Monday, June 10, 2013

Five Writing Lessons from Oz the Great and Powerful

So Oz the Great and Powerful is out on Blu-ray, or coming out on Blu-ray, or... something, I wasn't really paying attention to the commercials. The point is they got me thinking about the movie again. I saw it in theaters and thought it was okay. Not great, and not quite "good", as in I'd recommend people go see it. More like good enough that I wasn't pissed I'd seen it, but not quite good enough that I was satisfied.

I thought it should have been better! It absolutely should have been better. And it wasn't that the actors were bad (they all did a fine job) or that the CGI was awful (with the exception of the Wicked Witch - seriously, she looks a thousand times better in shadowy silhouette). So it had to be something about the story, right?

I think it was. And with my help, you might just avoid making the same mistakes.

1. Either have a twist or don't.

I'm going to spoil the movie right here just to get it out of the way, so either go watch the movie first or decide you don't care before you keep reading. Either way. Okay? Good.

Last warning.

Theodora the Good, a.k.a. Mila Kunis, is transformed into the Wicked Witch of the West halfway through the movie. Now there are two ways you can handle that. One is to treat it as a fait accompli: make it clear what's going to happen to Theodora, give you some hope it won't, then stab the audience in the heart when it happens anyway. The other is to keep it very secret that that's where Theodora is headed, and shock the audience when it happens.

Both methods have merits, but Oz botched it. They tried to take the second option, and played Theodora as a straight good witch right up until her transformation. At the same time Evanora, her sister, was played up as evil and had a bunch of flying monkeys and it was totally obvious she'd be the Wicked Witch. So it should have been a surprise how things turned out, right?

The problem was every freaking promotional image and trailer made it flipping obvious that Theodora was the Wicked Witch! I mean there are three trailers where Evanora and the WWotW are standing next to each other - guess it's not Evanora! And there were magazines that identified Theodora as the Wicked Witch in their freaking captions! And even if you avoided all that crap, Theodora's shadow turns into the WWotW right in the opening credits! Fuck!

Look, twists are great, but they don't work if you spoil them in the trailer. The movie would have worked a lot better if they'd just been up front about Theodora's identity and left us to wonder how she went bad. If you know you can't pull off a surprise, you can still create a lot of tension in a story by making us guess how the characters get to the ending.

Speaking of Theodora:

2. Let characters develop their own damn selves.

Ultimately Theodora becomes the Wicked Witch because she's tricked into becoming evil. Like Hayden Christensen.

Killing babies will totally save my hot wife, right?
When we meet Theodora she's almost painfully innocent, something the womanizing "wizard" Oz is quick to take advantage of. Then Theodora starts talking marriage and queening it up with him and Oz runs away on his quest, leaving her alone with Evanora, who plays on Theodora's vulnerability to convince her that Oz betrayed her. Then she talks Theodora into eating a magic apple (ho ho) to take the pain away, and WHAM!! Wicked Witch.

(I should note for clarity's sake that in Oz, being "wicked' is exactly the same as being on the Dark Side. Not a stronger witch, but the magic comes easier and looks cooler.)

Now, can you point out the thing that Theodora did wrong? No, you can't, because there isn't anything. Sometimes I think Sam Raimi has a thing for disproportionate retribution: Did you read the words wrong? WHAM, undead army! Refuse an old woman a fourth extension on her mortgage? WHAM, death by gypsy curse! Is your name Peter Parker? WHAM, misery misery supervillain dead girlfriend misery! (Okay that one isn't Raimi's fault.)

Theodora is innocent and naive and trusts her sister and that's why she gets turned evil. It's... I'm going to say it, it's lazy writing! And it wouldn't have taken much to correct. Just have her confront Oz, fly off the handle, try to cast a spell that goes wrong, disfigures her, and drives her insane, and you're all set. It could have been done in maybe five minutes of screen time.

A character should not become irredeemably evil because they were tricked into it. Allow characters their own agency.

3. Give villains a believable motivation.

That's Theodora's problem. Evanora's got a different one. See, she's wicked from the get go, because... I don't know. Nobody knows. She's just bad.

Now, yes, there are people who are just bad for no reason in real life, but in fiction everything happens for a reason. Sometimes that reason is for no reason except to fuck with the reader/viewer, but the author at least have a reason. In Oz there's never any reason given for Evanora to be bad.

And there are plenty of reasons for her not to be bad, starting with the fact that being wicked instantly turns you into a hideous hag! And it's pretty clear at the end of the movie that you don't get any significant power boost from becoming a Sith, er ah Wicked Witch. So what the hell was Evanora thinking? We don't know. And that's a problem.

Remember that everyone is the hero of their own story - even complete monsters.

4. Heroes are allowed to hurt people.

Back on Theodora again, sort of. I mentioned that Oz seduces her, right? Well that's because he's a womanizer, a flim-flam man, a con artist... a humbug.

Unfortunately Oz is also the protagonist of this movie. Now in The Wizard of Oz, Oz isn't all that good. He's a big flaming head that demands near-impossible tasks and tries to welch when they're completed. At his best he manages to B.S. the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion into accepting gifts of nothing and thinking they're awesome.

But because he's the protagonist this time, we need to root for Oz, which is why I think the relationship between him and Theodora never got resolved. See, there should have been a point where Oz had to admit to Theodora that he didn't love her, that he'd taken advantage of a naive girl because really, he's not that good a person. It would have helped justify Theodora's turn to wickedness, and it would have been honest.

Instead, Evanora tricks Theodora into thinking Oz doesn't love her. And that's true, yes! But because they never have that confrontation we never got proper closure on the issue. Oz gets to convince himself, if he wants, that he's not responsible for what happened to Theodora, because he's not responsible for what happened to Theodora. He could have been truly and honestly in love with her and the same damn thing would have happened.

Heroes are not perfect. Heroes can hurt people, sometimes badly. What they can't do is fail to confront that fact when it happens.

5. Good is not dumb.

Now for something Oz did right. For most of the movie the good people of Oz treat Oz like he's the second coming - or, properly, the Wizard they've been waiting for to save all their asses. Now it's pretty damn obvious that Oz isn't a proper wizard, but for the most part the... Ozians? Ozlings? Pass it off as jitters or misunderstandings and continue with the hero worship.

The good people of Oz are simple. Glinda is not.

She's unquestionably good. She cares for the people of the Oz sincerely and wholeheartedly, and does everything she can to help them. She also sees through Oz in approximately a millisecond and refuses to buy into any of his bullshit. She'll use it, though - she needs to get Theodora and Evanora separated, and Oz is the man with the skill at trickery to make it happen. But even her methods of manipulating Oz mostly rely on convincing him (or shaming him) into becoming a better person. It's really not a surprise at the end when Glinda puts aside any pretense of pacifism and goes toe-to-toe with Evanora.

Glinda's practically the defining Goody Two Shoes, but that doesn't make her dumb or weak. The same holds for your characters.

I hope all that made sense. If you've seen the movie (or even if you haven't) and want to chime in, feel free.


Trinitytwo said...

Very nice take of what went wrong in Oz. in my house we started calling it, Oz the terribly mediocre. I had a problem with the director'sincessant closeup of James Franco's smarmy grin but thats just me. Oz should have been great, but hey, we still have the original!!

David said...

You know, that bugged me too, but in retrospect I've come to appreciate Oz's painful inability to mask his emotions convincingly. You could make a drinking game out of it!