#WritingAdviceWednesday – Breaking The Mold : When Harry Met Sally

Writing Advice Wednesday

I like the video below, another excellent video essay from Lessons From The Screenplay, but my opinion differs somewhat. I am not a fan of genre.  Genre is useful for consumers and Netflix lists but not useful for writers.  Genre most often describes style, tone, and setting.  Instead, I find it more useful to look at a film’s emotional playing field.

Each of the Nine Character Types books contains a precise set of tools to create one specific kind of character’s emotional playing field and establish his or her driving force in a story. A character’s emotional playing field defines the internal framework (structure) of the story. It is the range of action and behavior (from predatory to spiritually enlightened) that instantaneously establishes a particular type of character to an audience. A character’s driving force is the combination of actions and reactions that propel the character through the story.

For example, Chinatown and Apocalypse Now would never be put on the same genre list.  But emotionally they are the same film.  In the beginning, the protagonist searches for the truth about one simple thing (Who killed Hollis Mulray. Where is Colonel Kurtz?)  Over the course of the story the protagonist finds out the truth about a much larger thing. (The corruption in the water system in Los Angeles. The moral quagmire and craziness of the war in Viet Nam.)  In the end, the protagonist finds out the truth about himself. (Not asking for help– not trusting his colleagues– results in disaster.  I could easily become the monster who was Kurtz.)

The Buddy Movie has all the same elements of a typical Romantic Comedy (without the sex).  The buddies are thrown together.  They don’t like each other. By being forced together they learn from each other.  In the end, in the highest act of love between buddies, they are willing to take a bullet for each other.

The best thing about this post is how what we think of a romantic comedy is turned on its head in in When Harry Met Sally. Also, it’s a wonderful excuse to revisit this enchanting film. Go and watch it tonight, especially if you’ve never seen it!

If you’re on Pinterest, why not follow my Pinterest board full of useful writing advice? It will be updated weekly, so you can keep track if you ever need an excellent video essay, or some relevant advice to whatever problems you are facing. You can always drop me a line at etbhelp@gmail.com with the subject “Ask Laurie” and I will do my best to answer it. I might even include it in an upcoming edition of Writing Advice Wednesday!

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#ThinkpieceThursday – Dunkirk: Failure Presented as Triumph

Thinkpiece Thursday

Christopher Nolan’s well-reviewed film, Dunkirk, revisits a part of British history that, with a PR reversal, turned utter failure and defeat into triumph and glory.

British government propaganda spread misleading information after the battle and refused to publicly accept that Dunkirk was an unmitigated disaster of biblical proportions. Winston Churchhill, in private conversation at the time, described Dunkirk as “The greatest British military defeat for many centuries”

“The Dunkirk episode was far worse than was ever realized in Fleet Street (the British newspaper quarter). The men returning to England were so demoralized they threw their rifles and equipment out of railway-carriage windows. Some sent for their wives with their civilian clothes, changed into these, and walked home.””
Director of Statistics at the War Office

Military men who were on the scene recount the situation:

“We were lost for words. I don’t know how to put it. We were just so demoralized and humiliated. I could not believe how well-equipped the Germans were. I had just a few months with a rifle and no proper field training and there they were with all this equipment and organization. They were prepared for war and we weren’t.”
Ivan Daunt, Queen’s Own Royal West Kents

“If you ask anybody what they remember most clearly about (…) Dunkirk they will all mention two things – shame and exhaustion. Shame-as we went back through those white-faced, silent crowds of Belgians, the people who had cheered us and waved to us as we came through their country only four days before, people who had vivid memories of a previous German occupation and whom we were now handing over to yet another. I felt very ashamed. We had driven up so jauntily and now, liked whipped dogs, we were scurrying back with our tails between our legs.” Brigadier Brian Horrocks, BEF

But that’s not what everyone remembers.  What they remember is the brave flotilla of fishing boats, private pleasure craft, and commercial trawlers braving the channel and bringing the boys home when the British Navy couldn’t help.  On the first day of the evacuation, only 7,669 men were evacuated, but by the end of the eighth day, 338,226 out of 400,000 soldiers had been rescued by a haphazard assembly of over 800 boats. Private citizens had rescued the surviving British Expeditionaryy Forces. It’s a better story than shame and defeat caused by strategic incompetence.

