EDITORIALS

Just Say No: The Importance of the Hero's Reluctance in Storytelling

by
October 18, 2011

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Thing

I saw The Thing this past weekend. The prequel/reboot mutation that just arrived in theaters, not the John Carpenter sci-fi horror masterpiece. I did not enjoy it for many reasons. Really, I did not enjoy it for every reason. But what held my ire most was one very simple moment. A moment in the first ten minutes of the film that stands so blatantly as a tone-setting sign post, a Campbellian action so telegraphed that for the scene to play out any other way than the precognition in my mind would be, I thought, impossible. Well, I was wrong. And for the rest of the movie's 103 minute running time, I couldn't figure out why. I still can't.

Because there's no satisfactory explanation for why the film's writer chose to abolish our hero's—Kate Lloyd's, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead—refusal of the call.

Allow me to set up this very brief scene for you. Kate Lloyd is shown to be a capable paleontologist whose speciality is extracting specimens from ice on cold-weather digs. A mysterious man approaches her with an offer: there is a specimen unlike any she has or will ever have the possibility of excavating locked in the ice and it is her unique skill-set that will allow the excavation to succeed. The mysterious benefactor is running short on time and requires her answer immediately: will she stay or will she go?

At this point, though a standard set-up, all is well. There's a bit of mystery. Our hero is shown to be sought after, talented, and respected in her field. During the scene she's shown working on some sort of saber toothed cat, so she isn't wanting for work or desperate. The bones are in her dig site, as no one says.

With all of the above information, it couldn't be any more clear how this scene will play out: Kate will refuse this mysterious man's offer, as she is a strong protagonist with a life of her own. She doesn't need this child's-game mystery, as she is already hard at work, successful, and without any real motivation. She controls her own destiny. So, of course, she will refuse the offer to travel to the bottom of the Earth with little more than her own imagination telling her what's down there.

Except, uh, she doesn't. The mysterious man asks for her immediate answer, and, with barely a pause, Kate accepts. And before we can blink, is on a helicopter. Is in Antarctica. Is attacked by John Carmack's earliest video game proofs of concept circa 1993.

Again, to reiterate, she accepts the call. Without hesitation. Now, this choice makes sense for one reason and one reason only: it gets our hero to Antarctica as quickly as possible so the doodles of a teenaged psychopath can attack her as quickly as possible so we can get to the action as quickly. as. possible.

Of course, what this choice does not allow for is why the hero's refusal of the call is so important in the first place: character development. When the mysterious man asks for Kate's immediate decision, the writer is presented with three distinct options for his hero. (Really, at every character fork, not just this one in particular, the writer is presented with these same three options.)

1. The Affirmative: The hero accepts what lays before her.
2. The Negative: The hero refuses what lays before her.
3. The Compulsion: The hero, though refusing what lays before her now, is later compelled to accept the situation, but with more knowledge and experience than before.

It should be fairly obvious which one of these three is the most interesting, most often used choice. Choice three is the foundation on which interesting characters are built. Luke Skywalker is presented with the opportunity to leave Tatooine, his dream, but refuses when he chooses to go to Alderaan because he's worried he's in trouble with his aunt and uncle. Of course, his aunt and uncle are then killed, leaving "nothing here for [him] now," and he is compelled to leave Tatooine anyway.

Neo is given the opportunity by Morpheus to escape the agents in Neo's office building. But he refuses Morpheus' instructions and is subsequently captured by those very agents. The agents show Neo that Morpheus was indeed speaking the truth and when presented with the opportunity a second time, Neo allows Morpheus to help him escape the Matrix after all.

And in pretty much every action movie, the main character is presented with a problem, but refuses to help, only to have that problem get a little too personal and compel that main character's aid.

So, when Kate hangs there in limbo awaiting her writer's decision, why is it the affirmative? Why are we, the audience, robbed of the character building moments that lead up to her eventual compulsion to act? Why are the scenes of character set-up—not only for Kate, but for the mysterious man, too, showing us the lengths he'll go to have her on his team, setting up his eventual betrayal, showing us that he can't be trusted while developing that Kate is capable, intelligent, and suspicious all along (it's a film about paranoia, after all, isn't it?!)—why are those scenes excised?

