I’ve been tossing an idea around in my head these last few weeks, and it was brought to the forefront yet again the other night after seeing the Prince of Persia.
Which is, by the way, not a bad movie, and I quite enjoyed it. It wasn’t on par with Pirates, and I decided that a lot of that was because it didn’t have a Jack Sparrow to carry it. The actors in Prince of Persia weren’t bad, but they weren’t great either…imagine Pirates without Jack Sparrow or Elizabeth Swan. I honestly don’t know why a lot of the critics were saying that the plot of Prince of Persia didn’t make sense, because I didn’t have any trouble following what was going on. No, it’s not realistic…you’ve got a dagger that can turn back time, for pity’s sake. The whole premise is unbelievable, but at least it’s internally consistent and the story works. I’ll admit that I spent a great deal of the movie admiring Dastan’s arms. And thinking that his particular brand of crazy “I’ll handle the impossible gate” bravado is a lot like Raphel’s.
The movie worked. Most movies do, or at least pieces of them do. Even movies like Avatar, with one dimensional characters and a cliched, recycled plot…they work. I’ve concocted a theory that movies contain certain moments, moments where you forget those are actors and you’re in a movie theater, moments that really get you in the heart…and it’s these payoffs that make the movie worth watching. When you watch the movie again, these are the moments that you find yourself looking forward to.
Several weeks ago, we went to see Clash of the Titans, and I was struck by something. That movie does not have any such payoff moments. I walked out of the theater feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Something was missing from that movie, and I could not put my finger on it. It wasn’t so different from other films of its genre, after all, and it wasn’t bad, so what was wrong? And I realized that there was never a moment in Clash of the Titans where my breath caught, where I was really touched. There wasn’t a single moment I really remembered. I cannot think of a single scene I’d like to see again.
And so I’ve been thinking through all the movies I’ve seen over the years, trying to identify those payoff moments and come up with some principles they have in common.
I also wondered how this theory would apply to novels and the written word. Books have payoff, too, but it’s done very differently than it is onscreen. I would be willing to bet that this is why we get so many book-turned-movies that are so very bad. They try to translate the book’s payoffs directly onto the screen and it doesn’t work.
So far I’ve come up with two components that must be there in a cinematic payoff: character and scale.
Character: This is fundamental. However, I would say it’s not necessarily limited to people. A ship can be a character, or a tree, or a city…depends on the movie. But the payoff moment has to arise from a character acting absolutely in character, and the audience has to care about that character. Alice had her moment while fighting the Jabberwock and reciting her six impossible things, ending with “I can slay the jabberwock”. Lucy had her moment in Prince Caspian when she walked out onto the bridge alone and pulled her dagger. Zuko had his moment when he redirected the lighting his father shot at him. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy (in the most recent incarnation of the film) had their moment when Mr. Darcy walks out of the fog the morning after Elizabeth defies his aunt.
One way such character moments fall flat is when a character does something simply because it looks cool onscreen, not necessarily because it arises from within the character. Such moments ARE cool, and they serve a purpose, but that aren’t the kind of payoff moments I’m talking about. For example, Legolas’ sequence in Return of the King when he single-handedly slays an oliphant and its drivers is very, very cool. It’s something Legolas would do, but I think he did it because the writers knew it would be an awesome sequence, not because Legolas himself wanted to do it. And thus, yes, it’s memorable, but it’s not payoff.
Gandalf, with his white robes, staff, and horse, leading Eomer and his men down the mountainside during the battle of Helm’s Deep…now that was a moment.
Which leads to the other component: Scale.
A payoff moment has to be big. The bigness can be physical (something large is destroyed) or thematic (good vs. evil). I believe that the destruction of Hometree in Avatar succeeded as a moment by virtue of sheer scale, both in the physical and the thematic. You can’t watch something that big fall down without feeling something. Battles are often payoff moments because they are, by nature, big. When the Narnians swoop down on the White Witch’s forces, that’s payoff. The Lord of the Rings movies are full of battle moments. But big thematic moments can be small and insignificant on a physical scale: like Carl flipping through his wife’s adventure book in Up, or the naming of Kirk in the newest incarnation of Star Trek, where the theme is bigger than the event itself.
I think having several weighty elements of the story come together at once contributes to scale, and to these payoff moments. You can’t have a big payoff moment if it doesn’t mean anything to the story. Mr. Darcy walking out of the fog might not seem big until one considers that the entire story has been leading up to that moment. When Caspian doesn’t kill Miraz, that’s a relatively small thing in the overall series of events, but it’s huge for him personally, and it wraps up the Caspian/Miraz subplot. When Katara and Sokka fly a wounded Aang out of the Earth Kingdom at the end of the second season, Katara’s “The Earth Kingdom has fallen” moment carries the weight of the entire second season.
Music can definitely contribute to scale in cinema, because music is by definition expansive. Can you imagine Death Vader without the Imperial March playing in the background? Gandalf’s death in the Fellowship of the Ring, if I recall, was almost completely silent except for the soundtrack…the music pulls that single moment out of the flight scene that follows and makes it bigger than it might be on its own. Michael Scofield’s bleeding nose at the end of Prison Break is made bigger and more poignant by the soundtrack.
So, character and scale, and those go for both books and movies. I’m sure there are others. What I may do is pick three or four book turned movie examples, analyze their payoff moments, and pull out how it’s done in each medium.