The Dark Knight & Emotional Content

dark-knight-ETB ScreenwritingI had an interesting email exchange with a reader and wanted to post my reply.  He took issue with the muddy plot in The Dark Knight.

Several critics agree and one reviewer blasts the movie on that score saying:  “Nolan’s latest exploration of the Batman mythology steeps its muddled plot in so much murk that the Joker’s maniacal nihilism comes to seem like a recurrent grace note.”  The review goes on to decry the “airless complexity” of the story.

The Dark Knight
is a classic example of the Emotional Toolbox premise that– “In the battle between reason (plot) and emotion (connection), emotion ALWAYS wins.”

Audiences will forgive almost anything if the emotional connection in a film is strong enough. If the emotional bond isn’t strong enough then very little else will salvage a movie.

The country seems to be in a very pessimistic mood these days. Polls are showing more people losing confidence in the economy and feeling like the country is headed in the wrong direction than any time since the Great Depression.  The Dark Knight reflects the general sense of being trapped in choices, all of which are bad.

We also haven’t fully mourned our fallen in Iraq either.  We never see their coffins coming home.  We never see any of the funeral ceremonies.  We keep putting on foot in front of the other despite the enormous personal and emotional cost.  I think that is what Batman is forced to do.  He even continues the fight under false assumptions– Alfred burned the note Rachel sent him.

If you’ve just come to my blog– there is a short essay about The Joker in an earlier post.  His role is so pivotal in all of this.  What we fear most is chaos.  That’s what people sense right now– being on the edge of chaos.

The Dark Knight is hooking into emotional themes beyond the movie’s plot points.  The question for any writer, not just those who write about Super Heroes, is–  How does your script connect with the deeper emotions of your audience?

Mark Gill gave a powerful keynote before the NALIP Conference

He says in part:

Quality of emotional content is what matters, period. In a world with too many choices, companies are finally realizing they can’t risk the marketing money on most movies.

In the end, all of this (effort in movie-making) has to add up, seamlessly if possible, to something that moves us– to the quality of the emotional content. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about thrills, laughs, tears, or an adrenaline rush. What matters is that we are engaged and, ideally, emotionally transformed and satisfied.

In a world increasingly dominated by numbers– financial, technological and most importantly the finite number of hours in a day, our very human desire for contact, meaning and emotional transformation isn’t going away. It’s growing. Those who remember that will survive and most probably win.

That is the premise on which I founded The Emotional Toolbox and creating that emotional authenticity and connection is at the core of The Nine Character Types eBooks.

The Dark Knight & The Power of Truth

darkknightbatman ETB screenwritingI am still looking out over the hills and trees of the rolling area surrounding the Mississippi River, thinking about the latest Batman movie. The Dark Knight is a powerful and classic Power of Truth film.

In a Power of Truth film things are never what they seem.  None of the major characters in The Dark Knight are what they seem at first glance.  The tangled undergrowth of human duplicity catches and pulls at every character in the film.

In the beginning of the film, Batman tries to find out the truth about one thing: a spectacular bank robbery.  Over the course of the film, he finds out the truth about a larger thing:  what happens to human nature under the extreme duress of chaos.  In the end, he finds out the truth about himself:  he is both stronger and weaker than he imagined.

In the movie, criminal acts are just the surface.  This surface, upon closer inspection, is tangled up with its own deeper undergrowth of human darkness.  Once the surface of the crime is cracked, chasms open that no one could have imagined.

Batman is continually looking for answers that elude him.  He is caught in the eternal Power of Truth paradox:  Seeking certainty in an uncertain world only brings more uncertainty.  Who is he?  Does Gotham need him?  Will he break his “one rule” to save the woman he loves?  How  “bad” is he willing to be to do “good”?  How easy would it be for him to permanently cross over into the Dark Side?

Christian Bale, the actor who plays Batman says:  “Now you have not just a young man in pain attempting to find some kind of an answer, you have somebody who actually has power, who is burdened by that power, and is having to recognize the difference between attaining that power and holding on to it.”  What is the real truth about Batman?

Not only is Bruce Wayne not what he seems.  Batman is not what he seems.  At the end of the film, he takes on the burden of Two Face’s crimes to give Gotham a “hero,” turning himself into someone he’s not in the eyes of the public. Batman tries to “save” Gotham from the truth.

Lt. James Gordon speaks of Batman’s new role saying:  “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now… and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector… a dark knight.”