As I mentioned, choosing the affirmative does expedite the machinations of the plot considerably. But at what cost? When Kate answers so quickly in the affirmative, we—the audience—see her as rash, fool-hardy, and without foresight. We question her every action and motivation and decision from that point, forward. Perhaps the writer meant us to feel the same paranoia for her decisions as she would later feel for her team in Antarctica. Perhaps, though, she simply chose poorly. And that poor choice led to a distance never recovered between hero and audience. A lack of connection necessary when it's through her eyes that the film is shown. All she had to do was say no.

Just say no.

Brandon Lee Tenney is a screenwriter and regular contributor. Follow him @Brotodeau

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  • Xerxexx
    A once in a life time shot at being apart of a team that gets to discover a new life form? If I were in Kate's position I'd leap at the chance to be apart of history. Kate seems like the kind of person who is fearless in the face of the unknown. Granted this decision could be/and probably was the end of her life. Kate is no slacker it appears, perhaps she jumped the gun without thinking. Perhaps she was just gungho? Who knows, it was her choice and she made it, she said yes and life took its course for the worst. Great article, Brandon.
    • Jericho
      i know he seemed to have made this entire post a waste when he inserted the answer he was looking for  'there is a specimen unlike any she has or will ever have the possibility of excavating locked in the ice and it is her unique skill-set that will allow the excavation to succeed.' obviously shes not hurting on funds if she goes and if anything she will be in a place very few go to so either way she wins. 
  • Jedi
    Agreed.  Great article.  It gave us your opinion of the movie, you backed it up with reasoning and examples and didn't have to spoil the movie for those of us that might still want to see it at some point.  Nicely done.  I'll probably still see the movie, but it just dropped from my "might see in the theater" list right to the top of my "rent when it comes out" list.
    • Anonymous
      Lol agree. Great article. But you're Skywalker reference is making me scratch my head: "Luke Skywalker is presented with the opportunity to leave Tatooine, his dream, but refuses when he chooses to go to Alderaan because he's worried he's in trouble with his aunt and uncle." You meant he "refuses to go to Alderaan because he's worried..." right?
  • Lonely_spy
    I agree with your importance for the protagonist to have a "character developlemt" moment. That being said, what intrigued Kate and made her say "yes" pretty much right away was the promise of a "structure"... not only organic remains but the possibility of a "built" structure... so, this was something unique to her, an opportunity of a lifetime, you dont think twice about that... plus a friend was vouching for the researcher... :)
  • Xtheory
    sounds like lazy writing to me. it's apparent the writer(s) who penned this crap movie didn't want to bother with crafting the additional scenes that choice 3 would require. writing those type of character development scenes is hard work. it takes creativity and a solid understanding of how composing dialog and scenes of self-doubt and self-conflict for the protagonist as he or she makes a life altering decision can shed some insight into the character from the audience's pov. it's much easier to jump to the action right away. those scenes are easier to write.
  • Guest
    Could you define "Campbellian action" for me please? I have never heard that term before.
  • Chris_G
    Very good points. But one issue that is becoming common in the movie world is the idea of everything being a 'cliche'...every year there are more movies...every year there is another variation on teh 3 part story arch that has been 'done' and there are fewer things to come up with that haven't been done before. The refusal of the call is a pretty integral part of a hero's journey(currently reading Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, GREAT BOOK) but in modern cinema there is such a pressure to not do things that are common and 'done to death'. How many critics would have hated on The Thing prequel had they had the textbook refusal of the call followed by the heroine going on the journey anyway? I could see it now, 'At first, Kate refuses the offer...but we all know what's coming next, we all know she is going to go to antartica to be attacked by the monster, so you begin to wonder why they bother going through the motions and don't just get to the point of having her get there ASAP?' We've seen the Refusal done over and over, perhaps the mindst of the filmmakers was 'lets NOT go through the usual routine of her saying no but then something convincing her to do it" It's a double edged sword and there is always someone ready to tear a movie apart. Either you catch flack for being 'typical' and doing the things that are always done, or you catch flack for ignoring hallmarks of good storytelling. In the end, many critics always say that doing the opposite of what you ended up doing was the best way to go.
