The Death of the Epic

“A cast of thousands,” announces the hokey voice on an old trailer, “The greatest adventure story ever told.” Hyperbole aside, this is the calling card of the old Film Epic: do it bigger, do it better, make it the most incredible thing anyone has ever seen. Wikipedia defines an Epic as having “large scale, sweeping scope, and spectacle.” To that I would add that the classic Epic genre, which peaked in the ‘60s, trends toward long films, usually over three hours. The expense that goes into producing these films has always made them difficult prospects for filmmakers and studios to undertake, but the genre used to enjoy a popularity that has since seemed to fade.

Only a few recent films fully conform to the genre’s definition. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is far and away the best example (The Hobbit movies also technically fit the bill, but we’re not going to talk about them). Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar comes in at two hours and forty-nine minutes, and its sweeping scope and spectacle certainly fit the genre’s characteristics. There are also a few films that fulfill all of the characteristics except the length. Dunkirk springs to mind, at just under two hours.

But most of those spectacular three to four hour Epics seem to be gone, if not for good, then at least for the foreseeable future. Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia – it’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything like these.

There are a number of reasons behind that trend. For one thing, historical adventure stories have largely given way to a preference for fantasy, science fiction, and superhero movies. As The Lord of the Rings and Interstellar prove, there is nothing intrinsic about these genres that prevents them from being made into Epics. And they are excellent genres in their own rights. At the same time, the overall lack of historical films today does mark an extraordinary departure from the stories told by the Epic genre at its height.

More important, I think, is Hitchcock’s famous assertion: “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” And we should probably assume that the bladder in question belongs to a human who forgot to use the restroom before walking into the theater. In other words, any film stretching much past the two hour mark is inviting a form of impatience that comes naturally to all of us. The old Epics of the ’60s accounted for this human shortcoming by including an intermission after two hours: five minutes of pleasant music during which the audience could get out of their seats, stretch their legs, and answer any higher callings that occurred to them.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the human bladder that these films strain. Four hours is a long time to be watching a film. To put it in perspective, your work day is likely only twice the time it would take to see one of these films. That’s two extra hours that the audience could be spending in any way that they see fit. And we must add to that the extra cost to the studios of making one movie the length of two. The opportunity cost of an Epic, both from a viewer’s perspective and from a producer’s perspective, is therefore much higher than that of a traditional two hour film. And that is why I think these tremendous productions have become rarer and rarer in recent times.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of the Epic genre that I miss (admittedly this is coming from a guy in his twenties, who never experienced the genre’s heyday). The pageantry, the great sweeping scores, and the sense of truly massive adventure are hard to match in films half the length. I even miss the old overtures and intermissions that would open and then punctuate the films. They were like palate cleansers, ten minutes of beautiful music to clear our minds and our expectations of the clutter of our daily lives, thereby setting the tone for the movie to follow. And I miss the fantastic adventures that came with the genre, adventures which only seem to be hollowly echoed by the majority of today’s superhero and action films.

In truth I’m not lamenting some golden age of filmmaking. There were good epics and bad ones, just as today there are good films and bad films. But I do feel that we could stand to learn something from that old genre, both in terms of spectacle and in terms of the kinds of stories that they told. They managed to combine a sense of the spectacular with a kind of grounded quality that these days seems rather rare. But don’t take my word for it. The next time you find yourself with four hours to spare, think about tracking down a copy of an old Epic, be it Spartacus, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, or whichever strikes your fancy. I’m willing to bet that you won’t regret it. 

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The Flow of Information: Film vs. Books

In my last post I mentioned that, while books can describe more types of sensory stimulus than screenplays, that wasn’t necessarily true of film. This week I thought I’d describe a little bit of what I meant by that.

Obviously, a film can never show us tastes, smells or the feelings of physical textures, and cinema has never been very good at literally representing thoughts either. But, with the slight exception of thought, books don’t show us these things any more than films do. Instead, they describe them. They provoke the reader to imagine what cannot actually be experienced through the page. The medium of prose isn’t sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and thought. It’s imagination, triggered by words. In that sense books actually have a smaller sensory repertoire than films do: words, compared to both sights and sounds together.