Batman says:  “Sometimes, truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”  Alfred, by destroying Rachel’s final farewell letter echoes Batman sentiments and saves Batman, himself, from the awful truth that Batman had lost Rachel long before she died.

Everyone in the film is bound up in the tangled undergrowth of human duplicity.

There’s more about Power of Truth characters and stories in my forthcoming eBooks on The Nine Character Types.

The Dark Knight – Alfred & The Power of Love

Alfred Dark KnightToday I’m sitting on a screened porch in Wisconsin, on vacation, and taking a closer look at another Character Type in The Dark Knight. Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s long-time friend, confident and butler, is a classic Power of Love character.

A character driven by the Power of Love is often someone who tirelessly pushes another forward in a story.  Although typically developed as a female character,  a Power of Love character can also be a compelling male ensemble player (or even lead).  These characters— often soft-spoken, gentle and compliant on the outside— are made of strong, even steely, stuff on the inside.  They believe the best place to be is the “power behind the throne.”

All these qualities are very evident with Alfred.  His courtesy and refined manners mask a steely determination and protectiveness on Bruce Wayne/Batman’s behalf.  Alfred stands just behind Batman’s power and is a subtle but strong presence in the story.

Alfred: I suppose they’ll lock me up as well. As your accomplice…
Bruce/Batman: Accomplice? I’m going to tell them the whole thing was your idea.

In a large part the whole concept of Batman is Alfred’s idea. Bruce/Batman’s continuing story hinges on a key action Alfred takes.

Power of Love characters are defined by their determination.  They will not give up on whatever goal, scheme or objective they have in mind for the object of their attention.  These characters  sincerely do believe they know what is best for others.  They can be very cunning in controlling and manipulating others (always for the other person’s own welfare).

Alfred advises, consoles and prods Bruce/Batman through-out the film.  Rachel entrusts Alfred with the note that, ironically, are her last words.  Alfred first delivers Rachel’s farewell note and then surreptitiously takes it and burns it.  He does so out of love for Bruce/Batman, and he sincerely believes he (Alfred) knows what is best.  Maybe so, but Alfred also deprives Bruce/Batman of the truth and the last words of the woman he loves.

The Dark Knight – Two Face & the Power of Conscience

Two Face ETB ScreenwritingThe Dark Knight is a huge blockbuster and a fascinating complex film.  One of the reasons it is so popular with audiences is the clarity of the Character Types in the story.  I’ll look at each of The Dark Knight characters over the next several days and discuss each Character Type in the film.

Let’s start with Harvey Dent/Two Face (Aaron Eckhart).  This character is an iconic Power of Conscience character.

Power of Conscience characters know instinctively if something is wrong, unjust, unfair, improper, corrupt, evil or out of line.  Their judgment and response is swift and immutable  These characters are propelled forward by personal outrage and moral indignation, usually on another’s behalf.

Harvey Dent’s moral condemnation of crime fuels him to clean up Gotham and make it safe for ordinary citizens.  He is a vigilant prosecutor of evil.  He catches and punishes criminals within the strict confines of the legal system.  He is a “white knight” and a moral hero.

After he is burned and Rachel dies, Dent moves toward his Dark Side and becomes Two Face, a twisted vigilante and self-appointed judge, jury and executioner.  As Two Face, he is a fascinating counterpart to Batman.  (More on the Dark Knight in a later post.)

Harvey, or any other Power of Conscience character, moves to the Dark Side by believing the ends justify the means (evil behavior for a moral purpose).  The burning question for these characters is how bad a thing are they willing to do for (what they consider) a good cause? What ends justify what extreme means? Incrementally, they stumble down a slippery slope taking actions which they feel are justified, until they become exactly like the oppressors, persecutors or criminals they once loathed.

Harvey moves toward his Dark Side because of his outraged sense of fairness and justice.  He explains:  “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. (holds up his coin) Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.”

The “fair” and impartial flip of a coin will be his “moral compass” from now on.  He is a man without mercy or compassion.  There is, however, no true justice without  the humanity of those qualities.  There is only revenge, which is a bitter poisonous force of destruction.

He will be a fascinating villain to watch.

The Power of Conscience character will be covered in great detail in my forthcoming eBooks on The Nine Character Types

#ThinkpieceThursday – Mamma Mia: We Need To Laugh!

mama-mia-meryl-streep-etbscreenwritingOkay, I confess.  I LOVED Mamma Mia.  I am not a big Abba fan, although I like their music well enough.  I admit the movie premise is a bit thin but the casting is wonderful.  Everyone on board seems to be having a fantastically fun and silly time. I needed a good laugh that day and got one.