The film, Mrs. Miniver, tells the usual side of the story,  Nolan’s film shows a bit more of the untold reality of shame, confusion, and despair but also leans heavily on heroism.  For a full dose of British pluck here is a TMC clip of Mrs. Miniver:

Compare that to scenes from Dunkirk:

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Cut Cut Cut

WRITING ADVICE WEDNESDAY

Following on from last Wednesday’s article about adaptation and American Beauty,  here is the final part of a screenwriting essay trilogy on this film

Lessons From The Screenplay’s essasy are all informative and well-produced but this one in particularl is a favorite:  Less is More!

Remember, if you have any writing questions you want me to answer, drop me an email at etbhelp@gmail,com with the subject “Ask Laurie” and I might include it in an upcoming edition of Writing Advice Wednesday.

#TypesTuesday – The Hurt Locker & Power of Idealism

TYPE TUESDAY

Kathryn Bigelow has a new film, Detroit, being released now.  The biggest criticism of the film so far is the lack of a strong central protagonist. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the film yet myself but will write about it soon.

In her previous film, The Hurt Locker, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is a memorable Power of Idealism protagonist.  He has a cocky, shoot-from-the-hip, iconoclastic style in defusing roadside explosives.  These deadly bombs are hidden in the sand, in cars, and in the occasional corpse.  He has techniques that are all his own as he travels through the gutted terrain of Iraq ravaged by war, poor planning policies, and the smash-and-burn fury of local insurgents.

Characters driven by the Power of Idealism want to stand out from the crowd, to be extraordinary, unique and special.  They are rebels, iconoclasts, mavericks, and artists of all kinds.

Power of Idealism characters are intense, passionate and rebellious. Everyone in the story immediately recognizes and acknowledges that their role is somehow heroic or “larger than than life.”  They don’t play by anyone else’s rules.

Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) in The Hurt Locker is a quintessential Power of Idealism character.  He is intense, cavalier and is moving swiftly toward becoming a legend.  In this exchange, his reputation grows:

Colonel Reed: You the guy in the flaming car, Sergeant James?

Staff Sergeant William James: Afternoon, sir. Uh, yes, sir.

Colonel Reed: Well, that’s just hot shit. You’re a wild man, you know that?

Staff Sergeant William James: Uh, yes, sir.

Colonel Reed: He’s a wild man. You know that? I want to shake your hand.

Staff Sergeant William James: Thank you, sir.

Colonel Reed: Yeah. How many bombs have you disarmed?

Staff Sergeant William James: Uh, I’m not quite sure.

Colonel Reed: Segeant?

Staff Sergeant William James: Yes, sir.

Colonel Reed: I asked you a question.

Staff Sergeant William James: Eight hundred seventy-three, sir.

Colonel Reed: Eight hundred! And seventy-three. Eight hundred! And seventy-three. That’s just hot shit. Eight hundred and seventy-three.

Staff Sergeant William James: Counting today, sir, yes.

Colonel Reed: That’s gotta be a record. What’s the best way to… go about disarming one of these things?

Staff Sergeant William James: The way you don’t die, sir.

Colonel Reed: That’s a good one. That’s spoken like a wild man. That’s good.

A. O. Scott, writing for the New York Times describes James like this:  “Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is something else, someone we recognize instantly even if we have never seen anyone quite like him before. He is a connoisseur, a genius, an artist.”

The artistic temperament— and the yearning to be “something more extraordinary” creates a white hot intensity of feeling in these characters.  In contrast, long-term relationships and the comfortable companionship that committed loving couples (and families) share seem suffocatingly pedestrian.

Power of Idealism characters, operating in their Dark Side, are unprepared to make the ordinary, small, everyday sacrifices real long-term every-day love requires, especially when there are children involved.