You might argue that this is no more than an academic comparison. After all, books are books, and films are films. But I think there’s an interesting observation to be had out of it on the nature of the two mediums.

It has to do with the flow of information. At the end of the day, both books and films are about communication. Each is designed to tell a story, and stories are made up of information. Every little fact we know about the characters, every development in the plot, and every sight, sound, thought and feeling we experience while reading or watching is a piece of information. The difference between the two mediums is how that information gets communicated. In books, we construct it ourselves based on the blueprint present in the words. The author essentially gives us instructions to produce approximately the correct information for ourselves. In films, we interpret this information through the sensory reality presented to us via sight and sound simultaneously.

So what’s the big deal? One is about imagination, while the other is about physical experience. Case closed, right? Well, not quite. If we dig a little deeper, we see that this difference imposes important limitations on each medium.

Let’s start with books. Because books communicate through words, effectively giving the reader step by step instructions to create a different reality in his or her own head, the flow of information in a book is extremely limited. No matter how quickly you read, you are reading one word and one sentence at a time. That means that only one piece of information is being processed by your brain at any given time.

And that limit in the flow of information has two important implications. First, it means that, at any given point, the reader must look where the author is pointing. You can skip ahead, and you can reread, but at any point in the book’s chronology there is only one piece of information to absorb at a time. Filmmakers try to mimic this focus of attention through composition and lighting, but even when they are successful the viewer always has more freedom of where to look than when reading a novel. Second, because words communicate meaning in a very direct way, and because the reader only has one piece of information to process at a time, that information tends to be processed in a very conscious way. The reader is almost always extremely aware of the information he is consuming and of how it is affecting him.

Films, on the other hand, communicate information through sound and image. That means that cinema is a far more sensory experience than prose. We interpret film through the same stimuli that we interpret the world we live in.

From that we can take two major lessons. First, our understanding of meaning in film is much more instinctive than our understanding of meaning in prose. Sound and image, by their very nature, work on us in a different and less conscious manner than the written word. Second, the flow of information we receive from a film is much broader than that of a book. Instead of interpreting the work one word at a time, we are inundated with many different stimuli: music, shape, depth, movement, etc. All of these communicate something to the audience, all at the same time. Even if we are aware of how individual pieces of that cloud of stimuli are affecting us, we can never be consciously aware of all of them at once.

I would argue that this difference in the flow of information makes film a much more subconscious medium than prose. Not only is the information presented through stimuli that we interpret more instinctively, but the large amount of stimuli that we are forced to interpret at once means that much of what we are seeing and hearing affects us below the level of conscious thought. Film works best when all of those stimuli come together into an illusion of reality, when we forget the music and the image and sink down into the very subconsciousness of the medium. Books, on the other hand, rely upon our awareness of the medium to deliver information, which in turn constructs the illusion within our minds. Both cinema and prose do their best to entertain, and to move us emotionally. They both try to create a seamless illusion of reality, but the way that they set about this goal is very different. One medium seeks to influence us below the level of our consciousness, while the other seeks to highjack our consciousness for its own purposes.

The Screenplay Format

I thought I’d take a break from talking about specific movies to address a particularly important piece of the movie-making process: the screenplay. I’ve divided this post into two parts. The first will talk about what makes the screenplay a unique medium of writing, and the second will provide a basic explanation of the format and some links to great screenplays past.

What is a screenplay?

I’m going to be talking specifically about Speculative (or Spec) Scripts. These are movie scripts designed to picture a film before any of the practical physical design of the film is put into place. Put simply, it is less a blueprint of a finished film than a sketch. Like a novel, a spec script is all about imagination. It asks us to form an image of what a film could be entirely in our heads, tracing out the action, the dialogue, and anything else that may be relevant to telling the story. Later on we get the cinematography, the casting, the musical choices and so on and so forth, but for now the only things that matter are the story, the pacing, and the descriptions necessary to communicate them.