As the US moves into deeper financial straights, I wonder if audiences aren’t headed toward a Depression Era mentality?

The 1930’s filled movie houses across the country with silly comedies.  It was one of the few ways audiences could forget their troubles.  One of my favorite films around that era is Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941).

In the film, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a wealthy young Hollywood director who has had a string of successful but light-weight comedies.  He wants to direct a more sober masterpiece: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Yes, this is the film that inspired the Cohen Brothers’ film).

Sullivan describes his serious opus as an exploration of the plight of the destitute and downtrodden. Not surprisingly, he is pressured by studio bosses to make another, more lucrative comedy instead. Sullivan refuses and goes on the road to research his film incognito, dressed as a homeless vagrant.

What he discovers is that humor is what saves us when time are tough.  As times get tougher around the world, audience are going to need to laugh.  Maybe you should dust off those comedy scripts you’ve got in the drawer.  Now might be the time to sell something silly but inspired.

Also, if you’ve got a serious piece maybe you can take to the next level and make it a black comedy.  Dr. Strangelove started out as a drama.  Seeing the absurdity in the horror of nuclear war, Stanley Kubrick decided to turn it into a black comedy instead.  It is considered a classic while the competing drama (on the same subject) Fail Safe, never got as much traction or acclaim.

Check out both films as a master class in comedy.

The Dark Knight, The Joker and Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – Power of Excitement

ledger-joker ETB ScreenwritingThis weekend, I saw two films that explore the Dark Side of the Power of Excitement Character Type:  Gonzo:  The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and The Joker (brilliantly played by Heath Ledger) in Dark Knight .  Let’s  take a look at the underbelly of this fascinating Character Type.

Hunter S. Thompson was a writer who straddled the Dark Side of the Power of Excitement.  Although real people are, of course, more complex than fictional characters, they still have a core or essence that can be traced back to one type.

Self-described “gonzo” journalist ,Hunter S. Thompson, became famous in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine for his sense of wild adventure, drug use and love of chaos and anarchy.  He ran a campaign for Sheriff in Aspen in the 1970’s based on those principles.  All these basic elements were a part of his unique writing style.

Bill Cardoso, editor of the Boston Globe magazine, claimed “gonzo” was South Boston Irish slang describing the last man standing after an all night drinking marathon.  In other contexts, gonzo has come to mean “with reckless abandon,” “out of control “or “extreme.”

Thompson committed suicide when he decided life wasn’t fun any more. He did, however, maintain an explosive personality to the end.  At his funeral, he requested his ashes be shot out of a canon from a tower he designed personally (in the shape of of a double thumbed fist holding a peyote button) as Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” blared over loudspeakers.  Thompson’s funeral was a fitting send off for a man hell-bent on the next wild escapade.  One of his favorite sayings was: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

In Dark Knight, the Joker pushes the Dark Side to its furthest extreme.  He says to Harvey Dent (Two-Face):  “Do I really look like a man with a plan, Harvey? I don’t have a plan. The mob has plans, the cops have plans. You know what I am, Harvey? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one. I just do things. I’m a wrench in the gears. I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I am not a schemer. I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are…  It’s a schemer who put you where you are. You were a schemer. You had plans. Look where it got you. I just did what I do best– I took your plan and turned it in on itself.”

The Joker’s words aptly sums up Thompson’s approach to journalism.  Throw a wrench in the gears, turn things in on themselves and expose how pathetic politicians’ attempts to control things really are.

The Joker elaborates to Dent/Two Face:  “I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fear.”

Thompson was also an agent of chaos.  His “fear and loathing” books were about what happens when chaos ensues.  Sadly, in the end, he was as trapped by his wild persona as if he were a meek and mild drone working a nine to five job.  He became a caricature of himself, satirized as “Duke” in the comic strip Doonsbury.

Her lover tells Holly Golightly (a female Power of Excitement character) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “You say you are a wild thing… (Y)ou’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”  However hard or fast you try to escape– there you still are.

Horton Hears A Who – Power of Imagination

Horton-hears-a-who-etbscreenwriting“On the fifteenth of May, in the jungle of Nool, in the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, he was splashing…enjoying the jungle’s great joys… When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.” This Dr. Seuss rhyme, narrated by Charles Osgood, starts off the wonderful film, Horton Hears A Who.

