Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Henry

“A shadow fell across the threshold…”

with 2 comments

"A shadow fell across the threshold..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 8. You can read the previous installments here.

Yesterday, I stumbled across an interview that the screenwriter Damon Lindelof gave to Vulture two years ago on the subject of the modern blockbuster. I’m not exactly a fan of Lindelof’s work: his two most recent film credits are on the scripts for Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, both of which I found disappointing, although I retain high hopes for Tomorrowland. Yet as this interview clearly indicates, he’s a smart, articulate guy with a real knack for a certain kind of storytelling. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: I have no trouble believing that the majority of working screenwriters in Hollywood score somewhere in the top percentile for talent and perseverance, and if the results of their efforts are often mediocre, it’s because film production is contingent on so many other factors. Any screenplay that actually gets produced has stood out, by definition, from a horde of countless other pitches and spec scripts, and the initial draft is usually just fine. It’s the development process that kills it, as well as the elephantine logic of modern studio filmmaking. As Lindelof notes: “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world. And when you start there…you are very limited in terms of how you execute that.”

This might not seem like an issue for writers working in more modest formats, like the novel, but we often find ourselves operating under similar conditions. During the interview, Lindelof is asked to pitch out a version of the John Henry story that would pass muster at a major studio, and he’s very funny in speculating as to how a hypothetical executive would react:

Well, I think the first thing that would happen is you would say the fundamental, most important part of the story is that [John Henry] dies…And all the studio execs would say, ‘Absolutely. That’s what we love about this story.’ Two drafts later somebody would say, ‘Does he have to die?’”

Lindelof goes on to spitball a version that hits all of Hollywood’s favorite beats, including a personal backstory—John Henry was boyhood friends with the inventor of the steam-tunneling machine, whose father owned the plantation where he was a slave—and a love triangle. And just when you think he can’t push it any further, he does, describing what would happen to the script with its third or fourth writer. By the end, John Henry is close to a superhero, complete with a mystical mentor, destined to restore nothing less than the balance of the universe.

"This inmate, whose name was Sasha..."

It’s all pretty amusing, especially because it’s true: Lindelof’s pitch ends up sounding eerily plausible. But it made me reflect on how all writers rig the game whenever they can. (As Somerset Maugham, who was the opposite of Lindelof in most respects, once said: “The author always loads his dice, but he must never let the reader see that he has done so, and by the manipulation of his plot he can engage the reader’s attention so that he does not perceive what violence has been done him.”) Lindelof’s pitches grow increasingly wild, but they all have one thing in common: with each pass, characters are nudged away from humanity and closer to purely functional roles, there to serve a story point or arouse a specific reaction from the audience. In the first draft, the inventor of the machine is Henry’s best friend; in the second, he’s “mustache-twirling, he represents everything that we hate.” It’s all very obvious, but it would probably work. And even if we’re only writing to please ourselves, or a handful of readers, we find ourselves engaging in much the same process, pushing characters to occupy a position in the narrative less out of reasoned characterization than because of what the story demands.

There’s a small example from Eternal Empire that embarrasses me a little, although I can’t say it doesn’t do its job. In Chapter 8, we’re introduced to Sasha, an inmate at Belmarsh Prison with a gratuitously despicable backstory: he did unspeakable things to his wife and her lover before murdering them. Why? A few chapters later, Ilya is going to have to kill him for no particular reason, and I wanted him to seem like someone who at least had it coming. (We see much the same logic at work in the late novels of Thomas Harris, who preserves Hannibal Lecter’s status as an antihero by insisting—contrary to much evidence from the earlier books—that he eats only the rude. Hannibal, in particular, presses this idea to the point of absurdity: if a character is introduced early on as a raging asshole, we know that he’s probably going to get eaten.) I’m not especially proud of this; it feels like I’m stacking the cards so that the reader will accept Sasha’s death and move on, rather than lingering on its implications. For the sake of the overall story, it was important that we not get too distracted by it, and while I didn’t give Sasha a mustache to twirl, I might as well have. And although the result works as intended, especially given the limited space at its disposal, I can’t help but feel that Ilya, and I, could have done a bit better…

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2015 at 9:47 am

%d bloggers like this: