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Defining Quality: Character Versus Concept in Film

The debate concerning screenplay quality typically pits character against structure (McKee, 1997, p.101). The correct answer is that this argument is specious, as the concept of character is structure (McKee, 1997, p.101); character and structure are one and the same. To confirm this idea, one need not look further than screenplay structure theories as they are virtually all based on character (Campbell, 1949, p.227; Harmon, 2003; Snyder, 2005, p.70; Vogler, 2007, p.8; Trottier, 2014, p.28; Chamberlain, 2016, pp.19-20). Structure can be considered as a character’s transformation arc: “By story, I don’t just mean the various external plot points; I mean the transformation” (Brody, 2018, p.18). Structure without character is lifeless and character without structure is an empty shell. A stronger debate is for character versus concept (Trottier, 2014, p. 32). A character or multiple characters in a story can be interesting, but if the concept is bad, can the screenplay or movie be good? Inversely, if the concept is good, but the characters are boring and uninteresting, can the movie still be considered good? Working within such subjective parameters as good, bad, boring, entertaining, and interesting is a difficult exercise that is sure to fail simply because the answer falls to individual preferences. Commercial or critical reception may hint at a general notion of quality, but the initial idea of subjectivity still stands. Just like people have different tastes in food, they have different tastes in film. Hollywood itself is unaware of what is considered good or bad (Akers, 2008, p.21). Nonetheless, analyzing the question is not an exercise in futility. Understanding the mechanics of concept and character is key to creating strong stories (Trottier, 2014, p. 32). Naturally, screenplays may lean closer to one side or the other as they are not mutually exclusive.

Figure 1: The Hero's Journey story structure. From "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" (Campbell, 1949, p. 227).

Firstly, studying a screenplay that removes character as much as possible can reveal much about other elements, like concept. In this category, Final Destination (Wong, 2000) is a film of choice. Reviews are mixed, receiving praise from audiences and low scores from critics (Rotten Tomatoes, 2000; Metacritic, 2000). On the commercial front, the film garnered $112 million worldwide with a budget of $23 million and spawned four sequels (Box Office Mojo, 2000). The film has surprisingly little to offer in terms of character. In summary, Alex, a high schooler, has a vision that the plane he and his classmates are on will crash (Wong, 2000). Panicking, he is expelled from the plane along with a teacher and four students (Wong, 2000). The plane takes off and instantly blows up (Wong, 2000). Having cheated death once, a mysterious force known only as “death’s design” hunts down the survivors one by one (Wong, 2000). The concept is clear: death has a design and it is inescapable (Wong, 2000). The characters, however, are extremely lackluster. Indeed, Alex is directly introduced as “an average kid [...] A high school ‘everyman’” (Morgan & Wong, 1999); Alex’s characterization is perfectly average and unremarkable. His friends Tod and George have no character descriptions at all, simply being named when they appear (Morgan & Wong, 1999). The teacher, Mr. Murnau is introduced as “the French teacher (any further description necessary?)” (Morgan & Wong, 1999). Understanding this character is an odd activity. The indication that “French teacher” is enough description to characterize him is directly in contradiction to the German name he was given (Morgan & Wong, 1999). Mr. Murnau’s characterization could come through his dialogues, but he only shoots a few short sentences in French (Morgan & Wong, 1999). These sentences reveal nothing about the character as they are almost purely expositional. For instance, his very first line perfectly sums up his character “Les estudients [sic], allons en France!” (Morgan & Wong, 1999). His simplified and broken French in addition to a German name would theoretically make for a multidimensional character even if “any further description necessary?” (Morgan & Wong, 1999) is unclear. However, he has a heavy French accent in the film, confirming that he is not a deep character, but a stereotyped one. In fact, every character is stereotyped. Alex himself is just an average high schooler, Carter Horton is the average “jock,” and nearly all women’s descriptions are short and consist mostly of comments on attractiveness (Morgan & Wong, 1999). Carter Horton is “the class dickhead who mix and matches his role models in the most superficial manner” (Morgan & Wong, 1999). For information, Carter wears a sports bomber jacket (Wong, 2000).

Figure 2: Pefectly average characters. From left to right, Alex (Devon Sawa), Mr. Murnau (Forbes Angus), George (Brendan Fehr) and Tod (Chad E. Donella). Still from "Final Destination" (Wong, 2000).

In the screenplay, women are mostly lumped together in terms of description. As described by screenwriters Morgan & Wong (1999), for example,

Attractive and they know it, CHRISTA MARSH and BLAKE DREYER"; “MISS VALERIE LEWTON, 30, a feisty English teacher whose figure inspires all the boys' fantasies”; “Terry, hot now, but with no idea what time will do to her in just five years"; “The loner in the group, Clear wears dark colors against the insecerity [sic] of her sex appeal. (p. 5-7; 10).

