Lately, I’ve become entangled in a number of debates with others about the quality of various films and novels. Only now have I realised that I approach these media in a manner which seems completely at odds with the way other approach them. Therefore, it’s time I explained myself.
I have a couple of fixed ideas on what makes a movie, novel or short story good. These have developed out of a cloud of different inputs such as:
- four years of studying film and literature at university,
- a strong interest in learning other languaes and reading foreign literature,
- a strong interest in history,
- a memory of what has gone before in literature in general and in certain genres (say, sci-fi) in particular,
- struggling with writing technique as wannabe/failed writer.
My approach to story – let’s use that as a general term for all these media – can be summarised as:
Subject: There is something significant at risk for a character I can feel something for.
Presentation: The story is presented in a way which is consistent, engaging for me and adds in some way another dimension the character’s struggle.
That’s it. See, it’s pretty simple. I’m actually very easy to please. As long as you can make me care what happens to the character, I’m happy and I think the author – again, let’s take this as a general term for the entire production team – has done his or her job. The character doesn’t have to be sympathetic as I like seeing people get their come-uppance. I wish it would happen much more frequently in real life as well.
On the flip side, I’ve developed a list of things that annoy me – and this is where the debate generally resides. These include:
Lying to me: Nothing makes me angrier than when a story sets up the parameters of its world and then breaks them for no apparent reason. A great example of this is the truly woeful 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives. At the end of the film, we find out that the wives aren’t robots after all but ordinary people who have had a chip implanted in their brains. OK, if that’s so, why don’t they burn like people do? Why do they continue making dinner oblivious to being knifed in the stomach? How can one character use his wife as a frickin’ ATM?
Cop outs: This is largely the category for the just plain dumb. It signifies things that have to happen to make the story work regardless of how they defy common sense. For example, … well, pretty much all of Independence Day.
It is also the category in which we are asked to ignore the consequences of the characters’ actions just because they’re the good guys. Steven Seagal pretty much sums this one up in On Deadly Ground. In order to protect the local Inuit population and Alaskan wilderness from a perfectly legal oil drilling operation, Seagal murders dozens of innocent workers. Why isn’t he arrested?
The next two categories are solely related to films although author Matthew Reilly makes a good case for inclusion in at least one of them.
Remakes: This category has some kind of split-personality syndrome. Remakes can be good if the production team has something to say. I’m dead keen on seeing The Taking of Pelham 123 to see what this version does with the story that’s different to either the original 1974 film or the 1998 telemovie. Unfortunately, almost all remakes, such as Starksy and Hutch, are parodies of the original for no other purpose than to convince the consumerist audience that anything more than 20 minutes old cannot have value.
Explosions: Any film which substitutes explosions for worthwhile characters, explosions for story development, explosions for logic, etc. Yes, Michael Bay. I’m looking at you.
I refuse to accept any argument which starts “it’s only a movie…” or “it’s only a book …” While I am overjoyed to debate the merits or otherwise of my position in general or my opinion of any particular work, I will punch in the face anyone who tries to convince me that a pre-requisite to enjoying a piece of modern cultural production is “switching my brain off at the door.” Pretend to be stupid? Why the hell would I want to do that?