Today on twitter, Damien Walter posted the question,
“Do you want or expect more from an SF/Fantasy story / film etc than entertainment?”
Because twitter is seriously limiting on the amount of space to go into this in any kind of depth, on his prompting I’m laying down my ideas here.
I’ll start this with three caveats: To start, my first love has always been movies. I was saturated by the warm glowing warming glow of the television screen every night after dinner, before homework and bedtime. My dad was on a mission to own every movie ever made and every Tuesday was the day he would go and rent all the new releases and as many older movies as the “rent a new release, get an old release free” would allow. We’d spend the rest of the week watching what he’d picked up, new and old. As such, I have a very lenient eye when it comes to movies and learned first to love the intangible (for years, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the plot of the original Star Wars trilogy, but I could recite every single line from the movies).
Second, as I got older I was better able to tell a “good” movie from a “bad” one, and my foray into writing has made that demarcation even more stringent as I look more closely at the mechanics of story.
Third, genre stuff (science fiction, horror and fantasy) has been what I’ve loved most deeply, both in terms of movies and books. I consume media that involves these ideas more than traditional “literary” media. This goes more for books than movies – I’ll watch just about any movie, but I’m very particular when it comes to books (since I’m working on becoming a better genre writer, I feel inclined to read more genre stuff, and I’ve got so much catching up to do, I tend to avoid reading non-genre stuff). I’m going to use SF to mean speculative fiction as a broad marker for all three subgenres (and the sub-subgenres beneath those).
That being said, there gonna be a little bit of personal bias here. But there are three things at the heart of Damien’s question – is there an inherent difference between SF books and movies? Do those differences influence what I want out of those stories? And do those differences influence what I expect out of those stories?
Is there an inherent difference between SF books and SF movies?
My answer is yes. Absolutely yes. And the difference stems from where the focus is laid by the people producing those works, as well as the fundamental differences between books and films.
While I’m no expert in the ins and outs of the publishing world, the main focus of the publishing house is on the writer and what the writer wants to say, and this is based on how the publishing trial is configured (this is by no means the only way to go about things, but it is one traditional way). Ideally, a writer writes a story that they’re passionate about, and that story lines up with the image in their head that they had of the story. They sell that story to a publishing house that also believes in the work. They’ll work with editors to make the story as good as it can possibly be (while the writer retains ultimate creative control of the work, with the discretion to turn down suggested changes, even to the point of having to find a different publishing house). The story is then released to the world to stand on its own two feet.
Once a book is in a reader’s hands, it’s up to that reader’s imagination whether or not it will be enjoyed. This has to do with a lot of factors: do these characters resonate? Is the world richly enough drawn that I can easily suspend my disbelief? Does the plot engage me and make me want to turn the page? Did I achieve the necessary level of escape? Everyone is looking for something different in a book, which makes the interaction between a book and its reader a deeply personal thing. They want to be whispered to, since the effect of a good book can be subtle, but deep. If a book doesn’t do this, they’ll put it down. Or not buy it (if they’re previewing in a store or online). There’s no pressure here, which makes the stakes incredibly high.
Conversely, the main focus of a movie studio is to get the most butts in seats – it’s an expensive endeavor to make a movie and, as such, they’re focused on the audience. It’s a game of numbers, of market research, of seeing what worked in the past and replicating it endlessly (Hello? Look at all the reboots, remakes, and remodels coming out recently). An anecdote from Will Smith’s career serves to underscore this (from this article):
First, he gathered the right data — information that was current, accurate, relevant and sufficient to make his decision. Second, he analyzed it for patterns or insights, and discovered that the top 10 movies included special effects; nine of 10 included special effects with creatures; and eight of 10 included special effects, creatures, and a love story. His first two movies, “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” followed that model, and grossed $1.3 billion combined. “
Books aren’t made this way, though an author might go to the bookstore and see what’s popular (see John Scalzi’s stories about how he decided to write the military science fiction novel Old Man’s War, since he saw so many military SF books on the shelf), but what comes out will be unique to that particular author (see: Old Man’s War). But when you write by committee, you wind up stripping out most of the things that made such a work unique to begin so it will appeal to a broader audience. And then to increase potential profitability, you add in more of the things people want, like special effects. Or creatures. Or a love story.
But movies are a passive medium consumed in a social setting. All you have to do is keep people from getting out of their seats and walking out (and even then most of the time you’ve still got their money). I remember seeing Godzilla 2000 with my brother, having never walked out of a movie before. And we almost did, but it required getting up and feeling even more ripped off that we didn’t at least sit through the whole thing. Not to mention that if you see a comedy in a theater and everyone around you is laughing, you’re more inclined to laugh yourself, and thus think the movie funnier than you would normally find it. The moral of the story is: you just want to get the people into the theater. And you do that through advertising. And you do that by promising the things that most people want to see:
Which brings me to my next point –
Do those differences influence what I want out of those stories?
