Dramatic Conflict

This post is about art, but I will start by quoting something I wrote a few weeks ago in a political context:

Even a rat fights when cornered. But a man of reason and courage does not wait until his loved ones have been murdered and his own survival hangs by a thread. He fights well before it is almost too late.

In contemporary movies, it is common for the hero to be so reluctant that he does not start to fight until it is actually too late.

Consider the hit movie Braveheart (1995). At the beginning of the movie, friends of the hero are married, but the bride is carried off and raped by an English nobleman under the King’s decree of primae noctis (first night). The hero does nothing. He eventually marries in secret to avoid primae noctis, but one day his wife is attacked by soldiers. Only then does the hero fight, but it is too late; his wife is killed.

A better hero would have fought sooner. He would have understood the principle: If his friend’s wife could be raped legally, so could his own wife; more generally, he and his own future wife had no rights. A better hero would, from the moment the other bride was raped, have begun planning to fight. He would have had the courage to begin his fight at the time of his own choosing, at the time most advantageous for his own victory. Instead, this hero chose to plan nothing; he chose instead to have a few extra months of peace. The result was that when his own wife was attacked, he was unprepared to defend her, and she was murdered.

Some might say that the writer of Braveheart made the story go this way for the purpose of having more drama: the hero’s loss of his wife puts the hero in the lowest possible situation from which he must rise; the loss burdens the hero with the greatest hardship that he must overcome. This setup for the story, many contemporary writers would say, gives the story greater conflict.

The exact opposite is true. With his beloved wife already dead, with his highest value already gone, the hero has far less to live for. Indeed, for most of the remainder of the story, the hero acts like someone already half dead. He is a soldier fighting until the day he dies to join his wife. Risking his life is therefore not much of a risk; his choice to fight is not much of a choice. Therefore, the conflict is greatly diminished.

It is a curious fact that so many contemporary screenplays exemplify this incorrect view of dramatic conflict. In the hit movie Gladiator (2000), the hero’s wife and child are murdered early in the movie. The effect is the same as in Braveheart, only more so: the hero seems hardly to care to live anymore; he kills people, including bad guys, merely while waiting to join his dead family.

In contrast, the heroes of Ayn Rand’s novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged would be quite well off—by the standards of most—without having to struggle at all. But they aspire to lives much more exalted than would be possible under the status quo. For these heroes, the conflict is great, because they have a great deal of “skin in the game”; they must constantly choose to stake all they have or could have—a highly successful career (by the standards of most), a wife and family, a life of comfort—for their higher goal. These heroes don’t have hardship thrust upon them; they constantly face the difficult choice to undergo hardship in order to achieve their goal.

Now that’s conflict.

America’s Founding Fathers are great real-life models for dramatic heroes. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Paul Revere—these men were successful in their careers and lived in relative material comfort for their time. But they risked all of that—“we mutually pledge our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”—for an idea.

Again, that’s conflict.

Both Braveheart and Gladiator could have been exceptionally good movies if not for an erroneous notion of what makes dramatic conflict. This notion seems prevalent among today’s screenwriters (present writer excluded). Why?

4 thoughts on “Dramatic Conflict

  1. Seems like the writers are uncomfortable with the hero pursuing selfish values. The biggest personal value that these “nothing to lose” heroes are fighting for is revenge. Everything else that results from the conflict is a gift to the rest of mankind before they die.

  2. You make an important observation, Ron.

    I agree with Ryan, “Seems like the writers are uncomfortable with the hero pursuing selfish values”. Hollywood writers are uncomfortable with (and unable to fathom) the idea of fighting for abstract values at all- with one exception.

    Note that in recent war movies such as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Black Hawk Down” the protagonists express ideas like “in the end, you just fight for the guy next to you” (I’m paraphrasing), but there is no explanation of why the protagonists or the guy next to him are having to fight at all. To the writers, it seems that they are just helpless characters who find themselves in a typically senseless existential quandry with no choice but to engage in an ultimately futile conflict. The idea of fighting for freedom and against dictatorship is never expressed – I suspect because the writers hold the view that it is naive or unsophisticated to even pretend to be fighting for an idea.

    When heros are allowed to fight for an “idea” or “morality”, as in the ubiquitous adaptations of comic book stories, the only idea they are allowed to fight for is the morality of altruism. In the much praised “Dark Knight”, for example, Batman refuses to kill the Joker, even though the Joker is clearly a psychotic who delights in killing others – thus allowing the Joker to kill the woman Batman supposedly loves. Even after her death, Batman is too “idealistic” to kill, thus ensuring that even more innocents will be killed in the future. Even revenge is not allowed in the morality of self-sacrifice.

    There are countless examples of this. I remember as a child being bewildered with how John Robinson could allow his family to be constantly jeopordized by the evil machinations of Dr. Smith on “Lost In Space”. I knew that it was immoral for a father to allow a mortal danger to repeatedly threaten his family, yet the show portrayed the father as a hero. It was a bewildering contradiction. I much prefered the original pilot episode, where there was no Dr. Smith and the Robinson battled the perils of space itself.

    Countless examples of these same two patterns could be cited, but the point is that contemporary screen writers sneer at and reject the idea that any abstract value is worth fighting for if it will benefit the protagonist. Only when the abstract value involves self-sacrifice and pointless suffering is it allowed.

    This world view makes watching contemporary films a disappointing, irritating and frustrating experience at best and unbearable at worst. Of course, many people have the same reaction. If some screenwriter (Ron, I hope), can break through the seemingly impenetrable barrier of monolithic group-think that dominates Hollywood and actually get a movie made with a real hero, the film will be a smash hit. There are millions of people for whom contemporary films give no satisfaction at all longing for an alternative.

  3. Ron,

    You could argue that what Randall Wallace was doing in Braveheart was an attempt to make the audience focus on the abstract values that William Wallace was fighting for. Given the altruistic bent of society, had he started fighting “just” to protect his wife, a large part of the audience could dismiss the abstract value at stake by saying that “if he didn’t have this particular pretty girl to save, he wouldn’t be doing this; there’s nothing heroic about that.”

    It’s wrong, but small-minded people constantly do this sort of reductionism. Remove the immediate reducible object, and they are forced to complain about even sillier things (as they do: witness all the people who point out that Wallace was fighting against one king in favor of another, and that this somehow totally negates the idea of freedom in the film).

    That said, Gladiator was pretty flaccid, for pretty much the reasons you state.

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