Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Books Vs. Movies, Addendum: In Books, Character Can Motivate

In movies, plot should motivate and character should complicate. There are plenty of books that also fit this formula, but it’s less of a hard-and-fast rule. Because of the differences between books and movies, books can sometimes get away with flipping it.

I mentioned before that Updike’s “Rabbit, Run” has the reverse structure of a movie: On the first page the young husband willfully chooses to run away, baffling everyone he knows, and only in the second half does he return home to his stifling town and deal with the external complications that are ruining his marriage.

“Moby-Dick” is also a “character motivates, plot complicates” story. Ishmael just decides to go to sea for no good reason, and only in the second half does the plot complicate things and make him doubt his decision. Let’s look at Ishmael’s odd explanation of his motivation on page one:
  • Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 
This is a strange and delightful introduction. Who could read this and not want to dive into the book, spending as much time with this guy as possible?

Movies are, by their nature, about the life of the body but books are often about the life of the mind. As I said here, a movie hero’s behavior must be understandable, because if we cannot fathom the mind of a movie hero, then we blame the moviemakers, not ourselves. After all, they should know that we can only spend two hours in the movie theater, and that’s not enough time to dissect inexplicable information.

In books like “Moby-Dick,” on the other hand, we readers are committing ourselves to spending at least 20 hours inside Ishmael’s head. In this case, a hero with a bizarre motivation becomes an asset, not a liability. Ishmael’s absurd thought process assures us that we have an interesting enigma on our hands, one that’s big enough to justify the 20-hour investigation we’ve just committed ourselves to.

As I said yesterday, Jaws would never work if Brody just decided to go out and kill a shark, because he would have to have way too many speeches and/or voice-overs to explain that choice. We go to a move to see people act, not to hear them explain their actions. But we read a book to enter a character’s mind, and, while we’re there, we’re more than willing to hear bizarre rambling explanations of their behavior.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! Good figuring.

j.s. said...

I'd be interested to hear from you Matt and from any other readers out there if you can think of some great films that break this rule, that work more like novels. I'd tend to bet that films that do this successfully are probably artier and more novelistic to begin with, but that one way they steer clear of the need for endless explaining is to foreground the mystery of the central character's (whether it's the protagonist or another key figure) motivation -- probably by embedding it in the structure of the story itself. If the mysterious motivation is framed as part and parcel of the bigger mystery of the story then the audience will be in the same position as the characters -- watching their behavior to try and understand why they are doing it.

This is almost the way MOBY DICK works too, at least with regards to Ahab's motives, which are mysterious at first, and uncovered piecemeal by the reader at the same pace as the POV character Ishmael.

Interesting too to think of Peckinpah's MOBY DICK movie MAJOR DUNDEE in which he dispensed with a POV character altogether and foregrounded the title character as an Ahab-like anti-hero with clear motivation.

Matt Bird said...

I asked Betsy if she could think of any examples of good movies that began with a willful and barely-motivated change of behavior. She pointed out one of my favorites: Breaking Away: an Indiana teenager suddenly decides to become a pseudo-Italian bicycle racer.

Yup, that's a good example. Why does it work? A few reasons:

1) Christopher has already made the choice when the movie begins, so we don't dwell on it.

2) He totally refuses to explain his decision whenever anyone asks.

3) He doesn't know either, and so, over the course of the movie, we find out the complex reasons at the same time he does (doesn't want to be like his lying father, can't admit that he really wants to go to college, where they have bicycle teams and learn other languages, etc.)

Anonymous said...

If you think about it, most of the character-motivated openings would be externally-motivated if you just started the story earlier. At some point, circumstance makes a character what they are.