    • http://www.facebook.com/danielvutran Daniel Vu Tran
      I agree.
  • Shikaka
    John Carmack is a computer programmer, not a designer and certainly not a concept artist.
    • http://www.firstshowing.net Alex Billington
      It was a joke, about how bad the CGI in the movie was, it looked like the first version of Doom, which was a Carmack creation.
      • Jericho
        maybe we will encounter aliens that naturally look like bad CGI?....
  • Chris
    For those interested in Campbell's monomyth (Hero's journey) and its influence on George Lucas' Star Wars scripts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell#Film
  • Have Hope
    Very interesting article. It does not matter which choices you choose, but it's how you present it. Just saying yes blindly and not really knowing what you are in for, is pretty thin writing. As you said, they just wanted to get Kate in that position to make it an action monster movie as soon as possible.
  • Anonymous
  • http://twitter.com/Halifirien Terry
    I like the analysis, but her decision didn't bother me much. The offer sounded very intriguing and the Eric Christian Olsen character vouched for the mystery man. The level of trust she put in Olsen's word made it more troubling for me later when she realized she couldn't trust him at all.
  • Mike P.
    Before I comment, I think you'd find this interesting, before anyone (like a poster above) bashes the writer: http://www.bloody-disgusting.com/news/26758 Back on topic: I disagree.  You say she should have said no, and then later went, all for the sake of "character development."  But really, it's just what you believe to be great character development -- something you've seen over and over, and because it was in successful movies, doesn't mean it's the only way to go about things. Every decision and every action a character makes defines them, and just because it wasn't inside a mold that Hollywood, or you, see fit, doesn't mean it's wrong, or bad.  Depending on the situation / movie / plot / character, it could be the right choice. Instead of fitting this mold of "option 3" that you would like to see in movies, what should be taken into consideration is what's being offered, and what's at stake. I haven't seen the movie yet, but from your description, and from what I hear and read, it seems like this:  What you got out of it was that she was comfortable where she is, and that she doesn't need any of this "antarctica nonsense" because she's working on a sabre toothed cat in her current days.  She should show strength and say no, then later say yes due to having no other choice. I don't see how that provides a point that she's okay with what she's doing, and she doesn't yearn for something more.  True, it doesn't elude that she DOES want something more, or that she ISN'T comfortable where she is, but it certainly doesn't say the same for the opposite. Her acceptance of the offer builds her character, just in a different way.  It seems she makes rash decisions, and lives for a thrill, and wants to unearth something incredible.  She, like everyone else in life, yearns for some sort of importance, not to examine a sabre tooth cat.  She doesn't merely want to be a "re-discoverer" of sorts, doing what any paleontologist does, she want's to have her own success and her own discovery.  Something to be remembered by.  To leave her footprint in history.  And this, being a flaw, ultimately leads to the conflict, and whatever end awaits her, be it death, or some sort of resolution where she "learns the error of her ways." A "strong" protagonist isn't the only compelling protagonist.  One that is "weak", yet interesting in their own right, and learns to become "strong" is just as interesting. I'm not calling the script perfect, some sort of set up would've been nice, I wholeheartedly agree on that..  But from what I read it seems several scenes setting this up were cut, or reworked in order to satisfy someone (apparently the test audiences weren't too thrilled with the character development because they wanted monsters asap). Great article, you make solid points.
  • hombreZOO
    The analysis is interesting, but with all due respect it feels more like a smart ass comment on someone's work, anyone can pinpoint small flaws, but to make an entire story is not that simple, you are ignoring all the factors involved in a movie production, and foremost you are ignoring the fact that  this screenplay is a very well done work of reverse engineering, yeah it may have it's flaws but what you mention it's in my opinion the lesser one. Honestly like someone mentioned above to me it seems very logical taking a chance like this without thinking, and this is not a hero's journey, this in either case it's more like what in greek story structure is called a drama, where destiny is irrevocable, pretty much like Oedipus, where the main character is destined to perish  since the beginning and the story is just a path to generate a catharsis. SPOILERS If you are looking for the refusal it may be the moment when she asks not to drill the ice block until they have more info, and then after that like all the hero's archetypes she is forced to take action. END OF SPOILERS Sorry man but you saw a very different movie, it seems to me like a lot of people was predisposed to hate this movie, and dont get me wrong, I love Carpenter movie, its one of my favorite movies of all time, and I dont defend the way movies are done these days cause think that's why we get so many very bad and very expensive movies these days, but think The Thing prequel was a good movie. And don' want to sound like an ass, just like debate and I like this website, so my opinions are just to tell my side and hear the other side in order to learn, I may be totally mistaken but I would have learned  something in the process of discussion.
