Friday, 20 August 2010

Rewriting The Matrix, and respecting kids

This is a bit of a wordy post, so feel free to breeze in and out accordingly.

So I spent a few days a couple weeks ago writing the first draft treatment of my children's fantasy film. If all goes to plan, this would be part one of a trilogy.

I've had ideas for this script knocking around for about a year now and I've just let everything settle in my head before I wrote anything down. It worked out well, because I found it very easy to fit everything to Blake Snyder's outline template and write an 11 page outline pretty fast.

As a rule, children's fantasy stories are fairly formulaic. Just look at the striking similarities between Star Wars: A New Hope and the first Harry Potter book - they're essentially the same story.

So you know what I'm talking about, you often get things like:

- A child protagonist with no parents (Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter)
- A very clear mentor character (Obi Wan, Hagrid)
- A villain with strong personal connections to the protagonist (Darth Vader is said to have killed Luke's father, just like Voldemort did)

And so on.
My story does conform to a few of these rules and it pisses on a few others. That's not to say it's complete cliche (though it is in parts since it's only the first treatment draft), but that some of these things are vital for a kids' fantasy film.

You have to have a child protagonist, otherwise, who are the audience going to relate to? You need a kid whose parents take an inactive role or they wouldn't be able to do anything. You need a mentor character to teach a kid (since they can't do everything themselves) and fill that missing parent void. And your hero and villain have to be connected in any story.

So yes, my story has a fair few similarities with Harry Potter. But I noticed, when reading through the treatment, that it's also quite similar to The Matrix. Which drew me to the conclusion that The Matrix is, essentially, a children's fantasy film. Only, without a kid.

- We have a protagonist with no clear family (like every child in fantasy stories)
- He discovers something unusual and leaps into that world with the help of a mentor character (Morpheus)
- There's a very clear training section where our hero learns what they need to do (fighting Morpheus, leaping across buildings, seeking out the Oracle etc)
- Our hero is The Chosen One (Harry Potter, Star Wars, His Dark Materials, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The One)

I could go on. But the point is that my story is pretty similar. Which is a) a good thing, since The Matrix is awesome and is a great example of complex storytelling and b) a terrible thing,'s been done!

But I ain't worried. Everything I write is a little cliche in the first draft, so I'll work it out.

If there's one thing I've tried to do in this story, it's respect a) my child protagonist and b) my child-dominated audience. If reading Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy has taught me anything, it's that kids are smart and can take a lot more than we give them credit for.

I went back and forth with one very tough decision in this story. It's part of the film's trigger/catalyst so vital that I get it right. I'm talking about killing a child's parents on-screen. Not just letting people know that this kid's parents are gonners (Star Wars, Harry Potter), but actually showing them die and allowing my hero to deal with that event.

On one side, I didn't want to scare the audience away, which this can certainly do. You can easily say that killing off a 13-year-old boy's parents in the first 15 minutes of a film is way too dark. But on the other side, I knew that this was the right move for the story. It instantly lets you know what's at stake and gives my hero something to fight for.

So I went back and forth, trying to find other ways of creating the same effect. I even thought about fake-killing them, only to bring them back at the end (don't worry, I punched myself on the nose for that one!). But in the end, there was nothing I could do to say what I wanted. So kill them I did. And I'm firm in my resolve that it's the right decision. Definitely! Which is why I felt the need to blog about it.......

The number one issue (and the thing I've had the most headaches with) is showing how my hero deals with that experience. I can draw on a limited amount of experience of losing loved ones at a young age, but never anything that severe or significant.

It helps that I force my hero into this fantasy world, which in a way, means he doesn't have chance to deal with the loss in a conventional way. He has to focus on surviving first, and only then can he stop and think.

Anyway, I expect many a headache in the future of this script. Looking forward to it!

So, thoughts? Does anyone have an opinion on the whole "killing off a kid's parents" thing? Horror stories about how it can go wrong? Examples where it works perfectly in tone with the story? Let me know what you think.


Désirée said...

I'm looking forward to see this as a movie someday.

A very interesting post. I think it is a good thing you kill the parents within the story of the script. All the important stuff should happen on screen, even if it is dark.

Adaddinsane said...

..except you'll be asked to change it.

If it's Hollywood, they won't kill a kid's parents on screen.

But then it doesn't have to be Hollywood any more, so good luck.

halojones-fan said...

Didn't Harry's mom die on screen?

Also, in Star Wars, maybe Lars and Beru weren't Luke's actual parents, and maybe they didn't actually get shot on screen, but we *did* see the charred skeletons lying on the ground.