Only Horton (Jim Carrey) can hear the noise but he is utterly convinced that it is a signal that someone is in trouble. His conviction that he can hear something no one else can hear makes Horton a classic Power of Imagination character.

The Power of Imagination character is someone gentle, unassuming and rather meek. These characters are the naifs, innocents, eccentrics and dreamers, seemingly the last person one would think of as a hero.

Horton is a gentle and slightly goofy elephant who leads a troop of children around the jungle exploring and appreciating the environment. He simply enjoys being part of the group. But Horton, as unlikely as it seems, is a hero inside. Greatness is thrust upon him via that special message only he can hear.

Power of Imagination characters believe absolutely in whatever is calling them. They never doubt the “reality” of their call, whatever form it takes (no matter how strange, unusual, mystical or incomprehensible). Horton’s seemingly absurd call from an invisible world is very threatening to Kangaroo (Carol Burnett).

Kangaroo is a rigid authoritarian Power of Conscience character. In her view, right is right and wrong is wrong. She is the moral authority in the jungle and can’t allow deviation from the norms of accepted behavior. She insists, “If you can’t see, hear or feel something it doesn’t exist. And believing in ‘tiny imaginary people’ is just not something we do— or tolerate around here.” She strictly enforces these rules “for the sake of the children.”

But Horton is undeterred by her scolding and threats. He believes, “A person is a person no matter how small.” He fully understands the risks as he travels to find a safe spot for the speck that contains Whoville. He tells the speck, “We must become invisible, travel silently, for there are forces that would seek to destroy us.”

Whoville is too small for Horton to see and Horton is too big for the citizens for Whoville to see. But each must believe in the other. Horton saves and transforms the Mayor of Whoville’s life and all Whoville citizens by the sheer tenacity of his belief in their world. The Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell), with Horton’s help, empowers his small silent son, JoJo, to add his voice to the chorus. The Whoville collective cry is faint but clear. And finally heard by all.

Kagaroo is defeated by this demonstration of mutual faith and collective action. She slumps away in shame. Horton, being the Power of Imagination character that he is, can’t help but be inclusive. He extends a hand to her and she is welcomed back into the jungle family. Horton is celebrated for the hero he is.

Horton, the unlikely hero, joins other well-known and well-loved Power of Imagination characters in cinema.

These include young character such as:

Elliot in E.T., the younger brother who has a special kind of communication with the alien, and gathers his older brother’s friends to help E.T. get home.

Frodo, in The Fellowship of the Ring, a young hobbit who has a special connection with the One Ring, and leads men, dwarves, hobbits and elves in a quest against The Dark Lord Sauron.

Luke Skywalker, in Star Wars, a young farm boy who has a special connection with The Force, and leads a space pirate, a Wookie, a robot and a droid in a quest against The Empire and the Death Star.

Power of Imagination adults in cinema have a child-like ingenuity and visionary call. These characters include:

Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who is intuitively drawn to Devil’s Tower after contact with a UFO and unites a band of like-minded people to make a pilgrimage to contact the aliens.

Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, who hears “build it and they will come.” He carves out a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field, is united with his father and helps the disgraced baseball player, Shoeless Joe Jackson, find peace.

As the formerly jaded author, Terry Mann, says of the cornfield: “Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children… And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters… People will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

The ability to unify others toward a common goal or cause and/or connect with magic, the miraculous or the metaphysical is the hallmark of Power of Imagination characters.

