Monday, November 27, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do all of the actions have real consequences?

Lethal Weapon 2 is the most insulting movie I’ve ever seen. The villains are evil, snarling, Apartheid-loving South African drug dealers, but no matter how many people they kill, the police chief insists Mel and Danny let it alone: “Forget it, guys. They have diplomatic immunity. There’s nothing we can do about it! If you touch a hair on their heads, I’ll have your badge!” (Fun fact: This is not how diplomatic immunity works.) 

What a predicament! How will our cops figure out a clever way around this conundrum? Well, they don’t. They finally just get fed up and say, “Screw it!” They barge into the bad guys’ place and begin a raging gun battle. Oh no, what will the consequences be for our heroes? Answer: nothing. They eventually call in backup, the police arrive to help, and then they all stand up and cheer together. All of those threatened consequences just disappear.

A similar recent example is Taken, in which Liam Neeson wants his daughter back so badly that he’s willing to do anything. He even shoots a French official’s wife and then refuses her treatment until the official helps him figure out the whereabouts of the bad guys! Wow, he’s willing to throw his own freedom away to save his daughter!

Except not. Here’s how naïve I was: I genuinely expected the movie to end with Neeson in prison, getting a visit from his daughter, and assuring her that it’s all worth it if she’s okay. Nope. It ends with Neeson happily flying home with his daughter without a care in the world. How does that work?

Now don’t get me wrong. I realize that a lot of people love these movies just as they are, and they wouldn’t be happy to see our heroes sitting in jail at the end, but nobody’s proud of themselves for loving these movies. They get their adrenaline pumped, but when the credits roll, the taste of joy has already started to turn sour in their mouths. They know it doesn’t really make any sense.

Two thrillers that have stood the test of time did a much better job with this: The town’s economy gets wrecked because Brody closes the beaches in Jaws, and Lecter escapes as a result of helping Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. Our heroes make painful choices and must live with the grave consequences of the risks they take.

Of course, if actions require consequences, it’s equally true that consequences require actions. There’s nothing more ludicrous than a story with a lot of melodramatic Sturm und Drang, only to reveal at the end that there’s no actual drama.

Movie producers tend to get skittish, and they often demand that writers tweak the heroes at the last minute so they become “more sympathetic.” This can often result in ludicrous decisions. I saw two movies in 2003 that didn’t work for precisely the same reason: Both were stories of husbands seeking redemption for cheating, even though, as it later turned out, they hadn’t actually cheated!

Big Fish is all about a son’s attempt to forgive his fabulist father, played by Albert Finney, for betraying the family. Finney’s stories may be amusing, but they can’t cover up the fact that he left the family for another woman. Finally, he has to stop lying and admit the truth—that he didn’t cheat on his wife. Sure, Finney ran away and went to live with Helena Bonham Carter, but heavens no, he never actually slept with her—that would be unsympathetic! (The great irony here is we all know Burton had his own affair with Carter, and most of his fans forgave him, but heaven forbid they be allowed to forgive somebody onscreen for the same transgression!)

Shortly after, I saw Phone Booth, in which Colin Farrell plays a sleazy agent who stops in a phone booth to call a woman who isn’t his wife. While he’s there, a sniper who has bugged the booth starts shooting at him and threatens to kill him unless he calls his wife and comes clean. Finally, he has a tearful breakdown and calls his wife to admit the truth—that he didn’t cheat on her. He just thought about it.

I highly suspect that, in the original scripts, the protagonists had actually cheated on their wives. But some producer said, “Hey, he can't do that. That's unsympathetic!” But this makes no sense. If a story is about a man’s quest for redemption, then that quest will only have meaning if he’s actually guilty. The audience doesn’t want to sympathize with “goodness.” The audience wants to empathize with difficult dilemmas—the more difficult the better. Redemption stories are about dealing with the consequences of mistakes. The bigger the mistake, the bigger the consequences, and the more engrossing the story will be.

Everybody loves A Christmas Carol, but that wouldn’t be true if some publisher had insisted that Scrooge not be too mean to the Cratchits. He really needed redemption, which made the stakes sky high in this battle for his soul. That’s the source of the story’s meaning. Of course, that story also gains a lot of meaning from one of its most oft-quoted lines, which very much tapped into national pain: “Are there no workhouses?”

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, once you take gentle physics into account.


YES. She isn’t able to kill the alien without blowing up the ship.

An Education

YES. She can’t get back into her school.

The Babadook

Yes and no.  It is not unbeleivable that she suffered no real consequences for killing her dog and almost killing her kid (and vice versa) but it’s a little weird.

Blazing Saddles

YES. he gets sentenced to death for hitting the guy, etc.

Blue Velvet

YES. every transgression causes real suffering.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Very much so.


YES. Yes. 


YES. Very much so.


YES. Very much so.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  The worst things that could happen keep happening, at work and at home.  “Donnie” and his wife have to go into witness protection.

Do the Right Thing


The Farewell

YES. but not what we expect.  Inaction ends up with positive consequences. 

The Fighter

YES. Dicky goes to jail.  Both brothers have kids they rarely see.  The broken hand keeps Micky out of the ring for a long time.


YES. Yes. 

The Fugitive

YES. For the most part: he helps the guard (twice) but the guard turns him in anyway.  Gerard gets in trouble for shooting the other fugitive, etc.  

Get Out

YES. Much more so in the original ending, where Chris went to jail for killing all those white people.  Instead they released a better stand-up-and-cheer ending, but we know Chris is going to have a hard time explaining his whereabouts and actions.

Groundhog Day

YES. Within each day, and even after: he never gets over all those suicides. “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.”

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Hiccup chooses to fight and loses a foot! Dragon cannot overcome his disability without help.

In a Lonely Place


Iron Man

YES. Lots of suffering on Tony’s part, women and friends truly resent his treatment of them even though they find him charming.

Lady Bird


Raising Arizona

Yes and no.  It makes sense that the whole thing unravels so quickly, but it’s crazy that they face no consequences for the kidnapping (or for killing Smalls!).  As for the consequences of giving up on a baby, the movie hedges, first implying that they had to content themselves with sending gifts to Nathan Jr. from afar, but then implying that maybe they did have kids after all.


Yes and no.  Max’s schemes all fall apart believably, and he suffers, but not as much as he really would. 


YES. The world is changed by both King and Johnson.  King and Coretta never really have a rapprochment to show their marriage has changed, but we can tell from their body language.  It’s unclear if King blames and/or forgives Johnson for the FBI tape.  And of course the movie frequently taps into our knowledge that King will eventually be killed.    

The Shining



YES. …although Jack somehow manages to lie the consequences away after they hit.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Lecter escapes as a result, for instance.

Star Wars

YES. Helping the rebels gets his aunt and uncle killed.  Rescuing the princess gets Obi Wan killed.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. there’s no getting away from this.  

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