These are some observations I gathered while writing my last feature, a very dark, realistic take on a popular fairy tale. They are only meant to act as an advisor for anyone crazy enough to listen. By no means am I an authority on this.
Writing the modern fairytale is a tall order. Especially for a screenplay. It’s not meant for everyone simply because it doesn’t offer something for everyone. It’s for a select group of people that choose to believe that happy endings exist in the same world as tragedy. Sadly, this is not the case. However, the more grounded you become, the more rooted in human nature the fairytale becomes, the more tragic it becomes. To know that someone with such a life inside, outside, and around them would betray them is a sadness all too often felt by the world. Most times it is not redeemed.
The closest example I can find is The Green Mile, a film about a man with a God-given healing power sentence to death via the electric chair by prison guards that connect with him, but ultimately can do nothing but watch him die.
However, as I’ve adapted this fairytale to the screen, I’ve learned a few things. You probably won't agree with some/most of these things, but that's why they're beliefs, and things that I felt worked in my story for what I felt were universe reasons.
#1: The hero’s world is connected far more than we’ll ever know, because he is a tragic character.
It is moving and changing around him, like surfers catching the wave while the hero clutches his board on the shore. By the time he gets into the ocean, it will have been high tide. And the surfers will have left and he’ll have been left on the shore alone with no one to hear his cries.
All fairy tales have an element of magic to them, but giving a power to someone with societally no power? That's tragedy. Giving a gift to a man who cannot use the gift, or whose gift cannot be understood is nothing short of frustrating. The Green Mile's John Coffee tried to save the two dying girls, but townspeople arrived to what they thought was a crime scene, because he was black. He was put to death row, to be killed for something he didn't do.
The protagonist is in tune with the universe, giving him hyper instincts. All of these characters are tragic in nature, but they must be given something great in return for their pain. In my story, it is hyper sensitivity to the world around him. He senses when things are off, and follows his instincts. However, in the world of a fairy tale, the character is tragic.
HIS GIFT BALANCES HIS PAIN
HIS GIFT TRANSFORMS INTO A CURSE.
THE CLOCK IS TICKING…
In my story, the character is born tragically, and as a result, is given the gift of hyper sensitivity and awareness, which we believe balances out the pain he lives through every day. The gift helps him avoid further pain, and even makes him a better person at particular points. However, in this adaptation, the gift transforms him into a much worse person, as this gift is part of a larger agenda that facilitates his arc, bringing about his downfall. The gift is also a curse. The gift will save the one he chooses to protect, but the curse will put him in the wrong location at the wrong time.
#2: Coincidence is rampant, peripheral, and invisible. It is just part of the world, and it is not ironic. Each chance encounter digs another hole for the hero. Each chance encounter sticks the knife in deeper. In the end, it will save your hero. In the end, it will kill your hero.
The hero accepts the normal world around him. The world is simply trying to accept the hero. While everything else seems incidental, it is not. The world’s chance encounters with the hero bring about change, not because the hero wants them, but because he avoids them, and only in doing so, does he become more and more human to the normal world around himself. The sadness is rooted in the fact the hero never recognizes this change – and those unable to change must perish. However, the character is playing a game, operating by a set of rules he's unaware of, using pieces when they're finally needed, but not always when they should be.
A lot of this, I feel, has to do with the origin of the character as a starting point, and his arc as the ending point. If he was brought about by magic, or given a gift through abstract means, it only stands to reason the world would try to balance it out. The question is whether or not the hero realizes this is happening, which I don't think they do (and if they do, can they realistically change anything?) Every coincidence plays into an already existing condition that, under normal circumstances could not be ignored, but in this story because the character's denial of the existence of coincidence is what will move him forward, it's his denial and all too far late acceptance of this reality pushing him towards the end. Every step away from his destiny only pushes him more towards it. And every coincidence he avoids, is met head on by the ally and love interest. It doesn't go away, it's only reapportioned with much harsher consequences. Those consequences soon take everyone out of play except the hero. Here, coincidence is just part of the world slowly killing our hero. The question is, do they learn to accept it?
#3: Character’s lives overlap most at the times of suffering.
It’s the consequence of fairy tales having morals or tried and true message that we’re often reminded of periodically throughout the story. In real life, it is not the moments of happiness that bind us, but the moments of depression, anger, and fear. It is the moments of sadness and desperation that it seems the hero is unconsciously aware as he moves forward, narrating the story for our other characters. He doesn't know them personally, he doesn't know their lives, but he knows their essence, because our hero was brought into this world by the very force binding everyone together, keeping them together, and ultimately tearing them apart. Everyone is going to lose something in this story, and it's the hero's job to figure out what that is, navigate the pathway, make the "mental read" on the play, and call an audible.
#4: Your hero’s end is rooted in fate. Your supporting character’s is rooted in destiny. Both are driven by love. Both are ended by hate.
Except only one of them realizes this, and it creates a sense of urgency. It is a concept that betrays what fairytales are all about. It abolishes what they stand for: a collision course between fate and destiny, with love somewhere in the middle. While your hero moves with the current, the others fight against it with purpose. They will try to fight it, but will never realize that it's not up to them, it's up to the hero they created, and that scares them more than anything. The only one that can change their set path is the hero, because he accepts his fate, which is intricately linked to each supporting character's future, and change theirs in a second by making the right decision, the only decision... to kill himself. The hero won't set out to do it, they'll just know it comes with the territory.
#5: The hero’s inability to recognize his own arc will be what draws him into death’s cave, but the love of your film’s pivotal character will be what kills him.
