Dissecting Story: 5 Examples of How Movies Show You What They Will Be About
May 26, 2016 \ Movies \ 0 Comments
Please note, in order to discuss story completely I have to talk these movies as a whole. I tried to pick popular movies you would likely have seen, but in case you haven’t seen Interstellar, or Jurassic Park, or Lion King, or Back to the Future, or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, potential spoilers ahead.
I remember going to go see Interstellar with some friends. After the movie was over a few of my friends said they didn’t like it, but one friend in particular was quite upset. His chief complaint seemed to centre around the fact that the movie wasn’t what he wanted it to be. This is a fair complaint; we all have certain things we like in movies, or preferences. However, in this case his comments suggested that he either didn’t recognize, or that he ignored the premise Interstellar had laid out for him. Because early on, Interstellar clearly establishes what it is going to be about. Moreover, most movies tell us what they are going to be about at the offset and stick true to that promise.
This is the very basis of storytelling. At the start of every story we establish who the characters are and what they are trying to do, then give them a conflict or obstacle they must overcome to get to where they are going. As an audience, we have to know the story’s chief aim or thematic focus so we can root for the characters as they try to achieve their goals. Obviously not all movies are this simplistic or linear, but you can apply this schematic (at least to some degree) to many of them.
To help illustrate this idea, here are fives examples of how movies show you what they will be about.
Interstellar spends the majority of the first 40 minutes with Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his 10 year-old daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Nearly a quarter of the movie is just about establishing their love for one another and their partnership. Like when Cooper wakes from a nightmare Murph knows what it’s about without being told. Or when they capture the drone and (despite the drone’s paramount importance to the survival of their farm) Cooper trusts Murph enough to fly it. Or when Cooper and Murph work together on the mystery of the bookshelf and travel to the coordinates they find. And most importantly, when Cooper is leaving he tells Murph he’s coming back. Whatever else the film is about, the scene, the cautionary dystopian tale of our future, first and foremost the film is about this promise Cooper makes, the love they have for one another, and the partnership they share. This is something the audience must keep in mind as the film travels through all of its science and science fiction, particularly in the bookshelves scene at the end.
Now, a lot of people (including my friend) really don’t like the bookshelf sequence at the end. They find the presentation of five-dimensional space to be disturbing. But once a storyteller decides how their story is going to be told they are going to stay true to that idea no matter what. That’s why the shelf sequence at the end doesn’t bother me. While inside the five-dimensional bookshelf space Cooper says,
“Love, TARS, love. It’s just like Brand said. My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable. It’s the key!” What he’s saying is that their love and trust is the foundation that will allow him to communicate the data they need from that five-dimensional space to help save the world. This might seem crazy to a lot of people (and it feels a little crazy when you write it out like that), but that doesn’t matter because it is completely true to the film’s premise.
Later, Cooper and Murph’s partnership and love is reinforced at the end when two are are re-united. Murph tells Cooper, “Nobody believe me, but I knew you’d come back.” “How?” Cooper asks. “Because my Dad promised me,” she replies.
That’s it. That’s all Interstellar is. A man’s promise to his daughter.
2. Jurassic Park
From the trailers, we all know that Jurassic Park will be about dinosaurs chasing people, but the introduction of the movie also conveys this overarching story.
The initial opening sequence is actually quite clever. It preys on the fact that we are expecting dinosaurs and it opens on tree branches. Suddently the tree branches begin to be disturbed and sway. Watching those tree branches are a number of frightened men wearing Jurassic Park hats. When the thing disturbing the trees clears, it turns out to be a metal cage. And inside the cage? A dinosaur.
The opening sequence is simply a group of men attempting to move a caged dinosaur into a paddock.
It all seems very controlled. There are designated teams to load the gate and a designated gatekeeper. But regardless of their order and precautions the dinosaur smashes the gate and someone ends up getting killed.
And what does this tell us? Jurassic Park is about a group of people who think they can cage dinosaurs and it all goes wrong.
3. Lion King
The opening sequence of Lion King is about Simba’s presentation to the world he is destined to inherit. Rafiki marks his head and raises him from Pride Rock to announce to the kingdom: This is your future king.
In a scene shortly after, we see Simba sitting with his Father, Mufasa. Mufasa tells him, “Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our kingdom. A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you as the new king.”
