of freedom, when in theory the hero should be more free than anyone else. As Harold Bloom observes of Hamlet, he could be anything in the world, but he’s doomed to play out the role in which he has been cast. Finding a way to balance a hero’s narrative burden with the freedom he needs to come alive in the imagination is one of a writer’s greatest challenges. And if the movies succeeded at this more often, those montages at the Oscars would have made a lot more sense.

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