In this exchange James explains to his infant son:

Staff Sergeant William James: You love playing with that. You love playing with all your stuffed animals. You love your Mommy, your Daddy. You love your pajamas. You love everything, don’t ya? Yea. But you know what, buddy? As you get older… some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore. Like your Jack-in-a-Box. Maybe you’ll realize it’s just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. And then you forget the few things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.

Staff Sgt. William James wants to live fast, die young, and leave a legend behind. He simply cannot find the extraordinary in ordinary family life. He must follow the adrenaline rush, upping the level of risk, and taking ever more dangerous chances.

For more information on how to create a powerful, dynamic Power of Idealism character, click HERE.

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#ThinkpieceThursday – Nora Ephon Lights the Way

THURSDAY THINKPIECE

 

My good friend Shelley Anderson Meyers published this personal observation in the Huffington Post about Nora Ephron’s effect on her as a writer.  I think the effect of positive powerful female role models cannot be underestimated in the life of a woman writer.

Here’s what Shelley had to say in part:

“When I entered the dark theatre of a smart Nora Ephron romantic comedy a magic spell was cast. I can remember exactly where I was and whom I was with for every one of her movies. I knew brilliance was afoot. I would be touched. I would laugh. I’d believe that men and women really can be friends, that you can meet someone for the first time on a rooftop and happily walk off and live happily ever after, or that can you meet the love of your life over the Internet. Like Nora, I believe in signs, fate, and destiny. I even married a man because he was the only person I had ever heard mention the Seychelles. The mother of romantic comedy, Nora was a cultural barometer who defined the boundaries and meaning of romantic foibles.”

READ the whole piece HERE

Isolation

P74StHP5This is a guest post by my friend and writing coach Michael Colleary:

Mental health professionals agree: isolation is bad for your emotional well-being. But dramatic isolation is very good for your screenplays. Pick a movie, any movie – old or new, comedy or drama. Its structure is almost certainly comprised of a process of dramatic isolation.

Dramatic isolation can be expressed in many forms. Physical isolation can be central to a movie’s design, as in the recent Oscar contenders “The Revenant” and “The Martian.” Often more than one sort of isolation is at work in a movie, although the different forms are often interwoven in the service of theme.

For example, when Sandra Bullock finds herself alone in “Gravity,” her sudden physical isolation takes on special poignancy when we learn that she has also isolated herself emotionally when her daughter died some years previously. Thus her superhuman efforts to return to Earth reflect her drive to recommit to a fuller, healed Self.

Similarly, James Franco’s character in the true story “127 Hours” spends his time trapped alone in a crevice ruminating on the cost of the emotional and spiritual isolation in which he has lived his life. The poignant coda of “127” hours reveals how Franco’s real-life counterpart, Aron Ralston, did choose to pursue a more emotionally-fulfilled life.

Perhaps the most fundamental use of isolation is simply to scare the hell out of audiences. “The Shining,” “Alien,” “The Evil Dead,” “Cabin In the Woods,” “Paranormal Activity,” “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” – and pretty much every slasher movie ever made – all rely on the isolation of their victims to create suspense, dread and, ultimately, terror.

Isolation as a structural tool is not unique to movies.

The works of William Shakespeare abound with its use. As Romeo and Juliet fall more deeply in love, we can only appreciate the life-and-death stakes as, one-by-one, they lose their relationships with their friends and families. MacBeth, Lear, Hamlet, Richard III – each of these legendary characters, in their own ways, finds themselves increasingly alone before meeting their fates.

Even movies crowded with characters can create – are required to create – an atmosphere of emotional isolation to successfully convey their stories. The journalists of “Spotlight” have no intimate experience of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, but even so their relentless pursuit of the story threatens them with increasingly painful consequences that are expressed by isolation. Thus the relationship between Rachel McAdams’ character and her grandmother comes under intense pressure. Michael Keaton’s character risks the loss of lifelong friends in the Boston establishment.

Many of cinema’s greatest masterpieces don’t merely hinge on this dynamic process of isolation – they are “about” isolation. This subtext has a profound influence on how the story is told – on what scenes are about, even the structural purpose of secondary characters.