From that moment Simba’s destiny is made clear to the audience. This is who Simba is going to be. But when Simba’s Father dies in a stampede and Simba blames himself for his Father’s death and runs away, Simba runs from his destiny. And that’s what The Lion King is about, Simba trying to recapture his destiny.
Just before Simba returns home, Rafiki reminds him of who he is:
And so does Simba’s Father. That way, when Simba reclaims his thone, we cheer for him as he fulfils the prophecy we were given right at the start of the film.
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Fellowship of the Ring begins with a history of the One Ring. This sequence is meant to serve not only as a background for our story, but also as a vision of the worst possible state for Middle Earth. In this opening sequence we see Sauron (wielding the One Ring) and his armies against the good guys of Middle Earth. Sauron towers over the good guys. As he swings they are launched away like insignificant insects. The establishing sequence here serves to show us how powerful the Ring is and how perilous the world would be if Sauron has the Ring.
The next sequence is the Shire. The Shire represents all that is “green and good in this world.” It is epitome of peace. Green, simple, untouched by the darkness and corruption of the world around them. As Bilbo says, where the hearts of Hobbits “truly lie is in peace and quiet, and good tilled earth. For all Hobbits share a love of things that grow.” Hobbits are, in essence, an example of peace and prosperity of life.
Frodo represents that purity. And as the Ring is sought by dark forces and Frodo must take the Ring further from the Shire, he represents that quest to keep the Shire and the world green, and good, and safe from becoming the dark world the opening sequence showed us. It is this juxtaposition of these two scenes, combined with Frodo’s resiliency to the Ring’s corruption and his desire to see the right thing done that reveal the story to us.
Fellowship of the Ring is a bit unique in that it’s a story told across three movies rather than one. Nevertheless, the theme and purpose of Frodo’s quest is thread throughout the series. It gets touched on repeatedly and poignantly several times. Like in Sam’s speech about passing darkness:
And in the end where Frodo talks about how he can’t recall the taste of food. He’s sacrificed his Shire so that the good people of Middle Earth, like Sam, can have it. That’s why the final sequence of the film is Sam back in the Shire with his family, because Sam’s ability to live is what Frodo’s sacrifice has protected.
5. Back to the Future
“Yea, well, history is gonna change.” That’s what Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) says when his principle tells him that no McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley. Marty doesn’t just mean his future, he means the future of his entire family as well.
When we first meet Marty he’s standing in front an enormous speaker and he’s turned all the dials for the speaker up as high as they can go. He strums his electric guitar and the speaker overloads, sending him flying across the room. “Rock and roll,” he says, slowly removing his sunglasses.
Marty is as rebellious as he is reckless, but that is part of his charm. As he rides to school on his skateboard, hanging off the back of a truck, he waves at some women inside a fitness stuido. They wave back. We also find out that Marty has a beautiful girlfriend who believes in Marty more than he believes in himself. She encourages him to submit the demo tape for his band, even though Marty doubts himself.
The introduction of the movie sets up all the things we need to know for Marty’s trip to the past. The clock tower flyer that tells Marty the precise time when the clock tower was struck by lightning, the posters of Goldie Wilson running for Mayor, the 4×4 that Marty dreams of someday owning, the cowardice of his Father in front of Biff, and a family who has been crippled in life by the Father’s inadequacies.
So when Marty tells his principle that history is going to change, when we’re introduced to the time machine and see Marty go back in time, we know Marty is going to make good on the claim he made to his principle.
And when he returns, his Father is a successful author, his Brother is wearing a suit to an office job instead of taking the bus to a fast food job, his Sister is the object of multiple men’s affections, and Marty has that 4×4 to take Jennifer to the beach.
Whether you’ve actively thought about story construction or not, you are hard-wired to understand story. And in order to make story effective, storytellers know that they must give you what you need in order to appreciate it; to feel for it. So we can cheer as the protagonists overcome their obstacles and achieve their goals.
Just remember it’s less about what we want from a movie and more about the story the movie is trying to tell. In order to make their story work, a storyteller must set up their premise with the goals their protagonists will achieve in the end. If the storyteller fails at this, we’re just watching stuff happen on the screen and not caring where we’re going or how we’re going to feel when we get there. Maybe the story being told isn’t the story you want, but the intent of that story is still laid out before you. And the more willing you are to see the story being told, the more you will find to appreciate in the movie, even if it isn’t the story you were hoping for.