Whether they know it or not, they are a collision course with the supporting character that will act as an advisor and accessory to their murder simply because they loved them. This little fact makes for the only irony that should appear in your fairytale film, because it is the core element that is missing in your character. We all want love. The few exceptions out there will do what it takes. In the fairytale, we’re all willing to die for it. And read my lips, our hero will die for it. This fact alone integrates the fairytale world into our own.
Tom Hank’s character in The Green Mile offered to free the innocent John Coffee at the cost of his own future, until Coffee rejected the notion. It was his time. Hanks put him to death because he loved him and cared for him. And now your character must die because of it.
In my adaptation, the hero finally meets his reflection character, only to put his entire world in perspective. He’s been told the path he’ll take, the path the supporting character and his ally will take, and the path the trickster will take in killing everyone and saving no one. Whether he likes it or not, he is the only man for the job. He's the only one left alive by coincidence. He’s the only man that can save everyone, with only the MINIMAL cost of his life. No other person is more capable than they at that moment. Only then, does he become the protagonist of the movie, because he realizes what he must do to win, and he does it gracefully, with a self-hatred, for the love of the pivotal character.
#6: The hero is redeemed, but only in death.
That is the essence of the fairytale. The hero will be redeemed because these first four rules will have taken effect. His redemption will come only in death because, if alive, he will forever be branded as the outcast due to his gift and connection with the world, and the isolation that accompanies it. His death sparks empathy for his cause. His death is relatable because his death means our protagonist is human after all. You may not consider Taxi Driver to be a fairy tale, but it's fantastic ending suggests otherwise.
While they follow a skeletal base, I believe no screenplay based on a fairytale should be an accurate adaptation. It should explore the unexplored, elaborate on the unexplained, and enlarge the world and characters we loved so much. It should be a refraction of who we are, not a reflection. An allegory, perhaps.
#7: In the grounded world of the fairytale, the hero’s death will bring about the prospect of change, but not change itself.
"Will this change the way the world operates, or just leave a little flicker in an otherwise flameless environment?" The ambiguousness is a simple equation of good character development, city as a character, how people react to the character (is he glorified or chastized, and to what level?), and just how much of a physical impact he leaves. Killing half the police force in the dirtiest city in the world might just change the way some people think about corruption. Trapping them underground with food, water, and electric razors... not so much (I couldn't resist.)
#8: The trickster’s weapon will be what kills the antagonist, not the protagonist.
The protagonist is a tragic character, but he is also the redeemer. They will find a way to salvage themselves without having to strike the final blow. Believe me, they'll try. But, because the protagonist is connected to every being in this story, he is aided by them in his attempt to stop the antagonist, but since he is truly pure, he cannot kill the antagonist. He may be surrounded by land mines he never planted, but he’s stepped over them all because he never knew they were there, whereas the knowledge of them would have altered his plan entirely. Realizing his place in the world, he's finally done everything he can do to stop the antagonist, but now it's time for the people with all those good intentions and bad execution to come back into the show and play their part. It may be their gun left behind that carried the bullet they loaded but never fired. The piece of information left behind far after their death. Or the conscious choice not to trust the protagonist that got the wrong man with wrong motives in the right spot to do the right thing to the right person. Either way, when the chips are done and he's facing a hale of bullets by himself, he's far from alone. He's more complete now than anyone in this story ever was because he's been helped more than he ever knows. He's a collage of this universe, and he's about to face the antagonist head on.
#9: These people are real.
A fairy tale is a story like A Tale of Two Cities or Moby Dick, so treat these people like it. Adapt your material in a way that spawns the most harrowing, realistic take on the material you've seen. The worst thing that can happen is that everyone dies. The best outcome is that someone lives. The scariest part of finishing the adaptation was in knowing that fairy tales, like sitcoms, have a stasis. Things must in some way return to stasis. In some ways, they CANNOT change. Did the protagonist succeed in creating change? We'll never know, because that's not in our story to know. We just know that he succeeded today. He set the example today.
In fairy tales, we're left happy to the thought that someday these happy-go-lucky characters will come back. Well, if good can return, so can evil. And if these magical heroes exist, then the sorcery of the villain must exist as well. Except, in the real world, they take much grander, and scarier forms... and the consequences are much, much worse.
To anyone who got to the end of this thing, I applaud you. If I've left anything out, feel free to email me. I welcome a good discourse on the subject.
As you know, when a script is produced, scenes are often cut from the screenplay that never make it to the screen. As an early Christmas gift, I thought I'd share some cut subplots from the critical and commercial powerhouse conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.
Having recently acquired all the Planet of the Apes films, a colleague and I sat down to watch Beneath the Planet of the Apes... when we saw the credits, and noticed two problems.
Which one of these characters is a skin color? And which is just a fat man?
My colleague nearly flipped. I sat in stunned silence, reminded of all the people who've ever worked tirelessly on a film only to be labeled "Fat Cop" or "Loser". Those aren't just words. Credits are the acknowledgement of a person's work. When you give an actor's physical description as their character name, you're labeling them... and anyone can do that. You're a filmmaker. One of your jobs is giving people NAMES BEFITTING OF THE CHARACTER.
This isn't the first time this has happened. It keeps happening. Total Recall does the same thing.
Allen was a staple of San Diego theater. She got her acting break on a two-episode arc of Happy Days. Her next credit was in the film Total Recall, where she played the disguise that Arnold Schwarzenegger wears trying to enter Mars. Why am I talking about Prescilla Allen? Because! In a world of three-boobed women, mutated civilizations struggling to survive, and a service that allows for importing memories, she was credited as Fat Lady.
One of only four credits to her name.
That's their legacy -- not a credit, but a label.
In Memory of Priscilla Allen
"Quaid's Disguise" from Total Recall