Why is Kay in “The Godfather,” if not to mark for us Michael Corleone’s slide into spiritual isolation and emotional oblivion? Indeed, when the 3-film saga of “The Godfather” is viewed as a single narrative, we can trace isolation as its most central theme.

In Part One, Michael becomes the Don – literally shutting the door on his wife Kay, who represents a life away from the Corleones. In Part Two, Michael’s determination to protect his family leads him – ironically – to destroy it. In Part Three, Michael’s purpose is to repair his fractured relationship with Kay and their children once and for all – thus ending the isolation he chose in Part One. This simply-articulated goal of Michael’s becomes the seed from which all subsequent creative decisions grow.

This design is not limited to dramas. “Bridesmaids” certainly made lavish use of its R-rating. But all the fun was rooted in a very simple, well-designed structure that saw Annie (Kristen Wiig) lose her job, her apartment, her good-guy boyfriend, and – most crucially for this story – her best friend.

And the list goes on. Jailed for murder, Gustav H. loses his privileged life at “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and must fight to regain it (and his innocence). The hapless actors of “Tropic Thunder” find themselves in a very real jungle fighting a very real war. “Inside Out” kicks into high gear when its hero, Riley, runs away from home – beginning a process that threatens her memories and her emotions.

The uses of isolation as a dramatic strategy, as a construct, are limited only to the writer’s imagination. But its purpose is always the same – to create (or aggravate) stress and therefore ratchet up tension – and hence increase engagement – for the writer’s desired audience.

MICHAEL COLLEARY is a screenwriter and producer. His produced credits include “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Face/Off,” which the New York Times named as among “the 1000 Best Movies Ever Made.” He received his MFA in screenwriting from the prestigious UCLA film school, where he is now a frequent lecturer and instructor. In addition to teaching UCLA’s famed “434” screenplay workshop, Michael also consults with aspiring writers for the acclaimed CineStory Foundation, and has mentored veterans via the Writers Guild Foundation.

“Isolation” appears here as a preview chapter of Michael’s up-coming book, “Screenplay DNA.” You can find Michael at MichaelColleary.com, follow him on Twitter, Facebook and/or opt-in to his Hollywood Insider newsletter.

Why is the Cop on the Job?

In a serialized cop drama the mechanics of “How” a crime is solved is so much less important than “Why” the cops are doing what they are doing and “Why” they are affected by the job. If there is no “Why” it’s just cops going through the motions, which can make a serialized story feel by-the-numbers and hollow.

The “Why” provides the emotion, passion, and inter-personal conflict between the individuals in the story (and all the internal conflict within the character). Too often writers simply project their general idea of being a cop and use the mechanics of “How” to put the cops through their paces— Instead of being specific about “Why” one particular individual is a cop and “Why” he/she does the job in a particular or unique way.

There are four basic categories of “Why” anyone becomes a cop (or a doctor, or any other professional):

1. It’s a job. Being a cop is solid union employment and a dependable way to make a living and support a family. The cop does what is expected and punches out. The cop puts in the time and is concerned and responsible on the job. But he or she doesn’t take the job home and retires as soon as is feasible.

2. It’s a career. Being a cop is a good opportunity for advancement. The cop is working to achieve something else. The job is a means to an end (rising through the ranks, running for political office, becoming a consultant, etc.) It is a stepping- stone to something else and worth the hard work and extra effort to achieve a larger goal.

3. It’s a vocation. Being a cop is a life mission or a higher calling. The cop is there to make a difference, have an important impact, or change people’s lives. The work is a consuming passion for the cop. There is no dividing line between work and personal life. Work is the cop’s life.

4. It’s a mistake. Being a cop is not a good fit. The individual is a cop for the wrong reasons or the wrong motivations. Or the reality of the job doesn’t conform to the ideal of the job or the fantasy of being a cop. In any case, the individual puts in the time and effort, got the job, and now is trapped.

Any kind of employment, but particularly policing, has a variety of people who look at the “Why” of doing the job very differently. All individuals naturally assume their “Why” is the most valid reason or, if everyone else was honest, is the real motivation for anyone doing the job. This is a great opportunity for personal conflict in a story. Too often in cop shows (or shows featuring the medical profession) everyone is doing the job for the same reason. That isn’t the case in life and it shouldn’t be the case in drama.

