I had an interesting back and forth over the weekend with a fellow whose query I was evaluating, whose script is about a Famous Historical Person. The first few drafts of his query were all about FHP's external struggle against the Powers That Be. But I kept plugging away at the question your movie should always answer: what is the hero's personal struggle
? What drives him? What haunts him? Or to put it another way, Why him? What picked him
to face these challenges?
Film and TV are personal media. They don't do sweeping stories well. They do stories about a small group of people well. You wouldn't write a script about the Siege of Malta. You'd write a script about Some Dude at
the Siege of Malta.
If you have a historical event you want to put on screen, think about what sort of protagonist best tells the story. Do you want an outsider? An insider? Do you want an Achilles, who made the story happen? Or a Titus Pullo, who lived through the events and participated in them, but wasn't always in the thick of things?
How do you personalize the events?
I've always found the Titus Pullo-type character much more compelling in historical dramas. Probably because there's so much more leeway in how the character develops. (And why, for example, Rome is more interesting than if it was completely centered around historical heavy-hitters.)
In a script I wrote years ago, my main character was a minor aristocrat in his dotage, and used tumultuous historical events as a backdrop for the drama that unfolded in his household. His motivations were entirely conservative, trying to preserve the status quo, and his place in it, when the established order was violently disintegrating around him.
Not so much an outsider, but on the margins so that I could more fully create his manor-born world, and his relationships with other characters.
Is it cliche to personalize historical characters by focusing on the relationships they have with those around them? I know no other way.
This topic relates to one of John August's latest post:
He talks about how the goal in Star Wars is not to defeat the emperor, but to destroy the Death Star. Don't try and make the goal too big. I think that goes along with a heroes personal journey. The lesson is not to try and get too big and complex or you lose your audience.
I commented on John's site about how trilogies like The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean became bigger and more complex after an excellent first film and suffered because of it. The originals were simple stories that were propelled by character. The rest next two were the opposite.
This is why I love Peter Morgan so much. He finds such interesting personal journeys within larger stories.
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