Tragic mask from the Pio Clementino Museum
When I had finished the draft of my second novel, which became First Citizen, my agent at the time showed it to a friend of hers, who worked in development at MGM studios. He loved the novel—actually taking a copy of the manuscript with him on a trip to China so he could keep reading it—and thought it could be made into a movie. But first, he said, I would have to find a central story line through my long and convoluted plot. The book form follows the main character from birth, through his days as a strong, idealistic, and innocent young man, to his final victory as a corrupt warlord in a broken country, who ravishes his own daughter at one point, and is also at the end a bit crazy.
I never thought of this book in terms of Greek drama as either a tragedy or a comedy. The plot intended to tell the story of Julius Caesar in modern dress—and take the United States along on the ride in the persona of the Republican Rome at its fall. Depending on what you think of Caesar, a man who achieved everything he wanted and still ended up dead, that story has tragic elements—except that, unlike the fall of a Greek protagonist, Caesar never achieved a clear, personal understanding of his faults and their consequences. But it was a dark book.
To satisfy this young producer, I would have to condense the essence or core of my story into a two-hour screen play. I would also have to write the first draft myself. He was generous enough to spend time on the phone with me and gave me a pitch as to what the modern movie screenplay must contain.
All movies, successful or not, he said, in order to be made must conform to the three-act structure. In this form, the first act shows the main character living his or her normal life, going about business, and not aware of or prepared for any serious trouble. At the end of the first act, the protagonist’s world comes apart: a loved one is taken, a fortune is lost, the character is hoodwinked and betrayed by a trusted friend, or endured a similar catastrophe. Her or she then spends the whole of the second act trying to recover what had been stolen or lost, but strong enemies, personal failures, and circumstances beyond control prevent any return to equilibrium—“the very earth rises up against him,” in the words of the young producer. At the end of the second act, the character discovers the key: an ally, a plan, a weapon, or a secret that will lead to a successful resolution. And in the third act, that ally, plan, weapon, or secret achieves the opportunity for the final confrontation. In that confrontation, the protagonist must physically contend with his or her nemesis, the author of the initial loss, and “go mano a mano with him, like Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls”—again in the producer’s words. And, needless to say, the protagonist wins.
The pattern is simple: loss, struggle, and recovery in three acts.
To prepare for this assignment, I read two books that the producer recommended, classics on the subject: Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and his The Screenwriter’s Workbook: Exercises and Step-by-Step Instructions for Creating a Successful Screenplay. Field’s instructions confirmed everything the producer had said. The books also described the format in which the pages must be typed so that one page of screenplay, whether covering dialogue or action, equals one minute of screen time. Field also gave explicit instructions, down to the page number, for how long each act must be.1 Yes, you are telling a story, but you are also fitting it into a formula that movie producers and directors can recognize and accept.
I wrote the screenplay, taking the story line from the middle of the book, and truth to tell, it wasn’t successful.
For one thing, as a writer I am a novelist; my instinct is to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind, including necessary features and descriptions to make the world become real. But a screenplay is sparse, just suggesting the setting with a word or two (e.g., “EXT. STREET SCENE”) and portraying the action with a sketch (“They fight”). To offer a description at the depth to which I’m accustomed is doing the work of the set dresser and the director or choreographer. To give such a detailed description implies that the camera must linger over the scenic elements or action for longer than the story requires. For another thing, I tend to write dialogue in detail, hearing and reproducing the spoken words in the character’s unique voice and with careful inflection. But the screenplay is supposed to be subdued, with the dialogue simply revealing the facts necessary to advance the plot, giving only hints of the emotions involved. The actors and the director must have the freedom to interpret the lines and add appropriate voicing and mannerisms. Writing mere sketches of scene, action, and dialogue is hard for me.
But beyond that, I had a hard time recreating the three-act structure with what I know about the origins of drama from my high-school and university courses in English literature.