There are things I look for in a story (be it a movie or a book), and I want that to be present in every story I consume. And while some of the things I want are idiosyncratic to my tastes (like I love stories about runaways, stories that can make me cry, or ache, or that can rekindle my wonder at the world, or psychological horror that has me squirming with no more than a single sentence, or a simple melody), other things are more basic:
Characterization: I want this above all. Moon is an astounding movie to me for this reason – the whole story explored how genetically identical copies of the same person can become very different people depending on the circumstance. So perfect (aside from the whole “now what I thought was gonna happen was” syndrome this movie inspires on the first viewing).
Setting: I want it to take place somewhere I would either love to live or I would be terrified to. I want attention to be paid to the little details.
Plot: I want something that is unpredictable, and lacking in obvious twists. I want to be so engrossed that I’m not trying to pick the story apart while it unfolds. I want the tension to mount or the problems to compound to such a fevered pitch that I feel just as desperate for a resolution as the main character.
Notice how all of those examples came from both books and movies. These things are basic to story, and tend to be exaggerated in SF stories (which I guess is why I’m such a hopeless junkie), and I want those things in ANY media I’m consuming, whether it’s a book or a movie or a TV Show. When those elements are present, I am thoroughly entertained because they’re pushing all my cognitive and emotional buttons. I want ALL of these things, and since there are many successful examples from both media types, I know my want is capable of being met.
Which brings me to my last point:
And do those differences influence what I expect out of those stories?
I hold SF books to a higher standard because they’re a mental investment for me. I’m much less forgiving when something is lacking in a story I’m reading simply because I know that there are so many more amazing books out there I’ll never even have a chance to read (because despite what some books tell me, I’m not going to live forever). So why should I waste what little reading time I’ve been given on earth on something I don’t care for?
Furthermore, I expect my SF books to amaze me. Many times when one of those pillars is weak, if the other two are strong enough I’ll keep reading, because those other two things will have still succeeded in blowing me away or pushing my buttons. And since my love of non-SF stuff isn’t as deep, I have much less patience when a story isn’t firing on all cylinders because if the story is not absolutely there, I’m done.
I hold movies in general to a much lower standard because I know that most of them are committee and market-research driven. But I can waste two hours on a movie, no problem. And if they even try to develop one of those three key areas of story, I’m happy because it’s easier to escape into a movie (especially when you have a giant TV and unlimited Netflix streaming). And BRIGHT. SHINY. LOOK AT THAT THING GO BOOM!
BUT, I expect MORE from SF movies. Look back at two of the common elements in the movies that Will Smith used to launch his career: special effects and creatures. Those are two things that are almost universally required in SF stories. They’re almost EASIER sells to the studios that stories that are just a love story. Or just a comedy. People love seeing that shit. Sometimes that means that the original screenwriter might be given a wider berth (sometimes too wide because of their reputation), and sometimes it means they’re not (see the Battlefield Earth example again). It depends on the writer’s reputation. Or the director’s vision. Or the studio’s desire. But if a story works, a story works. And there are a lot of great examples of great SF movies that went through big budget studios as well as ones that went through smaller independent studios.
Just take a look at any top 100 movies lists and count how many have an SF element.
People write SF stories and make SF movies because they love them. Deeply. And lots of movies ideas are drawn from great books (particularly SF books). And if you get enough people on a movie project that love it, you wind up with amazing things.
But it also means people studios can cut corners. Or put too many fingers in the pie. Or let things spiral out of control. And since they know SF movies have a slightly higher chance of having special effects and creatures (and the general idea is that you can cram a love story into just about any movie), they know people will still flock because the movies look AWESOME in the trailer, only to fall down flat with the audiences.
Just to contrast, look at the lists of some of the worst movies of all time. How many of those are SF? More than quite a few.
And I have to admit, being passively blown away is a much more intense experience for me than being blown away by a book. And because movies are my first love, I am a junkie (in the pure sense) for those movie experiences. But I don’t necessarily expect them. I’ve been burned too many times.
So to answer Damien’s question: “Do you want or expect more from an SF story/film/etc than entertainment?”
Yes. SF pushes my buttons HARD, and I always want these stories to live up to the lofty expectations in my head. I want more because I’ve gotten it before and I want that blissed out rush that defined most of my childhood spent in front of the TV.
I expect the things I want to see in the books I read. Not so much in movies. I know how many things can go wrong when a movie is made. I know how appealing a movie can look in a trailer only to be the worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen once I’m in the theater. But I’ll make my excuses to stay in my seat just because, hey, I’m already there. I might as well get my money’s worth.
That and I never get tired of explosions: