Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saving the World vs. Keeping It Personal

In the first Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey Jr., one of the most famous characters in British literature was updated to a man who solves mysteries with skills as martial as they are mental, and in this version he saves England from a diabolical scheme to destroy Parliament.

In the latest version, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, he saves Europe, at least for awhile, from total war.  He even states at one point that Moriarty's effort to start a multinational war in order to corner the armament's market would cause the "collapse of Western civilization."

What does that leave for Holmes to do in the third installment other than save the entire world?

This is a problem with the Hollywood cinema influence on popular narratives.  The inclination is to constantly "up the ante."  If you read the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, they do not build in intensity.  They are episodic.  Each story contains its own pleasures with little regard with what came before it.  The same could be said of television series about detectives.  We watch to see them solve the puzzles.  We watch to enjoy the machinations of their minds and the quirks of their personal relationships.  We do not watch for them to do MORE than they did the week before, to solve bigger crimes, to take greater personal risks, etc.

The same cannot be said for movies.

I have been in enough creative writing workshops to know that this need for greater risk can be found  in places other than Hollywood.  I have been in such sessions when people have suggested that a short story's protagonist needed to have "more at stake."  That is, the story's dramatic intensity needed to be increased or a character's motivation needed to be given more focus by creating more for a character to lose if his or her objective was not realized.

This can be productive.  But it also can lead ultimately to having EVERYTHING at stake.  And it can be hard for the audience to identify with EVERYTHING, especially once that means the entire world.

The first time I was conscious of this was while watching Blade in 1998.  In that film, Wesley Snipes's character was battling vampires who sought to conquer the world.  Arg, not that cliche, I thought.  I cannot relate to the whole world.  I cannot be emotionally involved with that.  I may live on Earth, but saving the whole world, ironically, does not strike home for me.  (We are not talking real terms, here, such as working to stop climate change; we are talking about fictions.)

This is what Bram Stoker got right with the end of Dracula.  While our band of heroes is trying to keep the creepy Count from invading England and creating a blood-sucking army there, they seem most emotionally invested in saving Mina from becoming a vampire.  They may feel patriotic love for England, but they feel personal and immediate love for Mina.  Stoker kept it personal.  He kept it human.

One could say that Steven Spielberg did something similar with his remake of War of the Worlds.  The protagonist's goal is not to save Earth but to protect his children and, at some level, to win their respect and prove to his ex-wife (and himself) that he is trustworthy.  The process of saving the world is the backdrop for that human-scaled drama.

There are plenty of interpersonal dynamics in Game of Shadows -- the developing friendship between Holmes and Watson, Holmes's effort to save Watson from Moriarty's murder attempt, the attempt to rescue their Gypsy friend's brother from Moriarty's scheme, the rivalry between Holmes and Moriarty -- and they tend to be rewarding.  But the main spring driving the film's narrative machine is the effort to stop Moriarty's diabolical plan.  And the stakes there lay outside of the interpersonal, so increasing the stakes for the next film risks moving further from the human and immediate.  Ultimately, I believe, this constant desire for MORE and BIGGER can make films LESS satisfying.


  1. Scott, you shared a great storytelling insight here that I hadn't really considered before. Saving the world is too much; instead keep it personal so the audience can relate.

    Would another example be "Independence Day?" Aliens are taking over the earth, but there are the personal narratives of the president trying to save his wife, Will Smith's relationship with his girlfriend & her son, and Randy Quaid's hero's journey. Now that I write it, it seems muddled, maybe too much going on. What do you think?

  2. Bill, I guess you could say that "Independence Day" had too many story lines in that regard. It had too much of a lot of things. Though in that film, some of the characters we followed were directly involved with countering the alien invasion -- with a computer virus! Who knew the aliens would have used Macs? Whereas in "War of the Worlds," Tom Cruise cannot materially impact the Martian invasion. One weakness of "Battle: Los Angeles" was that our ragtag group of soldiers become key to stopping the entire invasion -- partly by ripping off "Independence Day" and "Battle Star Galactica": wipe out the mothership and all of the drone/fighters/soldiers are disabled.