Layered onto “Why” someone is employed as a police officer (it’s a job, a career, a vocation, or a mistake) is the “Why” of the individual’s Character Type. Looking down on nine different police officers toiling away long into the night it might be easy or convenient to believe they are all working hard for the same internal motivation or with the same value system and world view in mind. But every one of the Nine Character Types sees the world very differently, believes very different things about how the world works, and sees the primary role of a cop from a unique perspective.

1. Power of Conscience cops believe policing is an important duty and carries with it the responsibility of making the world a better place. Doing the right thing is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what is the higher duty or the most right—law or justice. (These two principles are not the same thing). Hill Street Blues‘ Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) is this kind of character. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) is the comic version on the same show. Homicide’s Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is also a Power of Conscience character. Rylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant) in Justified is a more recent example. Although not a cop show, the sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in The Walking Dead, was a Power of Conscience law enforcement officer.

2. Power of Will cops believe policing is a matter of strength and the ability to dominate the situation. The use of power is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what actually constitutes strength or power— excess or restraint. (Does compassion and tolerance make you stronger or weaker?) NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is this kind of character. A more recent example is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) on The Shield.  In The Walking Dead, Shane Walsh (Jon” Bernthal) is a Power of Will law enforcement officer.

3. Power of Ambition cops believe policing is a matter of winning or losing. Appealing to other’s self-interest is the way to get things done. Their struggle is with short cuts vs. the long hard patient slog—results or process. (If no one else plays by the rules why should they?) Hill Street Blues‘ John “JD” LaRue (Kiel Martin) is a Power of Ambition character. A more recent example is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) on The Wire.  Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) is another example of this kind of cop in The Shield.

4. Power of Love cops believe policing is caring for others and helping them succeed. Compassion and understanding is crucial to how they get the job done. Their struggle is when to employ “tough love” or just give up on someone. (When does empathy or understanding simply enable bad or destructive behavior?) NYPD Blue’s Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) is this kind of character. Another example is Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) on Hill Street Blues. Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart in True Detective is a Power of Love cop.

5. Power of Idealism cops believe policing is a matter of individual style and personal excellence. Use of unique talents and refusing to buckle under to stupid bureaucrats is crucial to their method of policing. Their struggle is how to maintain their individuality and still be part of a larger organization. (When does being a maverick or a rebel cause more harm than good?) Homicide’s Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) illustrates the Power of Idealism character as a cop.  Another example is Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) on The Wire.

6. Power of Reason cops believe policing is a matter of keeping personal self-control and maintaining the social order. Objectivity, expertise and a depth of knowledge are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to connect with their own emotions. Dexter’s title character (Michael C. Hall) is one of the best recent examples of this kind of character on the police force. Monk’s title character (Tony Shalhoub) is the comedic example. Sofia Helin as Saga Norén in the Swedish series The Bridge is another great example of this kind of cop.

7. Power of Truth cops believe policing is a matter of uncovering secret agendas and avoiding hidden pitfalls. Establishing trust, knowing who your friends are, and being attuned to conspiracies are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to accept the ambiguity of the job and the possibility of never finding real certainty. (Is the “truth” a moving target or something fixed and certain?) Homicide’s conspiracy obsessed Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) is this kind of character. Hill Street Blues’ loyal to the core Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is another example.  Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) on the UK version of Wallendar is a Power of Truth detective so is Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rusty Cohle in True Detective.

8. Power of Imagination cops believe policing is a matter of listening to your instincts, following hunches, or special intuitive clues. Often access to what others cannot see or hear or a quirky special kind of insight is crucial to doing their job. Their struggle is how to interpret their unusual intuition or how best to communicate it to others. (Do they take me seriously or do they think I’m crazy?) This kind of cop is rare on television. Hill Street Blues’ Michael (Mick) Belker (Bruce Weitz) is an uncouth ruffian version of the Power of Imagination character.  Another example is police consultant Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette) in Medium.