In Greek drama, which is the earliest form in the Western tradition, a story that resolves itself by restoring the characters to their original, happy condition is structurally a comedy. The characters may have learned a thing or two from the action of the plot, and along the way they might have developed skills they did not have before. But their personality and fate are not essentially forced to change at any significant depth. Although they may have passed through a crisis, it was external to their nature. And they have not learned anything substantial about who they really are. In Lysistrata, for example, the women on both sides of the Peloponnesian War oppose aggression and withhold their sexual favors in order to force men in their lives to the negotiating table, and in this they are successful. Not a surprise.
In contrast, the essence of tragedy is that the protagonist suffers a downfall but that, in doing so, he or she learns the truth about his or her true nature or situation. What the person thought and believed before has been shattered, and the character changes in reaction to this new understanding. In Oedipus Rex, the king discovers the sins of patricide and incest that he has unwittingly committed and for which Thebes has suffered a plague, but the discovery destroys him as king. In Antigone, the tyrant Creon learns that his harsh punishment of the girl for disobeying his orders about burying her rebellious brother has only ennobled the girl and at the same time destroyed his family. In Hamlet, the young prince pursues vengeance against his uncle for murdering his father and in doing so destroys himself and everyone around him.
Tragedy is not mere bloodletting, or bathos—subsiding into pointless action for its own sake. Nor is it unrestrained pity and sadness, or pathos—calling for our sympathy or empathy but not a deeper understanding of the character’s nature. Tragedy has a specific purpose, to show us the quality of a human being struggling with adversity and losing, and thereby becoming a better equipped, more enlightened, better prepared—although ultimately destroyed—person. Tragedy has something to teach us about nobility, persistence, the human spirit, and ultimately about wisdom. Comedy just takes us around in a circle, sometimes to a better place, but not to being a better person.2
Comedies are fun. Comedies make you happy for the main character and his or her present situation. They can even have you leaving the theater feeling better about the world—“uplifted” I believe is the term. Most important, comedies can give you, the viewer, the frisson, the temporary thrill, of destruction and loss without making you pay the emotional price—like a good ghost story when you know that the ghosts are all in your imagination. Comedies sell popcorn.
Tragedies are a downer. People die and they don’t come back in the third act. Heroes suffer and the only thing they can do is learn from it, because there is no sudden turning of tables, switching of the poisoned drinks, or shifting of the knife to the untrapped hand that makes everything come out all right. The world is a hard place. People make mistakes, sometimes knowingly but often not. And sometimes shit happens. The hero has to deal with all that and face the consequences of his or her actions bravely, without collapsing into an emotional puddle. Tragedies have you leaving the theater thinking about what you’ve seen but maybe not so excited about coming back right away. Tragedy puts you off popcorn for a while.
I sometimes wonder if our culture hasn’t lost something essential to the human experience by having our dominant entertainment form molded out of the comedic structure. The hero wins and everyone is happy but no one has learned anything real.3
Because I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories—or not much—I hesitate to say that Hollywood is foisting these happy-making stories upon the public to keep us all emotional children. Instead, I think Hollywood is responding to the national mood, which is that things are going really well for most people in this country—or at least for the people willing to spend ten bucks to sit in a theater for two hours and then spend ten more at the concession stand—and so why treat them to a downer of a movie that shows them how hard life can be and what a person can learn from it?
But if your life is a steady diet of comedies, where the hero always wins, where pluck and perseverance overcome all obstacles, where your opponents are always villains or gloating fools, and everything comes out all right in the end, then you remain an emotional child. Because sometimes the world collapses around you, and all you can do is put your head down and try to survive.
1. As I recall, the screenplay must never be longer than 120 pages. The first act must end by page 28 and the second by page 87.
2. The closest recent movies have come to the concept of tragedy, I think, is Jessica Chastain’s portrayal in Miss Sloane, where she knowingly destroys her own career to make a point.
3. In this way, I suppose video games can actually be more true to life and susceptible to tragedy than a movie. You can lose the game, virtually die, and be forced to examine your assumptions, your skills, your strategies, or your purpose in playing.