But a spec script is not a novel. It’s a writing medium all to itself, and the differences between screenwriting and prose writing can be very revealing as to how screenplays actually work:

1. Economy:

Shakespeare once wrote that brevity is the soul of wit, and all forms of writing at least attempt to take that lesson to heart. The idea is simple. The length of the work, and of each line of description in it, should never be more than is necessary to effectively communicate its meaning.

But this principle of economy applies differently to prose writing than it does to screenwriting. In prose writing, the experience the author is trying to produce is comprehensive. Put another way, a novel is a finished work, whereas a screenplay is only the suggestion of what the finished work will look like. That means that the author of a novel has to provide the entirety of the experience: the sights, the sounds, the colors, everything. The writer of a screenplay ought to do no more than describe the bare minimum necessary to understand the narrative.

The net result is that, where a novelist can sometimes devote multiple pages to a single item of action, dialogue, or description, a screenwriter must condense that same experience to its most essential components and leave the rest to our imagination. Screenwriting therefore takes the universal principle of economy in writing and pushes it to an extreme that only poetry can outdo.

2. Rigid timescale:

A novel can be any length. The shortest novels tend to be around 200 pages, while the longest can be over 1,000.

A screenplay, on the other hand, is limited by the feasible runtime of the finished film. The rule of thumb for screenplay pages to film minutes is one to one. Every page will equal about one minute of screen time. And that’s quite an important restriction. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” In keeping with his advice, most films don’t stray too far from the two hour mark. That means that most screenplays have to be between 110 and 120 pages.

The result of this restriction is both a very strict pacing and, ideally, more economy. A screenplay should contain story content equal to that of a novel distilled into a far more concentrated form. Anyone who has ever tried to adapt a novel can’t have helped noticing that the same scene in their screenplay will usually be much shorter than it is in the original prose. That’s because all of the extra dialogue and description that goes into the novel gets condensed to its most essential components in the screenplay.

Of course, you might also have heard of writers “padding the runtime” of a film. That means that the writers didn’t have enough content to make the film reach feature length, and so they filled the screenplay with lots of useless extra material to increase the runtime. This is also called bad writing.

3. Limited palate:

The sensory palate of a novel is much wider than that of a screenplay (this does not necessarily hold true for novels vs. films, however, as I plan to address in a future post). A novelist can describe sights, sounds, smells, feelings, even the thoughts that a character experiences. A screenwriter is limited to just two of these stimuli: sights and sounds. At least until someone makes the mistake of Smell-O-Vision again. 

I would argue that sight and sound are the most important stimuli to telling a story, but it is nevertheless a massive restriction compared to the sensory palate of a prose writer. The art of screenwriting, therefore, while not exactly visual, is all about making the absolute most of that limited palate.

What does a screenplay look like?

Screenplays have a very specific format that often catches first time readers off-guard. Here’s a quick primer on the harder to understand components of screenplay format:

1. The scene heading, or Slugline:

Reading a screenplay, you’re going to see scene headings. By and large they look like this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.15.59 AM

The purpose of a scene heading is to quickly tell the reader where we are and what time it is. The first part of the heading will always be either “EXT.” (exterior), or “INT.” (interior). That, amazingly, tells us whether we are outside or inside. The second part of the heading tells us where specifically we are, whether that’s an abandoned castle, the moon, or my living room. The last part of the heading tells us whether it is “DAY,” or “NIGHT.”

2. The action:

Most of the important stuff that happens in a screenplay comes under the heading of action. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.16.47 AM

All of the important visual information in the screenplay appears as action, as does any sound that isn’t dialogue.

3. Dialogue:

Dialogue consists of the name of the character centered above a block of spoken text, as you can see below:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.17.19 AM

Sometimes a small parenthetical will appear between the character’s name and the dialogue:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.17.55 AM.png

This means that there is some essential information on how the character is behaving or speaking the line that is not evident from the line itself and the action around it. The parenthetical fills in the gap. However, parantheticals are rarely necessary and most screenwriters try to avoid them.

