Monday, February 9, 2009

The meaning of adventure

As I struggle to finish the second draft of my current screenplay, part of my brain is already drifting (as it is often does) toward my next project. With that script, I'm planning to delve head-first into the Adventure genre -- an area in which I haven't exactly written before, even though it's the source of some of my favorite movie memories.

I've blogged before about genres and how important they are to both writers and audiences. For me, a crucial step in developing a script is to study the genre it lives in. What are this genre's strengths and limitations? What characters are best suited to it? What kinds of scenes, sequences, and individual moments are only possible in this genre (and therefore should be taken advantage of as much as possible)?

As I work on my plot and characters, I'll look at movies (and TV shows, and books) that I consider the best of the genre and use them to help me answer the above questions. But that other media only tells part of the story (no pun intended); I also have to think long and hard about what the genre means to me -- and how I'm going to choose to define it.

The word "Adventure" probably conjures up a whole host of stock images in most people's minds. Jungles. Cliffs. Rickety bridges. Roaring seas. Mountains. Ancient castles. Secret chambers. Mythical monsters. (Many of those are also Time-Life books, I believe.)

On the other hand, the actual Merriam-Webster's definition of the word "adventure" is simply this: an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.

What about those examples above, though? Don't they also suffice as a definition, or at least a decent synopsis? I would say no. In fact, you could include every single one of those elements in a script and still miss the point (and meaning) of adventure. Here's how.

Fade in on JAKE, an intrepid treasure-hunter. Jake seeks the ancient relic to end all ancient relics: the GOLDEN CHALICE. He meets a very old SAGE who tells him how to find it. "First," the Sage says, "you will have to trek through the jungles of Maatu to reach the cliffs of Zadar. From there you'll cross a long and precarious bridge to get to Mount Seku, which you must go all the way over to find Gilan Harbor and book passage on a ship to the island of Castle Hutah (beware of the high seas and giant serpents on the way). Within Castle Hutah, you must defeat the ravenous Flakka monster that guards the entrance to the secret catacombs -- which contain the Golden Chalice."

Undeterred by the challenges before him, Jake sets out on his journey. He trudges through the sweltering jungle, makes it to the cliffs, barely survives the rickety bridge. The mountain is steep and cold, but he summons all his strength and stamina and climbs all the way over it. He gets to the harbor, sets sail on an available vessel, crosses the angry ocean without getting eaten by any of the serpents. Then Jake enters the castle, engages in a death-defying battle with the Flakka and defeats it using a combination of brawn and trickery. Finally, he makes his way through the maze of catacombs to retrieve the Golden Chalice. Fade out.

Why isn't this an adventure? Because there are no unknown risks. The threats and challenges Jake faces are exactly what he's told they'll be. What we have here is a long, arduous journey... into the Known. If we executed every one of those plot points skillfully enough, we might be able to wring out an okay-enough action movie; but it still wouldn't be an adventure -- no matter how many adventure-ish trappings the story seems to contain.

On the other hand, if Jake is just crossing the street in Lower Manhattan to get a cup of coffee and the pavement cracks open and drops him into an underground world of sea serpents and sweaty jungles and catacombs and he has to retrieve the Golden Chalice to find his way back home -- now it's an adventure, because Jake had no idea that going out for a double espresso would result in encounters with mazes and ancient monsters.

Actual movie example: Finding Nemo. Marlin has no idea what he'll encounter when he sets out to find his son. He only knows his safe little corner of the ocean. He accepts the unknown risks ahead of him, and his journey is therefore an adventure.

Other actual movie example: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Yes, I'm picking this one instead of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In a minute I'll explain why.) The inciting incident in the film is Indiana Jones's discovery that his father has gone missing on a trip in search of the Holy Grail. He goes after his father, unaware of why he's disappeared or who else is looking for the Grail. Surprise: it's the Nazis. Now he finds himself on a quest to reach the Grail before Hitler does -- even though that's not what he expected when he went in search of his father. (On the other hand, in Raiders, Indy knows more or less exactly what the risks are -- he knows he's looking for the Ark in Egypt and that the Nazis are already after it. The events that follow are thrilling, but they're not exactly an adventure.)

And if we go way back, we come upon the adventure that started it all -- The Odyssey. Here's a guy who just wants to get home to his wife before she's forced to marry one of the slimy assholes vying for her attention in his absence, but en route he manages to stumble upon every possible trap and monster and magical temptress on the face of the earth. Was he looking for all that stuff? Of course not. He just wanted to be home for dinner. That's an adventure.

In a larger sense, what we're talking about here is a version of what Robert McKee calls the "expectations gap." In Story, he argues that to move a narrative forward, the writer must create gaps between what the protagonist expects to happen and what actually does happen. While it's true that any good movie needs to employ this structure, a good adventure movie needs especially large gaps. These aren't hard to create, provided you have an active imagination; the tricky part is that somehow, even though this new or hidden world is a surprise to the protagonist, he or she must be relatively prepared to navigate it. To pull off that feat, we'll need to be especially adept at matching (or, more to the point, artfully mis-matching) the character to the setting and obstacles. And that's a whole other essay right there.

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