Casino Royale – Power of Reason

Screenwriters Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis moved James Bond into the next phase of 007’s life in the excellent film, Casino Royale. It is a great example of how to transition a character.
The long-standing James Bond franchise is effectively updated, renewed and refreshed for new audiences.This kind of character evolution is also critical in any long-running television series. The dynamics of an ensemble can change over time, requiring adjustments in a character. Transitioning a new character can help to take advantage of a newly cast actor’s strengths.
No matter how carefully a new character is crafted on the page he or she must be a character the actor can successfully play.  Conforming the actor’s character type and his or her fictional character type is much more likely to produce a standout performance.  All this must be done with real authenticity and a solid emotional foundation.
James Bond, like Indiana Jones and the more comedic Austin Powers, has always been written and played as a Power of Excitement character. In my view of film and television, there are nine possible emotional engines that drive a protagonist and storyline.  Stories driven by the Power of Excitement are about getting out of traps and escaping from entangling situations.
Power of Excitement characters refuse to be confined, corralled or domesticated.  They flee adult responsibilities and commitments.  Peter Pan is a classic Power of Excitement character.  So are the protagonists played by Hugh Grant in his early movies.  These characters are incredibly charming but basically are kids.  Their mantra is, “I don’t want to grow up.  I don’t want to settle down.”
Mimi Avins, in The Los Angles Times, November 12, 2006 hits the nail on the head when she writes:  “There has always been something adolescent about 007. Sure, Britain’s best-known secret agent occasionally bears the fate of the free world on his deltoids. What he hasn’t shouldered, as he’s whizzed from one adventure to another over the last 44 years, is the ordinary responsibilities and commitments of a modern adult male. He’s an eternal lad, with a teenager’s contempt for authority and the ring-a-ding-ding Rat Packer’s attitude toward women that real men outgrow about the time they realize Maxim isn’t seriously meant to be a guide to life.”
These charming characters’ devil-may-care “I just want to play around and play the field” behavior can be captivating when a character is young.  But, after a certain age, it grows tiresome and verges on the pathetic.  That’s why, in his later movies, About a Boy and Brigitte Jones’ Diary for example, Hugh Grant plays this character type’s darker side and shows the emotional toll paid.  This is a successful character transition that avoids a devastating pitfall:  Power of Excitement characters and actors playing the boyish scamp or charming playboy have a definite expiration date.
The incredibly valuable Bond franchise was facing a difficult dilemma in remaking Casino Royale.  The perennially adolescent Power of Excitement Bond has been around for a long time and might not seem as appealing to the current, more cynical, movie-going audience.  An expiration date was looming.  These are darker and less innocent times than when the Bond movies debuted with such flash and fun in the psychedelic 1960’s.
So how does 007 evolve and grow up?  What kind of character is the new “more adult” Bond?  The producers’ and screenwriters’ answer is to transition the character from a Power of Excitement character to a Power of Reason character.  I believe they chose wisely.
Power of Reason stories are about alienation vs. connection.  They are about order vs. chaos. These characters are distant, sarcastic and can be perceived as cold.  It’s not that these characters don’t feel things— the trouble is, they feel things too deeply.  To avoid being overwhelmed by their emotions Power of Reason characters shut down and withdraw into themselves.
Power of Reason characters are experts in their field. They are stubborn, tough and opinionated and always believe they know best.  They are loners and prefer to work alone.  These characters buck authority because they believe they are best left to their own devices.  These characteristics lead Bond to clash with M over and over in Casino Royale.  This new Bond is more resolute and less cavalier than the previous Power of Excitement Bonds.  Earlier 007s had a devil-may-care attitude of rebellion against “adult” constraints and authority.
Casino Royale’s flashback to Bond’s early days to show how he became 007 is a stroke of genius.  This is the perfect film to remake and renew the franchise.  We see the new Bond prove himself in the field in a bloody, gritty and determined way.  We watch him fall in love, see his wary cautious heart melt and watch how tragedy then hardens him again.  Tragedy makes this Bond more cynical and forces him to shut down all human feeling.  He becomes more distant, disconnected and a cold-blooded killing machine.
Daniel Craig is an inspired choice to play the new Bond.  Despite early carping and criticism by fans, his character type is ideally suited to this Power of Reason 007.  Writing about some of his early stage work a reviewer noted that Craig “contains his violence like an unexploded mine.”  There is a cool and controlled quality to Craig’s previous roles in Layer Cake and Munich.  We believe his expertise and ability to disengage and get the job done, despite the internal and/or moral cost.
Another excellent example of a Power of Reason story and character is Luc Besson’s wonderful film, The Professional, starring Jean Reno as Leon, a hit man.  Leon meets a little girl under crisis circumstances and learns to love— with tragic, but heroic, consequences.  Television Power of Reason examples include Dr. Gregory House on House and the comedic detective series Monk.  Even though all these  characters are individually very distinctive, they each share the same emotional and motivational core.
When transitioning a character the question is how to recast the same behavior with a compelling new motivation.  Consistency, authenticity and character type is key.  Previous 007s killed as sport and barely rumpled their tuxedos.  They were flip, flash and fun:  the eternal “lad.”  This new adult Bond doesn’t avoid obligations and responsiblities.  He executes them, both literally and figuratively, with chilling and brutal expertise.  This is a Bond who is bloodied but unbowed.  He has scars on his soul.  And he doesn’t give a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred.  He has darker more adult  concerns.

casino-royale-etb-screenwritingScreenwriters Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis move James Bond into the next phase of 007’s life in the excellent film, Casino Royale. It is a great example of how to transition a character.

