Thursday, April 18, 2013

Straying from the Party Line: Mixed-Up Crises in How to Train Your Dragon

On first blush, this seems like a very traditional stand-up-and-cheer movie with an intensely lovable hero and a very traditional heroic journey…but a closer look reveals a strikingly odd structure.

Deviations: The crises are all mixed up:
  • Hiccup does indeed have a social crisis in the first scene, when he is blamed for getting a building burned down… 
  • But then Hiccup has his spiritual crisis very early, at the end of the first quarter, when he finds that he can’t kill the dragon.  Instead, in a flash of moral clarity, his philosophy flips from wrong to right like a light-switch, and he never doubts the right course again.
  • He has no midpoint crisis.  Instead the middle is structured like a tragedy: he is acclaimed and accepted at the midpoint, because he’s been using his time with Toothless to learn things that allow him to master the dragons he faces in his training.
  • The physical crisis (and loss of place of safety, and loss of sheltering relationship) that usually comes at the midpoint instead happens at the ¾ mark, when the spiritual crisis usually takes place.  The village discovers his dragon then takes it away to hunt down the nest.  However, this doesn’t make him question his philosophy—he’s dispirited but doesn’t feel any guilt or doubt about doing the right thing. 
Potential Problem: This brings up two big questions:
  1. First, why do the crises almost always happen in the standard order (social, then physical, then spiritual) The answer, I think, is that we only pursue dangerous opportunities after social humiliations force us to do it, and then we only change after our old ways have begun to physically endanger us.
  2. Second, what are the dangers of changing the order?  Well obviously, such a quick change of philosophy can feel unearned, and if the hero is on the right path so early, the rest of the movie can seem morally inert…right?
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes, it does.  The drama comes from the fact that, even though Hiccup knows the spiritual truth, his newly moral stance is in such total opposition to the beliefs of his entire society, that he still has a massive job to do, bringing others around.  He still seems like a fallible, self-deluded person to the extent that he believes he can have it both ways (befriending a dragon in private and besting them in public) until it all comes crashing down.  This is a movie about a hero who has the right morals, but is very uncertain about the most effective ethical way to spread that morality.

Most movies are parables about how to change yourself, but this is a parable about how to change your society after you’ve found the right path.  As it turns out, this is a rich topic that should be explored more often.


Harvey Jerkwater said...

"...this is a parable about how to change your society after you’ve found the right path. As it turns out, this is a rich topic that should be explored more often.

The danger is that you'll end up with preachy treacle. This topic means you're pushing for a distinct point of view, since the protagonist is declared Correct by the story. To make this work, either you're going to have to work in kids' movies or in historical pieces where the Correct Change is non-controversial to modern audiences. ("Racism is bad, acceptance is good," is a popular one these days. See: Help, The.) Either way, nuance is going to be hard to create. You've set up a "Right vs. Wrong" situation, not "Right vs. Right."

To get around the boredom problem, you could pick a currently controversial topic, declare the protagonist Correct by the end of Act One, and have him/her try to Change Society to match the Correct view in acts two and three, but you (a) risk alienating the people who don't agree with you; (b) undercut the drama by caricaturing opposition as evil or just plain ignorant; and (c) have to grapple with the problem that people don't like to change, change is extraordinary, and change on a large scale usually takes a long time.

Movies of the "hero tries to correct everyone" type usually have a "preaching to the choir" feeling and often lapse into martyrdom or smugness. (Or worse, both.)

Not to say this can't be done well. But it looks particuarly difficult from out here in the far reaches of the Internet.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Okay, now that I read my own comment, I can see ways out of this problem. Say you're writing about the SLCC campaign in Birmingham in 1963. You're stuck with Bull Connor, who was indeed an evil, ignorant man, and you're backing a cause that nobody today would argue against. You've got enormous stakes and a hateful villain. Great for melodrama, hard for real drama. How do you approach it?

By making the conflict not about racism vs. acceptance but rather the right way to fight the fight. How do you convince the world to change? Protagonist A wants to fight, Protagonist B wants to resist but not fight, and Protagonist C wants to be left the hell alone and figures change is impossible. Believable conflict, right vs. right, etc.

...and I see in the very quote I pulled that you pull in the question of "how," so I'm covering the same ground as you, but in way more words. D'oh!

FUN FACT: Bull Connor's name was Theophilus Eugene Connor. I can see why he went by "Bull."

Matt Bird said...

One reason HTTYD works is that the dragons are scary as hell, so it does seem truly radical, and not at all a no-brainer, to make peace with them. This isn't 'we don't like Sneetches without stars for no reason', this is 'we don't like these dragons because they keep killing our loved ones.'

HTTYD avoids the good vs. bad of 'racism vs. tolerance' or 'peace vs. war' by pitting tolerance vs. community (as well as vs. family, vs. tradition, and even vs. personal safety)

As you point out, one problem with making a '60s civil rights movie, (other than the fact that the King family has declared war on all of them) is that the more compelling drama is not King vs. Connor, which is a no-brainer, but King vs. all of the other white and black civil rights leaders who thought he was moving too fast: the good vs. good of 'cooperation vs. confrontation', or 'the bird in the hand vs. the two in the bush.'

But, understandably, nobody wants to make a civil rights movie in which blacks are amongst the 'bad guys'. It's tricky.

rams said...

Or any movie in which two good guys disagree. 'Braveheart' always drives my husband nuts, because to amplify William Wallace's good, Robert the Bruce has to become bad (despite no shortage of other historically certified bad guys.) Historical movies probably present particular barriers to dramatic construction -- how much can you change before you're telling an artistic fiction with the names of real people -- so it would be interesting to see you take up a series on them some time.(I might add that the "Please prove you're not a robot" recording sounds like it's being read by humpbacked whales.)

Beth said...

I think his early moral enlightenment/philosophical switch makes more sense because he's young. Preteens and teens are in a period in their lives where they are questioning lots of community beliefs. If the main character is an established adult, then a larger crisis will need to happen to shake them out of their moral philosophy.