Storytelling in Movies

In November, I posted a blog about storytelling in games, specifically World of Warcraft. After this season’s ending of Game of Thrones, I immediately knew I wanted to blog about telling stories on screen vs books.

Whether you enjoyed the last season of GoT or not, you have to admit the visual spectacle was impressive (just ignore the failed military tactics). This showcases what movies do best. The actor looks straight at you with a look on their face coupled with the right supporting music and you can feel anything from triumph, to anger, to crushing despair. No need for words at all. Same with battles. It’s so easy to show a huge battle and what everyone is doing on screen. That same scene can get confusing in text format. I recall reading the Helm’s Deep battle in LoTR and it never had the same impact as hearing the characters speak their rousing speeches or seeing Gandalf charge the slope to save the day.

I definitely wish stuff like that was even half as easy to write in books. It takes a whole lot of the right words and some past character development to evoke the same emotion. However, if the author gets it right, I wind up spending two days savoring that book when it ends. I love finding stories like that. I definitely want to write stories like that!

On the flip side, books can go into a whole lot of detail that can’t possibly be included in a movie. A movie is limited in length, so it has to use every possible shortcut to get from start to finish and still contain the essence of the book. This is probably the biggest reason why people complain about movies based on books. There’s always going to be something cut from the book to squeeze it into the movie, and the books will always have more background detail. In the GoT case, they tried to jam too much into too short a time and people felt the disparity between the level of detail in early seasons vs the broad brushstrokes taken in the later seasons. While they’d never be able to include everything from the books, the last two seasons would have been better served by adding a bit more.

Another thing books do really well is reveal your favorite characters’ inner thoughts. This issue came up in a Facebook group when people began discussing the Wheel of Time series which is coming out soon. Many of the characters in those books have internal dialog. But how do you translate that to screen? You can try voiceover narration like Blade Runner, but it winds up feeling awkward and forced. I did enjoy the pop up images in Ally McBeal where she showed her thoughts, but that is probably better suited to comedy than epic fantasy. I think the best thing they could do is have a character around to listen as the main character vocalizes their thoughts. Or maybe they’ll skip this and try to show thoughts as actions. Whatever they choose to do, I can’t wait to see WoT on the screen!

My takeaway from all this rumination is that movies are great for visuals and evoking deep emotion at a glance, helped along by those tear jerker soundtracks. Books are great at getting into the headspace of the character and for giving you way more details than a movie could ever have. And it’s a great joy to have both, even if you prefer one over the other.

Best Fantasy Battle – GoT vs LoTR

This weekend’s Game of Thrones episode was one hour and twenty two minutes of nothing but epic battle. Don’t worry, I won’t spill any spoiler details, but I did want to share my observations, especially after I commented on Facebook that it was the best fantasy battle I’d ever witnessed and someone disagreed and said they liked the battle for Helm’s Deep better.

I liked that battle as well. In fact, I enjoyed all the battles in the Lord of the Rings movies. But all those came with inspiring speeches and bits of tension relieving humor. Fine examples of battles for high fantasy.

I consider this Game of Thrones episode to be the best example of a grimdark fantasy battle. It’s interesting how both are relatively similar – beginning tension, interesting use of strategies, utter hopelessness, and the last second save. And yet, the look and feel are very different.

In the beginning, you feel the hopelessness in both battles. But in LoTR you get a few good pep talks. GoT gives you grim silence. In LoTR you see the orc army arrive, rain drops pattering on metal armor, orcs howling to intimidate (which worked pretty well), and a bit of comedic relief with an accidentally loosed arrow. GoT used silence and darkness like a weapon to ratchet up the tension. And there was no humor.

I’ve never seen a movie do that before. Usually, they get on with the action. But GoT makes you sit there for several minutes with nothing but darkness and silence. No sign of the enemy. Time advances. Still no sign. Time drags on and nothing. Your favorite characters are also waiting in silent anticipation, clutching their weapons nervously as they peered into murky darkness. They know the enemy is coming, but they can’t see it. And they can’t hear it.

If there’s one thing I learned from waiting over three hours to get on the Space Mountain ride in Disney World as a kid, is that things are 1000 times more frightening when you can’t see. I loved roller coasters, but that ride scared the crud out of me because I couldn’t see the track.

This worked on me as I was sitting in comfort watching the episode unfold. I’ve read many battle scenes that describe waiting for the battle as the hardest thing and I never really felt that until this GoT episode when the waiting became a Thing. I wish I could capture that essence and somehow recreate it in writing.

I can’t really go into detail about the other aspects of this battle, since that would be too spoilery and some people want to binge watch after all the episodes are out. Suffice it to say that it was all dark, gritty, fearful, terrifying, and awesome. Think Helms Deep but without the comedic relief and with lots of dark and creepy. We are talking zombie invasion after all.

Even if you never watch Game of Thrones, I recommend watching this episode – season 8 episode 3 – since I believe it to be the best and longest fantasy battle ever made on film.