The film effectively updates, renews and refreshed the James Bond character for new audiences. This kind of character evolution is also critical in any long-running television series. The dynamics of an ensemble can change over time, requiring adjustments in a character. Transitioning the character can help to take advantage of a newly cast actor’s strengths.

James Bond, like Indiana Jones and the more comedic Austin Powers, has always been written and played as a Power of Excitement character. Stories driven by the Power of Excitement are about getting out of traps and escaping from entangling situations.

Power of Excitement characters refuse to be confined, corralled or domesticated.  They flee adult responsibilities and commitments.  Peter Pan is a classic Power of Excitement character.  So are the protagonists played by Hugh Grant in his early movies.  These characters are incredibly charming but basically are kids.  Their mantra is, “I don’t want to grow up.  I don’t want to settle down.”

Mimi Avins, in The Los Angles Times, November 12, 2006 hits the nail on the head when she writes:  “There has always been something adolescent about 007. Sure, Britain’s best-known secret agent occasionally bears the fate of the free world on his deltoids. What he hasn’t shouldered, as he’s whizzed from one adventure to another over the last 44 years, is the ordinary responsibilities and commitments of a modern adult male. He’s an eternal lad, with a teenager’s contempt for authority and the ring-a-ding-ding Rat Packer’s attitude toward women that real men outgrow about the time they realize Maxim isn’t seriously meant to be a guide to life.”

These charming characters’ devil-may-care “I just want to play around and play the field” behavior can be captivating when a character is young.  But, after a certain age, it grows tiresome and verges on the pathetic.  That’s why, in his later movies, About a Boy and Brigitte Jones’ Diary for example, Hugh Grant plays this character type’s darker side and shows the emotional toll paid.  This is a successful character transition that avoids a devastating pitfall:  Power of Excitement characters and actors playing the boyish scamp or charming playboy have a definite expiration date.

The incredibly valuable Bond franchise was facing a difficult dilemma in remaking Casino Royale.  The perennially adolescent Power of Excitement Bond has been around for a long time and might not seem as appealing to the current, more cynical, movie-going audience.  An expiration date was looming.  These are darker and less innocent times than when the Bond movies debuted with such flash and fun in the psychedelic 1960’s.

So how does 007 evolve and grow up?  What kind of character is the new “more adult” Bond?  The producers’ and screenwriters’ answer is to transition the character from a Power of Excitement character to a Power of Reason character.  I believe they chose wisely.

Power of Reason stories are about alienation vs. connection.  They are about order vs. chaos. These characters are distant, sarcastic and can be perceived as cold.  It’s not that these characters don’t feel things— the trouble is, they feel things too deeply.  To avoid being overwhelmed by their emotions Power of Reason characters shut down and withdraw into themselves.

Power of Reason characters are experts in their field. They are stubborn, tough and opinionated and always believe they know best.  They are loners and prefer to work alone.  These characters buck authority because they believe they are best left to their own expert devices.  These characteristics lead Bond to clash with M over and over in Casino Royale.  This new Bond is more resolute and less cavalier than the previous Power of Excitement Bonds.  Earlier 007s had a devil-may-care attitude of rebellion against “adult” constraints and authority.

Casino Royale‘s flashback to Bond’s early days to show how he became 007 is a stroke of genius.  This is the perfect film to remake and renew the franchise.  We see the new Bond prove himself in the field in a bloody, gritty and determined way.  We watch him fall in love, see his wary cautious heart melt and watch how tragedy then hardens him again.  Tragedy makes this Bond more cynical and forces him to shut down all human feeling.  He becomes more distant, disconnected and a cold-blooded killing machine.

Daniel Craig is an inspired choice to play the new Bond.  Despite early carping and criticism by fans, his character type is ideally suited to this Power of Reason 007.  Writing about some of his early stage work a reviewer noted that Craig “contains his violence like an unexploded mine.”  There is a cool and controlled quality to Craig’s previous roles in Layer Cake and Munich.  We believe his expertise and ability to disengage and get the job done, despite the internal and/or moral cost.

Another excellent example of a Power of Reason story and character is Luc Besson’s wonderful film, The Professional, starring Jean Reno as Leon, a hit man.  Leon meets a little girl under crisis circumstances and learns to love— with tragic, but heroic, consequences.  Television Power of Reason examples include Dr. Gregory House on House and the comedic detective series Monk.  Even though all these  characters are individually very distinctive, they each share the same emotional and motivational core.

