Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Golden Syrup Is Not Character Building

One of the reasons the film of War Horse didn't grab me was the lack of character development.  Everybody stayed exactly the same and their characters went nowhere (it must have been depressing for the actors - if you were cast as 'mean landlord' you were stuck as 'mean landlord' and even an actor of the calibre of David Thewlis couldn't do much with that).

The original book is narrated by the horse, who changes in the original story from an innocent colt to a survivor.  But the film chose (for understandable reasons) not to be narrated from the horse's point of view.  This transformed it from being a linear character journey into a circular story, a series of episodes before finally coming full circle and reuniting the horse and his first owner.  

This meant the human characters had little opportunity for development.  The chosen solution was to bring on the violins and dollop out the sweetness.  Most of the characters Joey the horse encountered were 'good' - incredibly good.  There was no shade to their radiant goodness.  The other non-good characters were, surprise surprise, utterly bad.  There was no light to their brutish badness.  

We all know this to be untrue.  People are never wholly good, or wholly bad.  They are multi-faceted, and fictional characters need to reflect this.  And if ever there was a time when characters are tested it's war. Essentially good people are put in positions when they are compelled to behave badly or selfishly.  People who have got into the habit of behaving brutally find a chink of humanity.  

Ambiguity in characters is eternally interesting because a) we don't know which way they'll go next and b) it's the truth.  Smothering characters in golden syrup is no substitute for character development.  


Shauna said...

I've just arrived home from seeing War Horse and have to agree with everything you say. It wasn't a bad film, but the lack of character development resulted in bland performances, and I was always aware that I was watching a film, rather than losing myself in the story.
Over years of writing I've found my reading style has changed and I'm constantly considering and analysing why an author has chosen a particular style or structure etc. or trying to second guess them. Now I appear to be doing this in films.
Ah well I'm looking forward to seeing Iron Lady later in the week.

Philip C James said...

Good post, Sarah, as ever it prompts me to reassess my WIP. Have views on TIL and Spielberg but have put them into micropoetry; this is not the forum for my penny-worth on movie-crit.

Penny said...

I read the book as an adult rather than as a child, and appreciated its straightfowardness. The staged version [from what I've read, haven't seen it] seems to have been successful - perhaps because puppets demand a more imaginative response from an audience than a film, so at least there's something to engage the mind. A film, when you think about it, is actually more 'realistic' in that you don't have to supply as much imaginative effort, and then if the characters aren't grabbing you either, well... as you say...syrup is no substitute. A pity, really. But book, play, film all are very different animals, so to speak! [I recall some director literally shaking out the pages of a Master and Commander book to demonstrate how his film would alter everything in it - or it might just as well remain a book].

Sarah Duncan said...

Shauna, it's a hazard of becoming a writer - you look for technique etc everywhere!

Phil, will pop over to the daiku site - you should have included a link.

Penny - I was thinking just the same. It's a bit like radio having the best colours/sets. I think you have to do something v different - for example, Babe the film is a very different beast to the story. (See - I can do puns too!)