Other times, you might see either an “O.S.” or a “V.O.” appear next to the character’s name, like this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.18.55 AM.png

An “O.S.” in this position stands for “off screen.” Basically, it just means that the character is speaking the line from a position where they will be physically present in the scene, but not visible onscreen. “V.O.” stands for “voice over,” which means that the character speaking is not physically present in the scene. Narration is usually done this way.

4. Examples and suggestions:

And that’s all you need to know in order to understand and start enjoying screenplays. You can find the screenplays to many of your favorite movies online. Some fun ones are Notorious, The Usual Suspects, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

You’ll note, as you read them, that the story often changes significantly between the original screenplay available online and the finished film. Screenplays inevitably change and develop as the project progresses. I often find it interesting to spot the differences between the initial screenplay and the finished product: sometimes the changes are for the better, sometimes not so much.

Finally, if you want to try your hand at writing some screenplays of your own, you can find free screenplay templates for Word or Pages online, or, if you’re really serious, you can spring for a professional program like Final Draft. I’d also recommend that any aspiring screenwriters read Robert McKee’s book Story, and (with a grain of salt) Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.

Where Game of Thrones Goes Wrong

No one is going to deny that Game of Thrones is a financial success: HBO’s big money maker. In the past that status has felt earned. The production value was off the charts, the special effects and action sequences were uniquely ambitious and believable for television, and the story was, at its worst, passable. Unfortunately, while the production value, special effects and action have all enjoyed a steady increase in quality over the years, the quality of the story has gradually eroded away until the climax of this latest season played more like bad fan fiction than a legitimate part of the series. So, without further “gilding the lily,” as A Knight’s Tale’s Geoffrey Chaucer would say, let’s take a look at some of the places that Game of Thrones goes wrong.

Here there be spoilers.

A lot of people have pointed to Season 7, Episode 7, Beyond the Wall, as the worst episode that the show has ever put out. The criticisms that I’ve read about the episode mostly focus on its geographic improbability. Jon and company go beyond the wall to retrieve a wight, they get into trouble, and send Gendry running back to the wall for help. He gets there, seemingly after ten minutes have passed, and sends a raven south to Daenerys. The message reaches her pretty much instantly, and she hops on the back of her dragon, reaching our besieged heroes after, at most, a night has passed. Given the vast distances involved, the timing of all this strains even the most generous credulity. In other words, it isn’t consistent with the established rules of the world, and the obviousness of the inconsistency is grating.

Beyond this, much of the episode’s action involves mediocre banter arising from the already ridiculous coincidence of having so many interconnected characters turn up in one place at one time. These conversations do nothing to develop the characters involved, serving as little more than lame call-backs to better scenes in earlier seasons. It’s possible that the show runners thought they were increasing suspense by making us wait longer for the inevitable explosion of action at the end of the episode. But, for that to work, the audience needs to be thinking about the impending action. The mediocre banter in this episode does not remind us of the coming conflict. Instead, it distracts us, dissipating any suspense that has been building. Worse, the dialogue does nothing to develop or establish the characters. It flaps about, useless and unmoored, existing only to entertain. As a result, it bores. This poor writing is also in evidence in the season’s final episode, where most of the episode’s long runtime is devoted to mediocre exchanges between characters.

But the biggest problems with Game of Thrones, for me, have less to do with bad dialogue and more to do with poor character development. This takes many forms. Characters who we are told are supposed to be intelligent nevertheless do stupid things time and time again. Our heroes spend half the seventh season coming up with reasons to avoid crushing Cersei despite the fact that they could destroy her at any time with minimal civilian casualties. They actually risk their lives to forge a truce with her, despite lacking any kind of assurance that she will hold to that truce. And when Dany shows up to save Jon after their incredibly foolish plan goes awry, he inexplicably decides to keep killing wights for several minutes instead of getting on the dragon and getting the heck out of there. And these characters are supposed to be intelligent?