    • hombreZOO
      made a mistake in the greek structure type, it's called Tragedy.
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ELP4QVLHF52IGUQXZJYITXUWTU Keystone
    I haven't seen the movie... yet. But what it sounds like is there's no sense of anticipation. The viewer is being dragged through the movie instead of having the viewer try to anticipate what's going to happen next. When the viewer gets excited about what they're seeing they try to get ahead of the game. If they guess what happens next is correct they feel intellectually satisfied. If they get it wrong, they feel surprised. It's a win-win either way. But dragging the audience through your movie means the scenes are just filler to get from point A to point Z quickly. Today's movies tend to do that because if it's about the action or the horror or the special effects, everything else is filler.
  • CrAzy Olyphant
    Actually they did have choice 3 in the movie where kate and her friend talk over lunch about why she should go. It didnt make it in the final cut but its in the bootlegged trailer that came out last spring. Take that! Lol  Awesome film by the way!
  • sb
    I agree with Mike P.  "I disagree.  You say she should have said no, and then later went, all for the sake of "character development."  But really, it's just what you believe to be great character development -- something you've seen over and over, and because it was in successful movies, doesn't mean it's the only way to go about things." The monsters were well designed, the CGI was good, it tied together all the scenes from the 1982 version, and fits pretty damn perfectly. My only complaint is the Kate character.  Joel Edgerton's character should have been the main character. Other than that, good movie.
  • Anonymous
    Good post. I think FS could benefit from more analytical writing like this. Cheers.
  • Crom
     iwant to see a Thing 2!!!! Global warming melts th eice cap, things invade south America!!
  • FUZZBUG
    I can see, and appreciate the author's argument, but it was such a small moment in the movie. Would the movie have benefited from that proposed piece of character development? Maybe, but having seen the movie, it would've drug it out. And it makes sense for the movies listed as examples. But in a movie like this, at least for me, you want to get to the outpost as soon as possible, and the conflict proposed here would not have served anything significant for the movie they made. For me? The movie as a stand-alone picture? I really enjoyed it. Thrills, tense, jumped a few times, a fun ride. And they made an effort to make it looked like it was filmed in the 80's, right down to a 80's Universal logo to open the movie. But you put it next to John Carpenter's movie, it does fall short. But not to the degree it's not worth seeing if you want to have a good time at the theatre. The only real criticism I had about the movie, it looked like 90% of the creature effects were CGI. Which was annoying, especially since all of Carpenter's effects were practical. Wouldn't have minded CG accents, but the way they did it was unfortunate. Kinda of rambled there. But yea, anyone on the fence, find yourself with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon, I say go see it. It's a good time.
  • Gex
    The best example for the proper way to do a scene like this can be found in Jurassic Park.  When the owner of Jurassic Park visits the two paleantologists, they are a little too shocked at the sudden offer to immediately say yes.  They consider the reasons of why they shouldn't go, but with a little encouragement from the owner, they eventually say yes.  In that scene, which took less than 5 minutes, much was developed in those characters.  Was it really so difficult to pull off something like that in The Thing 2011?  Not to mention the two paleantologists weren't as well off as Kate financially, yet they still hesitated to to scheduling conflicts among other things.  But the main reason they still went was because they really wanted to.  Kate in The Thing, likewise, really wanted to go, but accepting so quickly is unrealistic, unless her character is developed to be one with ADD who jumps at the first opportunity to do something interesting to her, forgetting about everything else, which I doubt is how her character later developed (assuming it developed at all).

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