9. Power of Excitement cops believe policing is an adventure and a thrill ride. Their charm, good-humor and ability to get themselves in and out of traps is crucial to how they do their job. Their struggle is in following orthodox rules when it is so much more interesting to play fast and loose, improvise, and shoot from the hip. (Are we having fun yet?) Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is the quintessential example of this character.

The “Why” of policing combined with Character Type creates a variety of complex and interesting individuals. It would be possible, for example, to create four very different Power of Conscience characters depending on whether they view policing as a job, as a career, as a vocation or as a mistake.

Their values and their world views would not change but their attitudes would clash. For example: How these characters define their “higher duty” or what is the “most right” is hugely influenced by the reason they are on the job. Those different perspectives provide enormous potential conflict. Here is the breakdown:

1. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a job would probably believe the higher duty is owed to family. This cop would follow the rules, be conscientious, but not take the job home.

2. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a career would probably believe the higher duty is owed to the organization or society. The higher the cop rises, the more effective the position becomes to do good and improve the larger situation. This cop would be relentless in seeking opportunities to advance a larger moral agenda.  And the issue of “how much bad am I willing to do in service to a good cause” would be a recurring personal theme.

3. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a vocation probably believes the higher duty is owed to the victims of crime. This cop’s passion would be justice for the victims and punishment for the criminals. His or her personal life would be consumed by this life mission.

4. A Power of Conscience cop who see policing as a mistake would probably believe the higher duty is owed to one’s self. Policing can be a dirty murky business where there often is no right answer and true justice is hard to find. This lack of clear-cut black and white or right and wrong would probably be an unbearable burden on this individual– giving rise to external moral outrage and internal guilt or self-loathing. How can I be good or worthy in a cesspool?

Creating an ensemble which clearly addresses “Why” the cop is on the job combined with Character Type provides an endless source of internal and external conflict. Making use of the full variety of human experience in specific combination creates memorable partnerships, unforgettable enemies, and extraordinary individual characters.

#TypesTuesday – Tracy Flick and Hillary Clinton : Power of Conscience

Tracy-Flick-Hillary-Clinton-EtbScreenwritingHillary Clinton and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in the movie Election are a great examples of hard-driving intense Power of Conscience characters.

I found a fantastic clip of Tracy and Hillary intercut in a scene from Election.  It is a wonderful sketch of everything that is most important to this Character Type.  The clip refers back to Clinton’s run against Barack Obama (a Power of Imagination character) in 2008.

Power of Conscience characters believe that leadership must be earned by dedication, hard work, thorough preparation, and devotion to duty.  Leadership must be deserved. One must be worthy in order to lead. At their worst, these characters can become rigid, accusatory, sanctimonious, judgmental, and hypocritical.

 

Disney’s “Frozen”

There is much to recommend Disney’s “Frozen.” Exquisite art direction, great comic sidekicks, thrilling set pieces, exciting action sequences, and the wonderful voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel belting songs like full fledged Broadway Babes.

The film has been a great commercial success and has had a generally positive critical reception. I find myself in the distinct minority. For me the film has a very muddled story and lacks a strong clear emotional arc. Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen it.

“Frozen” is very loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, “The Snow Queen”. The original story depicts a little boy and girl, Kai and Gerda, caught in a terrible struggle between good and evil. Innocence is the only power that can vanquish darkness. This link is a good summary of the original story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Snow_Queen

Evil is mostly eradicated from the Disney adaption. Anderson’s Snow Queen character is a powerful female villain on a par with Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, Cruella deVil in 101 Dalmations, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula or the Evil Queen in Snow White.

Instead of a great Diva of Darkness, “Frozen” gives us troubled Princess Elsa of Arendelle, a loving daughter and doting sister who has the ability to freeze everything within her reach. One day, during a wintery romp with her adoring younger sister, Anna, she accidentally pierces the girl with a ice shard.

Her parents bring Anna to a troll king for healing and the troll king is told Elsa’s powers are innate and not a curse. The random mishap causes Elsa to retreat from her sister and subjects to hide her abilities and for fear of causing further harm. Her parents are then lost at sea for no apparent reason.

