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?