Pregnancy - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A brief word about pregnancy in films. There's too much of it.

Heh.

I'm not talking about JUNO, which I hear is lovely, or KNOCKED UP, which had me cackling. I'm talking about writers throwing in pregnancy to up the stakes, or tie two people together.

I can't tell you how many times I see in a movie that the woman in jeopardy is pregnant. Why? I guess because we wouldn't care about her being murdered if she weren't also carrying a baby. That's irritating.

Some young writers, whom I asked to explain to me why the two leads were together under implausible circumstances, told me "she's pregnant." Um. No.

Pregnancy is like smoking. (First time you ever heard that, isn't it?) It tells you very little about the character. Homeless men smoke. Debutantes smoke. A cigarette says very little about a character, really. Likewise, most women can get pregnant. Most women eventually do. A heroine who has an inordinate fondness for beetles is a character. A heroine who is pregnant is not particularly distinct yet.

Try to define your characters in fresh, distinctive ways. I read a script opening with the sad sack hero coming in to his ungrateful cat. I feel like I've seen five Bruce Willis movies that start that way. How about, your character comes home, steals the Victoria's Secret catalog from his neighbor's mail slot, and heads into the bathroom with it? Now that's a sad sack.

Pregnancy is a generic way of upping the stakes that does not require much thought. Unless your movie is actually about pregnancy, try to avoid throwing pregnancy in there. Your impulse to do so probably means you have not made yourself care about the woman enough.

It's like throwing hot sauce on your chicken. If you feel like your chicken needs hot sauce, you probably didn't make enough of an effort to season it. The problem is, all your meals wind up tasting like Louisiana Red Hot.

If you want to be a pro chef, Louisiana Red Hot won't help. Think tarragon, think lemon zest, think molé sauce. If you want to be a pro writer, create a female character that we'd hate to see killed for her own sake. And create relationships that are strong on their own without swapping DNA.

UPDATE: Here's a good test for whether you're using pregnancy as a crutch: would any other story element do the same job? As Emily Blake points out in the comments below,
The Paper is a film that uses pregnancy effectively. It's not about pregnancy, but one of the underlying issues is how helpless the wife feels and how worried she is that she'll be alone with the baby as it consumes her life because her husband's a workaholic.
You need pregnancy there.

But if all you need is for us to care about the woman, or you just need the woman and man to care about each other, then you can do that in many cleverer ways than by getting the woman knocked up.

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6 Comments:

The Paper is a film that uses pregnancy effectively. It's not about pregnancy, but one of the underlying issues is how helpless the wife feels and how worried she is that she'll be alone with the baby as it consumes her life because her husband's a workaholic.

It's a really underrated film.

By Blogger Emily Blake, at 11:00 AM  

And then of course there's Fargo. Even though it's not a big story element, it works as a defining character trait-- and then the Coens subvert your expectations-- Marge kicks ass. There you go-- I'd like to see a pairing of Juno MacGuff and Marge Gunderson.

By Blogger Tavis, at 3:17 AM  

I couldn't agree more. The pregnancy in Children of Men felt totally tacked on, there for stakes-raising purposes and nothing else.

Seriously though, if I see one more scene in which a husband places his hand on his pregnant wife's belly and they look at each other with dewy-eyed concern for the future I think I'm going to get morning sickness.

Good post.

By Blogger Patrick, at 12:40 PM  

Oh you mean that pregnancy is not (*gasp) and illness but rather a fact of life ?

thanks for this great post.

By Blogger P'tit Boo, at 8:42 PM  

"an" illness, not "and" illness.
sorry.

By Blogger P'tit Boo, at 8:43 PM  

Its related to Pregnancy in movies. Its must for those moms who are pregnant. In movies all that is shown is not true as far as i am concerned. Its only about a story but not realistic. In my view pregnancy is a generic way of upping the tasks that does not require much thought. Unless your movie is actually about pregnancy, try to avoid throwing pregnancy in there.

By Blogger Lawrence, at 2:37 AM  

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