Anna, tries endlessly over the years to draw her sister out, only to be rebuffed. Elsa can no longer hide when she comes of age and must attend her summer coronation ceremony. Tragedy strikes again when the young queen is angered by Anna’s impulsive engagement and cannot control her temper or her freezing powers.

Elsa locks the kingdom in a Polar Vortex of endless winter. She flees to far off snowy North Mountain and creates a crystal palace or Fortress of Solitude where she can finally be herself and be free by “never feeling anything”. This doesn’t make her evil, only a misunderstood recluse.

Anna, always believing her sister to be good and kind, goes after Elsa. Elsa deeply cares about Anna and is ever fearful of hurting her. Tragedy strikes yet again when Elsa becomes angered by Anna’s persistence and pushes Anna away piercing Anna’s heart with paralyzing cold. Unless Anna’s heart is thawed by “an act of true love,” she will be frozen solid forever.

Anna is rushed to Arendelle to the supposed saving True Love’s Kiss of her betrothed, Prince Hans of the Summer Isles. He reveals himself, in a stunning narrative cheat, to only be after a crown (being 12th in line to the throne at home). There is never the slightest hint that Hans has anything but honorable intentions prior to this verbal revelation. Refusing to kiss her, he throws Anna in jail. I’m not sure how he thinks this will get him closer to the throne since he has no claim on it himself. Hans then mounts a search and destroy mission to kill Elsa. Yes, this is evil but it comes unearned, is illogical, and is very late in the story.

As Anna is dying, in the final moments of her life, she shields Elsa from harm. Although this is a sacrifice it is not a very big one. Anna is dying anyway. She is giving up something she has already lost. Elsa’s tears of grief melt Anna and supposedly warm Elsa’s own heart.

Here are my problems:

If Elsa’s freezing power can cause harm, even unintentionally, how can she be trusted (or trust herself) once back in Arendelle. Her benign building of an ice rink for the amusement of her subjects mirrors the original tragedy with her sister. What has changed?

If Elsa’s powers were the result of a curse, the curse could be lifted (by an act of love). Her freezing ability would be ended. If her abilities were a curse her parents could be killed on a journey to find a way to lift the curse, making Elsa feel even more culpable.

As an inborn ability, Elsa’s freezing power doesn’t go away. But we see no visible process of learning to channel it or control it. Will anger, despite her best intentions, have future disastrous consequences?

Elsa’s abilities also have no effect on her personality. Despite her frigid isolation and singing about never wanting to feel anything she personally never becomes bitter, cold, or cruel. Her hands may be cold but her heart is still warm. Everything she does, even creating the snow monster, is to protect others by keeping them away from her.

Elsa had a loving heart as a child princess and has one now as a young queen. She sacrifices years of her life to protect Anna. How are a few tears of grief at the end of the story a more powerful “act of love” than a life-time of sacrifice?

Anna, in turn, never gives up on her sister. She even pursues Elsa up a dangerous mountain against everyone’s warning. She is undaunted and, even when injured, doesn’t doubt Elsa’s goodness. How is shielding Elsa when Anna is moments from death, with nothing left to lose, a more powerful “act of love” than a life of undoubting belief in her sister and endless attempts to engage her?

If the cold had retreated from Arendelle as Elsa moved further away and up the mountain the people could demand that Anna be crowned queen instead of Elsa. Hans could try to rush Anna into a marriage, and secure the crown for himself as well. He could argue that Anna has always been the ignored, marginalized, abandoned younger sister. This is her time to shine and take her rightful place. He believes in her and Anna would make a wonderful queen. Hans could argue he will give Anna all the love Elsa withheld by withdrawing and now finally leaving her.

Hans’ arguments could provide a powerful incentive to stay. Anna would have everything she wants (and has always been denied): a sunny life of comfort and joy; the prestige of a crown and the ability to fully engage with her subjects; and the warmth of her own “true love.” However tempting, if Anna refused to marry without her sister’s blessing it would take her back up the mountain. The journey then would be at the sacrifice of everything that could make Anna happy. Even though she might be sorely tempted to stay Anna could still decide to give her sister one last chance.