Throughout the season, decisions and feelings change without the instigations for those changes being clear. After refusing for an entire season, Jon suddenly and inexplicably decides to bend the knee to Dany at the end of Episode 7. Why? The show never really explains. It could be because of a sudden attack of love/lust for her, it could be because she just saved his life, or it could be because of the tiny little throwaway line Tormund feeds him earlier in the episode about not being too proud. No matter the reason, the show utterly neglects to trace out his thought process, despite the fact that this is a pivotal change for one of the main characters. Jon’s decision strikes us as random rather than motivated. As a result, the audience is left confused and unsatisfied.

Even when the show tries to lay the groundwork for change this season, it seems to do it by half measures. Take the romance between Jon and Dany, for example. To believe that two people are falling in love, we have to see it. But the show doesn’t quite manage to show us a budding romance. We hear some heavy breathing from Dany when she and Jon view the cave paintings together at the end of Episode 5, and when Jon decides to undertake his suicide mission beyond the Wall she stares at him a little teary-eyed. But that’s it. It’s barely enough to suspect she might have feelings towards him, and not at all enough to see that he might have feelings towards her. The writers try to cover the gap with a few throwaway lines:

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 11.40.48 AM

But we never actually see Jon “staring at her good heart.” In short, we don’t get any visible signs of them falling in love until they actually fall into bed together. We know its happening because we are explicitly told, not because it is self-evident. As a result, it’s hard to believe all that strongly in the romance between them.

In truth, character inconsistencies have plagued the show for much longer than just this season. Jon’s behavior during The Battle of the Bastards in Season 6 seems miserably out of character. And Stannis’s decision to burn his daughter as a sacrifice in Season 5 comes even further out of left field than Jon’s decision to swear fealty to Dany in Season 7. In both cases, it isn’t so much the decision itself that I find fault with. I can easily imagine a world in which it feels correct to their characters for Jon to bend the knee and for Stannis to burn Shireen. But in both cases their characters simply weren’t ready to make that leap yet. If the audience does not see a character change and develop to the point where he or she could reasonably be expected to make a choice, then that choice will feel random and unbelievable.

In other situations, the show has taken otherwise believable characters from the books and altered them to the point where they are no longer internally consistent. In the books, Shea is a selfish girl that Tyrion falls for despite knowing that she doesn’t love him. When she betrays him, we believe it. When he kills her for betraying him, we believe that too. But the show changes Shea’s character in the first four seasons, making her into a compelling and honorable woman who truly cares for Tyrion. And there’s nothing wrong with that change; it actually makes her a much more interesting character. There’s no rule that the characters in the show have to reflect the characters in the books. But a change in character ought to come with a change in the actions that character takes. Because the Shea we see in the show is a different and more honorable person than the one we see in the books, it feels out of character to us when she betrays Tyrion in the fourth season. It seems wrong, random and unsatisfying. And Tyrion killing her seems even more unbelievable given the nature of their relationship. The writers took steps to try and bring them both to that point, but it was not enough. In order to make the change in Shea’s personality work, they ought to have changed her ending to better fit her character and relationships.

The show of Game of Thrones started out with an excellent roadmap for character development in the form of A Song of Ice and Fire. George R.R. Martin’s books are full of compelling and believable characters. Every decision those characters make feels motivated, and every thought in their heads is internally consistent. That is not to say that the show could never have been as good as the books, merely that it took on a set of extremely well-crafted characters whose stories and development arcs were already largely in place. In the early seasons the show stuck to those arcs rather closely, and clearly benefited from the strengths of the series’s original creator. But the show seems to be having trouble standing on its own without the scaffolding provided by the books. The further the show gets from Martin’s work, the less smoothly the characters develop, and the more holes appear in the narrative. On some level it feels as though the show has fallen victim to its own reputation, substituting action, surprise deaths, and gratuitous violence for what made it compelling in the first place: a well crafted story, complete with believable characters. HBO has one more season to turn it back around; with any luck they’ll learn from their mistakes and deliver an ending that was worth the wait.

In the meantime, I highly recommend that you check out Martin’s original book series: A Song of Ice and Fire