In all those descriptions, “feisty” (Morgan & Wong, 1999, p.7) and “loner” (Morgan & Wong, 1999, p.5) are the only two words that do not refer to the character’s physical attractiveness. Every character lacks depth, from the protagonist who is literally “average” and “everyman” to female characters who are all grouped up as attractive without any other defining physical or psychological trait (Morgan & Wong, 1999, p.2). Even character dialogue is flat. With the exception of Mr. Murnau who speaks French and Carter who is always angry for seemingly no reason, everyone expresses themselves in standard English without any personality behind their words (Wong, 2000). In fact, any of these characters could take the protagonist’s role as the person who predicts the plane crash and the movie would still be exactly the same. In the end, Final Destination (Wong, 2000) completely lacks character, but has a strong concept.

Secondly, films that focus on characters more than any other story element can hint at an answer in the debate of character versus concept. Ensemble films like The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985) and Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton & Faris, 2006) tend to prioritize character. Both concepts are rather weak in terms of raising excitement. In The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985), five teenagers spend a Saturday in detention. Subjectivity is at play in the scope of boredom and entertainment, mitigating a clear answer on its exciting value. In Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton & Faris, 2006), a dysfunctional family travels across the country to attend a beauty pageant. An important note to make is that both concepts heavily rely on characters. In one, it is five teenagers and in the other, a dysfunctional family. In comparison, Final Destination (Wong, 2000) had no mention of character at all in its concept. Characters in Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton & Faris, 2006) are all unique compared to each other. Richard “wears pleated khaki shorts, a golf shirt, sneakers. He moves with the stocky, stiff-legged gait of a former athlete. His peppy, upbeat demeanor just barely masks a seething sense of insecurity and frustration” (Arndt, 2003, p. 1). Richard, the father of the family, is a naive man who led a very average life and dreams of more (Dayton & Faris, 2006). Olive is a plump six-year-old girl who loves beauty pageants and admires pageant contestants (Dayton & Faris, 2006). Sheryl is a responsible, yet nervous, woman who struggles with providing and caring for her family (Dayton & Faris, 2006). Frank, Sheryl’s brother, is a former professor of Proust who must be watched over following his suicide attempt (Dayton & Faris, 2006). Dwayne, the teenage son, dreams of becoming a fighter pilot (Dayton & Faris, 2006). He has taken a vow of silence until he reaches his goal (Dayton & Faris, 2006). Edwin is the grandfather who was evicted from several retirement homes for snorting heroin (Dayton & Faris, 2006). This large cast features multiple interesting characters who each evolve through the story. Richard learns that his book deal fell through, Dwayne learns that he is colorblind and therefore cannot fly jets, Edwin overdoses, and, as a whole, the family learns to live together and appreciate their familial bond (Dayton & Faris, 2006). Character and character development carry the film; without it, the story would simply be a long car ride from point A to point B for a beauty pageant. Therefore, without character, the concept is meaningless.

Figure 3: Unique characters. From left to right, Richard (Greg Kinnear), Frank (Steve Carell), Dwayne (Paul Dano), Sheryl (Toni Collette) and Olive (Abigail Breslin). Still from "Little Miss Sunshine" (Dayton & Faris, 2006).

In the end, concept and character are both important components of storytelling. Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton & Faris, 2006) and Final Destination (Wong, 2000) are opposites in that department. Although completely lackluster in character depth, Final Destination (Wong, 2000) still found critical success among audiences with four sequels being produced (Box Office Mojo, 2000. The idea that character and structure are one and the same is true (McKee, 1997, p.101). Although, it seems that this statement cannot be said for concept, as character can fully be dissociated from it. However, films like The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985) and Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton & Faris, 2006) confirm that character can be an essential part of storytelling.

Bibliographical References

Akers, W. M. (2008). Your Screenplay Suck! 100 Ways to Make it Great. Michael Wiese Productions.

Arndt, M. (Writer). (2003). Little Miss Sunshine [Script]. Big Beach Films.

Box Office Mojo. (n.d.). Final Destination.

Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Ten Speed Press.

Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1949).

Chamberlain, J. (2016). The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. University of Texas Press.

Dayton, J. & V. Faris. (Directors). (2006). Little Miss Sunshine [Film]. Big Beach Films.

Harmon, D. (2003). Story Structure 101. Channel 101.

Hughes, J. (1985). (Director). The Breakfast Club. A&M Films.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins.

Metacritic. (n.d.). Final Destination.

Morgan, G. & J. Wong. (1999). (Writers). Final Destination [Script]. Zide/Perry Productions.

Rotten Tomatoes. (n.d.). Final Destination.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (3rd. ed.). Michael Wiese Productions.

Wong, J. (2000). (Director). Final Destination [Film]. Zide/Perry Productions.

Visual Sources

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