Instead, Anna simply repeats what she has always done– go after Elsa. There is little holding Anna back and no delicious alternative beckons. There is nothing to tempt her into selfishness. There is no real inner struggle or doubt. Maybe her sister is not a force of good– but as evil, selfish, and angry as Hans might claim.

Despite being told (several times) True Love’s Kiss is essential, it is never used to any consequence in the story. Hans refuses to kiss Anna instead of kissing her and the kiss having no effect. The coldness of his kiss could make Anna realize her sister was right and he wasn’t the man for her (in an action that isn’t a verbal narrative cheat). That could propel Anna back to Elsa, to apologize, realizing Elsa always had Anna’s best interest at heart. She could then save her sister to make things right between them.

Unbelievably, these “Frozen” sisters never argue with bitter emotional consequences. (There are no more serious wounds than those inflicted by a sister.)  There is an argument about Anna’s impulsive engagement but it doesn’t last long. There is no deep seated terrible misunderstanding that constantly erupts between them. Why doesn’t Anna resent her sister’s withdrawal and just give up on her? Why isn’t Anna turned away from Elsa by Elsa’s seeming selfishness in refusing her blessing of Anna’s engagement? Why doesn’t Anna accuse Elsa of ruining her life and not wanting (never wanting) Anna to be happy? Why doesn’t Anna accuse Elsa of being cold and controlling? Why doesn’t Anna believe that Elsa is unhappy and wants everyone else to be frozen in unhappiness as well? Why doesn’t Hans try to undermine their relationship? Why aren’t the sisters deeply estranged at some point? Deep estrangement and bitter misunderstanding could propel their conflict and would provide something powerful to overcome.

In “Frozen” loving sisters never stop loving each other and, at the end, love each other more. That’s not a dramatic emotional arc.

There is also little lasting romance in “Frozen.” Even though there is great chemistry between Anna and Kristoff there is no real suggestion he and Anna are now a permanent couple. The gift of a new sleigh would logically prompt to Kristoff to leave the now sunny Arendelle to go back to harvesting ice (a prospect he seems happy about). Hans is quickly dispensed with in a dunk in the water and then back to the Summer Isles. There is no love interest at all for Elsa throughout the story.

This is a troubling lack of positive male energy. I am all for Girl Power and sister stories but instead of finding partners who are their equals and who treat them as equals both the heroines of “Brave” and “Frozen” seem to dispense with the importance of men all together. I’m not sure that mothers and sisters, as wonderful as they are, should negate the need for a grown-up romantic partner.

“Frozen” is a pleasant enough diversion but it lacks the power of classic fairytales.

Interesting vs Profound

Characters quirks and unusual events that make a story interesting don’t necessarily give it a depth. Unconventional characters or unique circumstances can grab an audience’s attention but not make a story  particularly rich or profound. Alternatively, a story can be very deep and complex but uninteresting and tedious.

Jack Warner once said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union and send a telegram.”  The primary purpose of entertainment is to entertain.  The most entertaining stories incorporate elements that are both interesting AND have some kind of deeper meaning.  All great movies have both.

“Beware of the allure of the bizarre, a quality that may attract but ultimately fails to satisfy. For strange effects and extraordinary combinations, we must go to life itself. When you see ordinary situations with extraordinary insight it’s like discovering a jewel in the rubbish.” Stephen Kendrick, HOLY CLUES: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes.

Loss is the key element giving every great film meaning because loss is the one thing that transcends culture, race, religion, sex, age, social, economic or political situation.  It is the one thing we all share as human beings.

We all lose the comfort and safety of the womb, lose our baby teeth, lose our innocence, lose our virginity, lose a friend or loved one through separation, death or betrayal, we face reversals of fortune, if we live long enough we lose our parents, if we live long enough we lose our children.  In the end we lose our own lives.  Life is made up of a series of loses, how we cope with loss is what determines our characters. How character is revealed through loss is what gives a story meaning.  What does your character have to lose?