Today is the day Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. As such, the film Pearl Harbor was playing on TV over the weekend. We watched. Big mistake.
The film is beyond horrible, but there are some great lessons to be learned from it–-lessons that are cross-denominational for film and writing. Here are a few:
- Too many characters! Specifically, too many secondary characters that were forced into the plot to add meaning but in the end, just detracted from the over all effect. What do I mean by this? Too much time was spent building the secondary characters’ stories, but it wasn’t enough time to connect the viewer to that character, enough time to create identification. And worse, that time took away from really developing the main characters’ stories, so we really didn’t have enough time to connect to or identify with them either!
- Kate Beckinsale, the main lady who played a nurse, was just a walking, talking, pretty girl with no personality because there just wasn’t enough time to show it to us.
- Cuba Gooding, Jr., who played the first African American to win the Navy Cross, was in, like, three scenes! He really had no connection to the main story, and they just wanted to include that piece of history. Okay, I think that’s cool, but give him his own damn movie then! He was, by far, the most interesting character and the most historically intriguing character. Alas.
- IN WRITING: Do NOT add so many characters that the story is bogged down and the main character cannot be fully developed. First and foremost, readers need to connect to the MC.
- Introducing a new character half-way (or later) in the story. You just can’t do this to your reader or your viewer, because we get whiplash. It’s like, “Waitaminute…wh-what? Who is this guy and why the heck do I care about him? If he was so important, why didn’t I meet him fifteen chapters ago?”
- Alec Baldwin suddenly arrives in the last quarter of the movie as the wise, brave, and patriotic Lieutenant. He may have played an important character in history, but that character could have been introduced as a minor, sideline-hovering person instead of a front-and-center, father-like leader.
- IN WRITING: Do NOT add characters that are critical to the plot or worse, a viewpoint character, in the middle of the story. If you have to do that, make sure to introduce us to him/her earlier and prepare us for his/her arrival.
- A climax that isn’t a climax. Um, hello…I thought the movie was over, but no? There are still forty-five minutes left? Why show all those explosions, deaths, and dramatic good-byes if it’s not the end? Now, I realize that that was history. Pearl Harbor’s attack occurred and then the pilots were sent to bomb Tokyo, but the film is called Pearl Harbor and not Tokyo.
- The film should end after the most exciting and self-sacrificing part of the story. As a viewer or reader, we are pooped after all that tension, and we want a resolution.
- Trying to follow up with more action does not sustain the tension–if anything, it’s anticlimactic because this “second climax” has less fuel, less conflict, and lasts half-the-time. We viewers/readers are just let down.
- IN WRITING: Do NOT continue to drag out the story long after it should be over. You just tick off your readers.
- Flawless main characters. How am I supposed to care about a perfect character? Why does it matter if there are no consequences for the MC’s bad decisions? We watch movies and we read books to see how people deal with life (be it what life throws at them or what decisions they make that affect their lives).
- Kate Beckinsale is beautiful, witty, and a top-notch nurse. She never messes up, and even when she does, everyone forgives her.
- Ben Affleck is a chiseled, good ol’ boy who will risk his life for his country, who is an amazing pilot, and who gets the girl he wants.
- Josh Hartnett is supposedly “flawed” since he’s shy, a bit insecure with the ladies, and uh…that’s it. He’s still handsome, self-sacrificing, devoted, and patriotic. He gets the girl he wants, too. Hmmm.
- **Spoiler alert** The leading lady, Kate Beckinsale, falls in love twice in the film. I won’t get into how improperly developed and forced these love stories were–the point is, she gets two guys who happen to be best friends. She even gets pregnant by one of them. Now, she thought one of them was dead and that’s why she picked the other. Turns out #1 wasn’t dead, and he reappears upset that she moved on. The two men fight, then they get over it, and Kate Beckinsale really doesn’t have to suffer at all for this monumental decision she made to get pregnant by man #2. Really!? Really!? Is life really that easy!?
- IN WRITING: Do NOT make your characters perfect. If you’re going to make them beautiful, smart, and well-loved then make sure they make a lot of bad decisions so we can see them suffer, and more importantly, see how they deal with it. But, it would really be better for everyone if you, you know, make them an alcoholic or give them a shady past or a bully or something that people can relate to. SOMETHING THE CHARACTER HAS TO OVERCOME AND GROW FROM.
Well, I’ll leave the rant at that. There are, no doubt, many more gems to be mined from that film, but I haven’t the patience to keep discussing it. Truly, a frustrating move, and yet, my friend and I watched the whole thing hoping at some point it would get better. It didn’t. Do yourself a favor: if you want to watch a great new WWII movie, rent Valkyrie.
December 7, 2009 @ 5:39 pm
I love your writing tips!
BUT…I have a question regarding your first point about having too many characters.
Love Actually is one of my all time favourite movies, and part of what is so interesting about it is that there are so many different characters and story lines that are so seamlessly tied together. Agree? Or Disagree? I’ve always wanted to create a film that was similarly clever in the way it ties a number of different characters’ stories together, so I’d be interested to hear what you think! I’m not sure I could argue that there is one main character in that movie…does that bother you?
December 7, 2009 @ 5:50 pm
Fantabulous point, and Love Actually is a great film!
It uses what we call “parallel plot.” That means, there are multiple main characters whose plots all meet up in the end or somehow connect. Lots of movies have multiple plots, sub-plots, and layers (Crash comes to mind), and what makes them work is how the stories are connected, how the characters intertwine, and how no moment in the movie is wasted because so much needs to be told in so little time.
Now, notice how you said “seamlessly tied together.” That’s the KEY WORD there since Pearl Harbor is not so seamless. The connection between Cuba Gooding, Jr. and the other characters was absolutely forced–it really had no connection to the main plot.
Another important point is that in Love Actually we manage to fall in love with or despise each character–we form a connection despite how many there are. Every scene in the film was necessary to tell the story.
Pearl Harbor (at least for me) did NOT successfully attach me to the characters, so I didn’t care whether they lived or died, stayed together or not, etc. The cause? There were a ton of useless scenes (meaning they were not necessary for the plot’s progression) that could have been used INSTEAD to attach me to the characters.
Does that make any sense? 🙂
December 7, 2009 @ 7:12 pm
That makes perfect sense 🙂
I saw Pearl Harbor in the theatre whenever it came out and I don’t remember being super amazed…but I also don’t remember hating it. Let’s just say that if it wasn’t memorable enough for me to remember the plot (beyond the fact that I know the history that the story it’s based on), it couldn’t have been that good 😉
Thanks for taking the time to provide such a detailed response! And glad to hear that we share a love for Love Actually!
December 10, 2009 @ 5:45 pm
Good tips on writing.
That movie trailer is odd. I know it’s a war movie and all but great actors are all male except for one female who in the clip stands in modest pose and looks nervous.