Game Over

vidgamemovieI like movies but I don’t much care for video games. This isn’t an unfounded bias based on my age or a disconnect from current culture. (My video game experience goes back to the pre-Atari days). No, the reason is my preference for story.

Aristotle had it right, in my opinion. A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That separates it from pageantry, which is a continuous display without a plot. Thus, I prefer plays to parades and Olympic competition to opening ceremonies.

This bias extends to my preference for baseball, which I see as a plot-driven competition (complete with 9 “chapters” with no clock) as opposed to basketball, soccer, and hockey, which are continuous action.

Today, the line between the movies and video games has become blurred, if not invisible. Movies are made based on video games. Screenwriters write for video games. Actors voice video games. It seems that, now, gamers are writing some of the movies.

This struck me when I recently watched the movie “Divergent”, a film made from a YA novel of the same name. Not surprisingly, it echoes many features of the wildly successful “Hunger Games” series: onion-skin-thin YA characters in a dystopian society trying to kill each other off. If you think the similarities in these logos is a coincidence, I have an Amway franchise you’d be interested in. (I’m not alone in this. SNL noticed the connection, too. Check it out.)










I can’t speak for the book because I haven’t read it, but “Divergent” the movie was mind-numbing for me. As I watched, it felt like I was trapped in a video game. The protagonist, Tris (rhymes with Katniss from “Hunger Games”; get it?), has to survive multiple levels of challenges not a whole lot different than those faced by Mario Brothers. In case the obvious isn’t obvious enough, she even gets a score for each level. All middle, no beginning or end; not exactly Aristotelian.

There is a plot buried somewhere under all the mundane action, one-dimensional characters, and hackneyed relationships but it’s as trite as it is uninteresting.

And, guess what. Like a video game, it doesn’t end. The vapid protagonist and all her shallow cohorts simply set themselves up for the next level, er, sequel. Oh joy.

From all appearances, a movie in a similar (i.e. exactly the same) vein is “The Maze Runner”. This flick dispenses with any pretense. The name is a game and the plot appears to be trying to play a game.

This one is also based on a book. The usual suspects: YA, dystopian, trilogy (i.e. built-in franchise).  Once more, I have to confess that I haven’t read this book. It could be a YA classic that will make us all forget “The Chocolate War”, “A Catcher in the Rye”, and “The Giver”.

I’m betting not.

This class of pulp seems to be churned out at a factory somewhere and judged not on their ability to challenge or inspire, but on their potential for selling cookie cutter movie franchises and tangential tchotchkes to gullible adolescents.

Mario would be all over them.


Kill the cat

(Don’t worry, cat-lovers. This isn’t the mad ravings of a felinocidal maniac. There are cat people in my family I’d have to answer to, including the one who trained his cat to turn on the lights.)

Have you ever had the feeling that something wasn’t right but you lacked the confidence to mention it to others because you thought it was just you? I had that sense about movies. They’re running together, each one hard to distinguish from another. The only differentiators are the kinds of superpowers the protagonist has, the planet (or dimension) the aliens are from, or the evil-empire-of-the-month whence arise the powers that are going to wipe out the free world as we know it.

It’s deja vu all over again. Same story, different characters. Is it just me?

As a screenwriter, I had a theory. There are dozens of different philosophies out there about structuring screen stories. As the brilliant screenwriter William Goldman (“Princess Bride”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, etc.) succinctly puts it: “Screenplays are structure.” In his “Poetics”, Aristotle started it all with the simple three-act structure. Some version of that structure has since been applied to stories of all forms: books, plays, movies, fireside ghost tales, and everything in between.

savethecatIn the screenwriting world, there have been dozens, perhaps hundreds, of refinements suggested to that basic structure. I’ve studied many of them – McKee, Vogler, Truby, Field, Hunter, and more. They range from flexible to downright Draconian. The most rigid of all was laid out in a book called “Save the Cat”, by the late screenwriting guru, Blake Snyder. My theory was that too many modern screenwriters had bought his formula down to the last beat.

I was right. At least, I have some agreement out there.

prefabA couple of days ago, I stumbled on this article from Slate. The author confirms my worst suspicions and fears. (Unfortunately, because the article is over a year old, some of the links in it are dead-ends.) According to this article, in complete agreement with my personal experience (and probably yours), many modern movies are actually prefab creations, like 60’s tract houses. The STC philosophy breaks a film into 15 “beats” that must be hit. That’s one predetermined action that will occur every six minutes in a 90 minute movie. There isn’t a lot of flexibility there. You can read the article to get a better understanding and at the same time seal your cynicism.

For this reason, I’ve pretty much stopped viewing Hollywood blockbusters. They’re all as bankrupt as their namesake video chain. The funny thing is that I’m not missing anything. By seeking out smaller, character-driven films rather than tentpole behemoths that measure their budgets in the hundreds of millions, I’m seeing better films.

bynumbersAs someone trying to sell screenplays, it would behoove me to sell my creative soul and buy into this paint-by-numbers philosophy. While I agree that the structure of a screenplay is critical, I’d rather not write at all than churn out plug’n’play, cookie cutter, straight-off-the-assembly-line widgets that will be gone and forgotten in a month anyway. I might be cutting my own throat commercially, but I’ll retain as much of my dignity as any screenwriting hopeful can.