Tag Archives: film

Focusing on themes & audience expectations: Brave

This is a post about fiction. I swear. It just looks like a post about the movie Brave.

I have three kids, aged 6 & under. They’re a great excuse to go to animated movies, and last month we went to see Brave.

I enjoyed Brave, but it’s very different from Pixar’s other movies. Wikipedia says that some people have likened it to a Grimm or Andersen fairy tale, and that seems very accurate. Brave hasn’t been quite as universally loved as previous Pixar classics, and the darkness inherent in “real” fairytales might be part of it.

But I have to say, when I see people criticizing the form of the film, I’m very confused. I’ve seen a few people call the movie “unfocused” or even “plotless.”

It’s neither.

To me, focus in film or fiction is defined very simply: do most of the scenes support the central theme and plot? Brave‘s central theme and plot is a mother-daughter relationship: how Queen Elinor wants Merida to behave (like a lady) and how Merida wants to be free.

I think part of the problem starts right there. Viewers have seen variations on the princess who wants to (to quote her father King Fergus’s assessment [behind her back]) “let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset” before. Several times:

  • Ariel
  • Jasmine
  • Pocahontas
  • Belle
  • Rapunzel
  • Seeing a trend?

It seems like the only kind of princess Disney knows how to write. So let’s look at the trope established by these movies, using another rebellious red-headed princess who wants to be free to follow her heart but her oppressive parent tries to force her to do her duty: Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

In The Little Mermaid, Ariel rebels. She goes to a witch and gets a spell to get what she wants. So far, so good: Brave‘s Merida follows the same path right down to her hair color.

Yeah, Ariel’s rebellion causes problems, but in the end, she wins. She was right and her dad is punished by being separated from her forever (though they still love and forgive one another, at least nonverbally). The trope is repeated in several movies: princess rebels, gets what she wants, was right all along, shows evil parent how wrong they were. (Exactly the message we need to send to our children!)

Dollars to donuts, that’s the movie people were expecting when they walked in, or at least as we approached the end of Act I. But then the story turns very dramatically, and about halfway through, you figure out, Hey, this movie is about mothers and daughters, not finding true love (which is a scary obsession encouraged by a lot of animated movies—do 4-10 year olds really need romance and marriage marketed to them?). One of Brave‘s greatest strengths was the fact that it’s fresh. But violating audience/genre expectations can result in unhappy audiences.

So some dislike the movie for not following a clichéd trope that we’ve already seen at least half a dozen times. (Come on, like they really wanted to see an Ariel Goes to Scotland retread.) But to call the movie plotless or unfocused? No. Just no.

Every event either developed the conflict or moved the story forward, often by showing character changes. An unfocused story features subplots that don’t support or influence the main plot, focus on characters who are superfluous (okay, the younger brothers did kind of seem that way, but weren’t in all that many scenes), and either no theme or competing themes. In my opinion, Brave did none of these.

Actually, it seemed like Brave was an animated version of a character-driven story. I’ve defined character-driven before as “When the basic story is more about the character’s internal growth and change.”

There is an external plot (and external subplot), and they’re resolved in unexpected (and maybe just slightly too-neat, but it’s an animated film, so hey) ways. But at its heart, Brave is about the growth and change in Merida and her mother Queen Elinor, and how they come to love and accept and understand and change for one another. Did it go over my kids’ heads? Yep, most of it. Will they be able to discover new layers of meaning in the movie in ten years? Yep, most likely.

Was Brave the best movie evar? Probably not. It was good and well-told and unique, and no, not everyone liked it. But I think that probably had more to do with its strengths than its weaknesses.

What do you think? How do you define focus in fiction? How can character-driven stories translate to film? Have you seen Brave?

Why some great books just don’t make good movies: powerful POV

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Deep POV

For some strange reason, The Jacksons: An American Dream was on TV a couple weeks ago (gee, I wonder why). My dad and I got sucked in near the beginning, expecting to understand Michael’s descent into . . . well, madness.

It started off promising. The beginning showed the Jackson 5 practicing their music and dancing, and the rigors of their lives. It showed the psychological relationships of the characters. But instead of delving deeper and deeper into Michael’s psyche over time, the movie seemed to pull back. As Michael seems to push his family away to pursue a solo career, we see less and less of him—and it feels like we’re being pushed away, too. We go from seeing his insecurities and fears to looking in at Neverland from the outside, just like we always have.

Part of the problem was that this movie was made in 1992, after Michael established a successful solo career, but before he began the descent into . . . well, you know. But as my dad and I discussed how disappointed we were with the movie’s lack of depth or resolution, I realized that sometimes our attempts at deep POV do the same thing to our readers. We leave them watching from the outside when what they really want is to be inside the characters, living and understanding them.

I think part of the challenge with writing deep POV, as Alicia Rasley points out in The Power Of Point Of View, is that many of us see the action of a story in a very cinematic way—as if we were watching a movie (185). In a movie, the camera follows a character, but jumps around between perspectives easily. You can be in the front of the courtroom watching Jack McCoy as he questions the witness, then quick-as-a-flash, you’re in the gallery, watching the witness crack.

While this is a powerful technique, point of view has always been a limitation of film. There has never been and may never be a satisfactory adaptation of Jane Eyre or The Great Gatsby, because in those works and in works like them, the experience isn’t just about what we can see happening—it’s about what happens inside the narrators.

Without narration, we can’t see that Gatsby’s smile assumes the best of us, as if he had faith in us. When Robert Redford smiles, it’s attractive, of course, but it’s just a smile—because that assertion, that his smile assumes the best of us, isn’t rooted in empirical fact. It doesn’t come from just what Nick Carraway sees. It’s rooted in Nick’s perception and interpretation of what he sees.

As writers, we can give our readers the connection they want with our characters’ thoughts and feelings. We don’t have to just watch what has played out on the screens of our mind. We are not camera men! We can get into our characters’ heads, show their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, and truly transport our readers so they feel like they’re living the experience with us. This is a strength of the medium—so use it!

But that’s not to say deep POV is always best or even right for our story. Soon we’ll have a guest post on when not to use deep POV!

Photo credits: movie—G & A Scholiers; cameraman: Jannes Glas