Storytelling versus spectacle


Watching the trailer for I, Frankenstein I yet again feel sad that no one has so far filmed a faithful version of one of my favourite books.

While it’s poor form to slate a film you haven’t yet seen (and, in this case have very little enthusiasm to watch) the trailer does set out the stall of the movie: action, explosions and don’t-know-when-to-stop spectacle.

(As an aside, the film isn’t exactly winning the hearts of critics. Mark Kermode gives it one star – I suspect because zero stars isn’t an option – his review is nothing short of damning.)

I, Frankenstein is yet another in a long line of spectacular yet dull movies churned out by Hollywood – a neat enough idea perhaps, but with all the money going to big stars and big CGI rather than investment in the script.

It seems to me that, when it comes to storytelling, television increasingly has the edge over cinema. Television doesn’t have the same budgets as cinema (though it’s inching closer) so there’s much more of a focus on storytelling. Plus, the medium itself inherently has something that Hollywood doesn’t – oodles of time.

Take Breaking Bad, one of the best character-driven dramas ever. Walter White’s slow decline from Mr Chips to Scarface takes place over six seasons. That’s 62 episodes with a usual runtime of 60 minutes. As a film, that would be just over two-and-a-half days. Quite a commitment but one that’s manageable on television. The format allows characters to be explored, subplots to thrive, red herrings to be teased continually. How would you shoehorn that into a couple of hours?

Breaking Bad isn’t alone. Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos, Rome, 24 – the list goes on. At the heart of all of these is great storytelling (though, to be fair, Game of Thrones has its share of decent – if not exaggerated – special effects). And decent television dramas don’t have to be bottom-numbing epics, either. Broadchurch spanned just 8 episodes of 45 minutes each. At roughly 360 minutes, that’s still comfortably longer than an epic film such as Lawrence of Arabia (222 minutes in the original release; 228 minutes in the restored version).

True enough, the three Lord of the Rings films made for 558 minutes in the theatre and 726 minutes on Blu-ray; there are always exceptions – Lord of the Rings combines spectacle with storytelling brilliantly.

It seems to me that because television’s found strong storytelling feet in the long-form drama, Hollywood is hitting back in the only way it can: mostly with explosions and CGI. While there’s some long-form cinema (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings are just a few) there’s the inescapable fact: they have to be good stories to survive that kind of runtime. They are exceptions because they are good, character-driven stories.

Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers and Marvel’s other superhero films don’t really count. They’re not one long story, they’re really standalones with some connectivity bolted in; they’re also pretty hit-and-miss – typically further examples of thin plot and thick spectacle, smartly linked to create a pleasing universe in which to wallow.

By and large, enough people must be watching these vacant blockbusters to make them worthwhile – and keep the studio suits convinced that bigger, louder explosions equals audience satisfaction. Thank goodness that’s not the extent of cinema and that some good stories do make it on the big screen.

Sure, television’s not flawless. For every Breaking Bad there are dozens of tired, clichéd serials. And don’t get me started on cooking shows, makeover shows, celebrity challenges or whatever. But at least long-form television drama proves that massive audiences want great stories too.

Both Hollywood and television compete for our money, so they’ll make what mostly succeeds commercially. Yet I can’t help thinking that as a general trend, the Hollywood suits are backing spectacle over storytelling – perhaps in the hope that we won’t spot the threadbare plot in the middle of so many awesome explosions.

About Peter Labrow

Peter Labrow has worked as a copywriter, writing non-fiction, for around twenty years. His output includes copy for websites and brochures; for around a decade he wrote a regular column for IT Training magazine. He has published one non-fiction book about learning within the corporate environment. The Well, Peter’s first novel, is available on Kindle and in print from Amazon. View all posts by Peter Labrow

2 responses to “Storytelling versus spectacle

  • The Craggus

    I stopped paying attention to Mark Kermode a long time ago once it became increasingly clear he doesn’t actually like movies anymore but in a Twilight Zone worthy twist of irony has become trapped in a life of reviewing them.

    I, Frankenstein has the one classic sign of a high concept SFX blockbuster movie in trouble: its short running time. No big effects picture runs shorter than two hours unless it’s gone horribly wrong and it’s had to be salvaged (butchered) in the editing process.

    The blockbuster model is subtly shifting: good ones (they do exist) are doing very well. Adequate to poor ones are bombing hard. At the moment, cinema is dominated by powerful, serious, well acted dramas based on true events and while TV is going through a bit of a golden age at the moment (I don’t include Game of Thrones – it’s good but it’s basically Dungeons & Dragons & T & A, and is at best a debatable example of good long form storytelling) but cinema is still fighting the good fight and while we still get awful things like “After Earth”, we also get things like “Gravity”.

    In the end we get the entertainment that we choose and therefore deserve. The fact that Vernon Kay has a career is a shameful burden we are all responsible for.

    • Peter Labrow

      Excellent set of observations – thanks. Yes, there are good and bad examples of storytelling both on television and in the cinema. I don’t see Game of Thrones as D&D to be honest, it’s a political drama with boobs and swords (just as Dune is a political saga with giant worms and spaceships) but I take your point. Yes, there is some really good cinema so I’d hate anyone to think I have a downer on it generally – I don’t. I’m just browbeaten by explosions in stories that have the potential to be gripping via plot and character rather than via effects.

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