I’ve been thinking about genre lately. Specifically, what the hell is it, where did it come from, and why is something based on formula and convention so hard to define? I saw Wanted recently and was blown away. Good performances from the cast, great fight scenes and action sequences. It was heavy on special effects but they didn’t distract from the movie, they were all there for a reason other than looking cool. It was long but didn’t drag and I would reccomend it in a heartbeat. But it really wasn’t all that original. It was straight Action/Adventure genre work that followed all the right beats. So what makes Wanted so awesome and, say Bulletproof Monk, so crappy? They have similar stories: young loser discovers hidden talents bordering on the supernatural. Training and testing occur and secret destiny is fulfilled. Same genre, wildly differnt degrees of success.
Everyone goes into a movie with expectations based on the genre. But what if the genre’s wrong? Mr. and Mrs. Smith wasn’t really an action movie it was a romantic comedy. More submachine guns than most romcoms, but still. If you get thrown you’ll end up not liking the movie even though it’s good. You’ll feel tricked. I guess if a movie is a contract between the storytellers and the audience, then genre is where the fine print is.
1. Are you following conventions or plastering on cliches? Pirates of the Carribean vs. Cutthroat Island. Pirates had all the conventions of the old swashbuclers but written like real characters. People with things to say and ambitions to pursue. Dialog that sounded like people actually talking to each other. Cutthroat Island just dressed everybody up as pirates and figured the story would just sort itself out. I remember vaguely there was a map and a treasure but that’s not cliche, right? But Pirates had a tresure, you say! Oh wait, it was a cursed treasure that you found with a magic compass so you could put the treasure back. That might qualify as a fresh angle on the old conventions. Plus, the main character in Cutthroat Island was Captain Morgan. Really?
2. Are you being true to the story and the genre? I am Legend is a pretty damn good book. I am Legend was a pretty damn good movie- right up to the point where they ruined it with the (mostly) happy ending. There are plenty of sci-fi/near future genre flicks with that one chance for hope at the end. Equilibrium‘s a good one. So is Children of Men. I am Legend is not that kind of story. It’s exactly the opposite of that story. Especially that part about hope at the end. No hope. Unless you’re one of the new vampire-people. Admittedly this one is often out of the writer’s control but this is a particularly grievous offense. It ruins literally everything the whole rest of the movie was about. Including the title. The title!
3. Are you trying too hard to avoid genre cliche? If you’re writing a screenplay about vampires, you don’t have to tell us what kills them, or what doesn’t kill them. Don’t we have enough short-hand now that we can figure out which kind of bloodsuckers are in your movie? Sunlight doesn’t kill ’em and they’re brooding aristocrats? Just show them doing that and we’ll get it. Mindless predators with no control over their unholy thirst? Yeah, we’ll get that too. Will a stake do it or do we have to cut the whole head off? We don’t need someone to explain it to the new guy on the Vampire Eradication Squad and bore the rest of us while he’s at it. Want an unreal example of letting the conventions explain themselves? 3:10 to Yuma. That movie drops you right into the story without one bit of prologue. It’s not needed because everybody knows they’re here for a Western, damnit. Pretty much all the characters are there and we all know who they are so let’s let ’em do their thing! Yee-ha.
4. Can you mix genre? If you can’t, that’s okay, just don’t do it. From Dusk til Dawn was a cool idea for a movie. Robert Rodriguez is very skilled at the crime genre. His style is almost a genre of it’s own. Let’s call it Tex-Mex/crime/fantasy. After watching Planet Terror I think we can also say Rodriguez is good at the over the top monster movie with old-school Tom Savini effects. Those genres don’t really go together. Well, I think they could, but they didn’t really land in this one. The vampire effects were at odds with the tone from the rest of the movie. The perfectly paced slow-build to the massacre in the bar comes to a screeching halt so we can figure out what these vampires are and how we can kill them (see number three). As soon as those doors closed Rodriguez shouldn’t have let us take a breath until they opened again at dawn. Now if you can mix genre, baby you go for it. Blade Runner: sci-fi or film noir? Shaun of the Dead: comedy or horror/zombie? High Noon: western or social commentary?
It’s enough to give you a migraine. Genre, sub-genre, sub-sub-genre, mixed genre. Some of the distinctions can get pretty fine. I think this definitely hits the screenwriter more than the novelist. A screenplay is generally written with a specific genre in mind before it’s even started. A novelist has more leeway and a good deal more opportunity to explain any genre sidetracks to get his reader onboard. Probably best not to think about it too much. Story is king. A good story should stay good whether it’s on a river barge or a spaceship.