Two For the Price Of One

I took my friend’s daughter to see Jack The Giant Slayer the other day, and it got me thinking – what’s with this sudden tendency to have secondary heroes in fantasy movies?

Jack The Giant Slayer has both Jack himself – the typical fairy tale hero, the ordinary lad who must rise to the chance of adventure – and Elmont, the heroic bodyguard/warrior who helps to protect Princess Isabelle. Snow White And The Huntsmen, very much in the same genre, has both the Huntsman and a prince who’s set up as a childhood love interest. Both are instrumental to the story in different ways.

And though it sits in a very different genre, the movie that’s responsible for all these teen-audience, romantically-tinged movies being made is Twilight – and there again, we have two male leads locked in a romantic triangle with the female lead.

Now, I’m all in favour of strong secondary characters. The more striking, attractive and compelling your supporting characters are, the better your movie will be.

But I’m also a fan of the idea of ‘character function’: the idea that each character plays a role within the story, in the same way every mechanic in a Formula One pitstop has a specific job to perform, all of which make up a whole event. Depending on the complexity of your story, you can define those functions in broad terms (love interest, villain, reflection/sidekick), or in more specific terms – for example, all the characters in a heist movie are thieves, but they all have a different role to play in the theft and in the movie.

The golden rule is: no two characters in your movie should be doing the same thing within the plot structure, even if they’re very different characters.

For an example of what happens when you ignore this, take a look at the Christopher Ecceleston season of Doctor Who. Much fantastic stuff in this season, of course: but once Captain Jack Harkness comes aboard the Tardis, something starts to feel amiss. Which is weird, because he and the Doctor are very different characters… Until you realize they both have the same character function:  “slightly madcap alien with advanced knowledge and technology”. Every time the writers come up with a plot twist, Jack and the Doctor are likely to react to it in the same way – and that’s the death of drama. They’re both fascinating characters, but they don’t belong in the same show.

Snow White and The Huntsman suffers from this problem, and has to resolve it by effectively shunting its Prince Charming character out of the plot – minimizing his screen time and his role in the story. Jack The Giant Slayer fares slightly better, partly by making Elmont a seasoned, near-indestructible warrior and Jack a simple farm boy, which allows for differences in both their actions and their reactions. But as Jack begins to grow into the warrior role, the story inevitably starts to suffer from too many heroes.

So why are writers, producers and directors allowing this to happen? I still don’t know. The moral of this particular fairy tale is: too many heroes spoil the broth…

Things I Learned From… Snow White And The Huntsman

From what I’ve heard, Snow White And The Huntsman had an interesting path to the screen. Evan Daugherty’s original spec script was written almost ten years ago, and  sold considerably before the current rush of fairy-tale rewrites and reboots. Daugherty has said in interviews that he was heavily influenced by The Lord Of The Rings trilogy – and I think we can agree that shows in the finished film! –  and deliberately chose the Snow White story because it was the simplest and most real-world of the classic fairy tales.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the original spec: a classic story with worldwide name recognition, a classic villain, and a strong female lead coupled with a strong male lead for a ‘name’ actor, minimizing the box-office risk associated with  young female leads.

But the interview quote that interested me most was Daugherty’s admission that casting had affected the role of the nameless Huntsman more than he ever anticipated.

The role of the Huntsman was originally written for a considerably older actor. Given his influences, I wouldn’t be surprised if Daugherty had Viggo Mortensen or Sean Bean at the back of his mind while writing.

Nothing wrong with that: a lot of writers, myself included, mentally ‘cast’ roles in the early stages of breaking a story. Adding the face and the voice of a favourite actor helps to solidify a still nebulous character – and if, as the character takes shape, they end up suiting a different actor better, no harm has been done.

But the eventual casting choice was rising star Chris Hemsworth. And let’s be clear here: the problem here isn’t his acting abilities. It’s about the fact that he’s considerably younger than Daugherty’s original choice for the character.

So what, you say?

Well, here’s what.

Characters aren’t just individuals. They also fulfill predetermined roles in a narrative. I bet you can name a few of those roles right now: hero, villain, sidekick, henchman, love interest, mentor.

A lot of the time, we don’t notice the role a character plays, just the character as an individual – which is exactly as it should be. If we notice their role while watching the movie, it’s often because that role’s been clumsily written, or the character is so thin that they’re effectively just their role, not a memorable individual.

You don’t need all of those roles. Maybe you don’t need any of them. But I’ll tell you what you definitely don’t need. You don’t need two different characters trying to play the same role.

Cast an older actor as the Huntsman, and your movie has a mentor and a love interest (William).  Cast a younger actor, and you have two love interests. And unless your movie is specifically about a love triangle, and you invest the screen time in making us care about both suitors, that’s just not going to work.

Audiences get confused, even if they can’t put their finger on why. They feel uncertain about who the characters are and what they’re meant to feel about them. They pick one and hope the heroine ends up with him – which means half your audience is going to be disappointed.

Unless, of course, she doesn’t make a definite commitment to either, in which case…  the whole audience is disappointed!

One character per role, people. You know it makes sense.