When transitioning a character the question is how to recast the same behavior with a compelling new motivation.  Consistency, authenticity and character type is key. Previous 007s killed as sport and barely rumpled their tuxedos.  They were flip, flash and fun:  the eternal “lad.”  This new adult Bond doesn’t avoid obligations and responsiblities.  He executes them, both literally and figuratively, with chilling and brutal expertise.  This is a Bond who is bloodied but unbowed.  He has scars on his soul.  And he doesn’t give a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred.  He has darker more adult  concerns.

Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal

THE TERMINAL, the 2004 film from Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hank and Catherine Zeta-Jones opened to middling audiences and mixed reviews. Although critics lauded Hanks’ performance, the film was not a runaway hit at the box office. There was much to like about this film but one creative mistake drastically undercut its emotional power and box office impact.

What Went Wrong?

Tom Hanks, playing Vicktor Novorski, is the film’s star and occupies most of the screen time. Unfortunately, Vicktor is not the protagonist of the film. Neither the biggest emotional journey nor the emotional climax of the film belongs to Hanks. This a fatal flaw from which the film never recovers.

Plot Recap

THE TERMINAL is a charming feel good story about a hapless Eastern European, Vicktor Novorski (Tom Hanks), trapped in an airport when his country, Krakozhia, is thrown into turmoil by a coup. His visa is no longer valid because his country no longer exists politically.

Vicktor can neither enter the US nor leave the airport premises until the situation is resolved and a new visa is issued. The character is physically stuck and static throughout the film.

There is no internal conflict between what he wants (his goal or objective) and what he needs (a larger missing element in his life). Vicktor is a passive likeable guy trapped in a cul-de-sac. His main activity is patient and persistent waiting.

No Emotional Journey

Emotionally, Vicktor goes nowhere and does nothing. Although he finds friends and discovers how to survive in the airport, he learns or realizes nothing of consequence emotionally at the end of the film that he didn’t already know at the beginning of the film. He discovers nothing new about himself along the way.

He is not transformed in any significant way by his experiences. Vicktor is the same gentle, genial, anguished but honorable person in the beginning that he is at the end. His internal journey is the emotional equivalent of watching paint dry.

The result is entirely predictable and without much suspense or surprise. We never fear he will do the wrong thing because he is consistently sweet-tempered and generous from the beginning.

Diluting a Weak Payoff

Early on we see Vicktor forego permission to leave the airport premises in order to aid a complete stranger, a man stopped temporarily in the airport with contraband Canadian prescription drugs for his father. Decent, honorable Vicktor makes the choice to sacrifice his own desires and an offer of freedom to aid a stranger in need.

Later, when faced with the same choice, to forgo his quest to save his closest airport friends, does the audience ever doubt that Vicktor will make the same sacrifice? Of course, Vicktor gives up his objective to save his airport friends from trouble. To sacrifice for one’s friends is a far easier choice than to sacrifice for someone you don’t know and will never see again.

This lowers the emotional stakes— it doesn’t raise them. Vicktor does the expected, again, but in a watered down form.

No Suspense or Surprise

A film doesn’t build interest and suspense by diminishing the emotional cost of an action. Characters should make progressively harder choices —not progressively easier ones. The film’s sequencing of events further diminishes the paltry emotional catharsis for the character.

The story resolution also lacks any suspense or obstacle. Once Vicktor is free to leave the airport he obtains his final objective with little effort. His mission is to complete his dead father’s autograph collection, inspired by the famous “Great Day in Harlem” photograph of 1950’s jazz legends.

He has the precise address where the missing musician can be located. Vicktor makes a bee-line to the club and immediately finds the musician, who complies effortlessly with the request. Vicktor gives up nothing of value to conclude his journey. He ultimately pays no personal price other than the time and patience necessary to wait out his temporary limbo. Vicktor undergoes no personal transformation and learns nothing of consequence emotionally along the way.

The Terminal and E.T.

I believe Spielberg has remade a lesser version of E.T. in THE TERMINAL His fatal mistake in the current film is to cast a star (Hanks) in the alien’s role and center the film around him.

Although E. T. is the title character in the earlier film the little creature is not that film’s protagonist. Elliot played by Henry Thomas is the protagonist in E.T. The decision to make Vicktor the protagonist in THE TERMINAL sank the film emotionally and at the box office.

Let’s look at the similarities: Both films are about aliens who are involuntarily stranded on foreign soil

➢ E.T. is left behind when his mother ship makes a hasty exit and vanishes

➢ Vicktor is stranded when his country vanishes in a swift political coup

Both aliens simply want to collect some artifact and then go home

➢ E.T. collects the “exotic” local flora

➢ Vicktor collects an “exotic” local autograph

Both aliens are sweet-tempered and gentle creatures from beginning to end. Although they don’t change personally they do change the lives of those around them

➢ E.T. has an enormous impact on Elliot, his friends and family

➢ Vicktor has an enormous impact on his airport friends and family

Both aliens are eager to return home and do, in fact, go home at the end of the film

➢ E.T.’s ship returns to collect him and he returns to his home planet

➢ Vicktor’s country returns to the political map and he returns to a new Krakozhia

Both aliens inspire another, who seems to be insignificant and powerless, to a feat requiring great daring and courage

➢ E.T. inspires Elliot, a small child, to defy the government

➢ Vicktor inspires Gupta, a lowly janitor, to defy the airport administration and the government

Both aliens initially inspire fear in their unlikely champions

➢ Gupta frets that Vicktor is a government operative or spy and worries obsessively about what will happen if the airport crew helps Vicktor

➢ A creature from outer space initially does inspire fear.

 Both of the aliens’ champions rally others to help aid in the cause

➢ Elliot enlists his brother and his friends to race to E.T.’s rescue

➢ Gupta distributes posters and rallies the other airport workers to Vicktor’s plight.

In E. T. Elliot is the protagonist. He’s the one who learns the most and has the biggest emotional journey. In THE TERMINAL the person who changes the most and has the biggest emotional journey is not Vicktor Novorski (Tom Hanks) it is Gupta Rajan (Kumar Pallana) the airport janitor.

Gupta’s Emotional Journey

To find the major emotional journey in THE TERMINAL look no further than the curmudgeonly airport cleaner. At the beginning of the film Gupta is afraid and deeply suspicious of Vicktor’s story. The janitor worries Vicktor may be a government spy, possibly working for the CIA.

At the end of the film Gupta believes so deeply in Vicktor’s cause that he tells all the airport workers Vicktor’s story and distributes photocopied posters in support of Vicktor. In the end, the elderly janitor sacrifices his own freedom and safety to aid in Vicktor’s quest.

Gupta goes from worrying, hiding and living in fear to stepping out, standing alone against monolithic bureaucracy and becoming a courageous champion. That’s a huge emotional journey.

Gupta’s Sacrifice

Over the course of the film we learn that Gupta had a little shop in his own country. He was continually pressed by government functionaries who demanded ever-increasing bribes. One day Gupta snapped and a greedy official wound up dead. Gupta fled.

He is hiding in America illegally, trying desperately to be invisible. This insignificant elderly man, who keeps his head down and toils as menial airport worker, is a very unlikely potential hero. Just as the very young Elliot, an easily ignored middle child, is an unlikely hero.

At the end of the film, however, the seemingly unimportant and lowly Gupta emerges from hiding. He discovers a tremendous well of courage within himself. Gupta brings a 747 to a halt with his broom to free Vicktor. The visual image of this little old man on the tarmac is incredibly powerful. It is even reminiscent of that striking image of the unnamed student who stood in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

The old man strides fearlessly onto the airport runway. He is completely dwarfed by the massive and seemingly unstoppable plane. Gupta stands his ground without flinching, and, brandishing a mop as his only weapon, brings the advancing airliner to a standstill.

As a result the old man is led away in handcuffs. Is there any question that the film’s emotional climax belongs to Gupta?

Conclusion

THE TERMINAL is headlined by one of the most beloved actors of his generation. Many critics believe this is among the best performances of Tom Hanks’ career. He is wonderfully directed by Steven Spielberg, one of the most accomplished and popular directors of all time.

The film’s production values are superb. No expense was spared to create a visually appealing and incredibly realistic set. And yet, the film was a critical disappointment and, for all the star power involved, returned a less than stellar result at the box office.

Star power, brilliant performances, directorial flair, lavish production budgets and savvy marketing plans combined cannot substitute for a clear emotional journey on the part of the protagonist. If the protagonist’s journey isn’t clear and compelling then the audience doesn’t feel satisfied. If the audience is not satisfied, the film won’t generate blockbuster tickets sales.