Features and Columns

Talking Heads: How Much Do You Need To Know Going Into a Film?

By  · Published on June 17th, 2011

Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as holeinmyshower and RepWeiner08 in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, the two wonder whether fans should educate themselves before hopping into a movie. Can the movie-going experience be made better by a little research before getting our ticket ripped or should we be able to go blindly into the darkness and expect great entertainment?

Cole: So a discussion forming over on our Mortal Kombat Legacy reviews raises an interesting question about movies: should an audience need to know anything about the characters and story before watching?

What’s your gut reaction?

Landon: On one hand, I understand the common wisdom that works of art/popular culture/whathaveyou should speak for themselves – that outside resources for understanding shouldn’t be necessary to evaluate quality. But on the other hand, context does matter, and I think it’s difficult to separate films from their contexts.

Maybe context isn’t essential for understanding, but it’s not necessarily unimportant or irrelevant.

What say you?

Cole: I completely agree. We done here?

Landon: Yup, glad we solved that…now off to solve the mystery of the missing cat.

Cole: He’s a goner. Let it go, man.

I do agree with you about context, though. My initial thought is that a movie should be “good” between the first and last frame. Aiming for “great” is even better. That’s the job of the filmmakers, but the job of the audience member is to ensure the best possible experience. You’re in charge of your own enjoyment in a lot of ways.

So if you think reading the book first will help you enjoy the movie, why not do it?

Landon: Maybe we should parse out different examples of what context may mean, because I feel like there are cases where context may be absolutely necessary.

The first would be the type you just alluded to: adaptations of books, comics, whatever. For me the best example of this is the Harry Potter movies, which I feel are supplements to rather than substitues for the vast world-shaping of the books.

As somebody whose never read the books, I watch the films knowing there are things I’m missing, but am in most cases able to enjoy them with the basic understanding provided.

However, I’d say that another, vastly different example is the context of history: being able to understand a movie by when it was made and what effect it had then. While this context may not be absolutely necessary (as some movies are “timeless”) it’s often the most difficult to understand, because you in a sense have to shut out everything that came after. The innovations of Citizen Kane are a prime example of this.

Cole: So now we have two problems.

One is a matter of learning the specifics of a property – like learning as much about Green Lantern as possible before diving into a huge movie of exposition.

The other is a matter of watching as many movies as possible to see where a movie fits on the spectrum of ALL OF THEM.

The first is a matter of personal choice, but when it comes to making the film, it seems like a lot of major studios are hobbling themselves by assuming the audience will need to be spoonfed everything. Even for incredibly iconic figures, we get origin story after origin story.

Landon: True, and perhaps the greater problem here is a fear of audience confusion that gives into this spoon-feeding, like if we’re lost at any moment that means the filmmakers have failed.

Cole: You don’t think that’s a genuine fear for modern studios trying to make movies for largely non-English speaking audiences?

Landon: In terms of business practice, no, it’s not a surprise, and it’s probably a smart move. But as one who loves watching movies, some ambiguity is good every now and again.

For that to work, one simply needs to trust the filmmaker, like some points of Inception, which also did well internationally.

Cole: But as far as storytelling, they have to walk a line of appealing to a large American audience and an equal (sometimes bigger) audience of people who don’t speak the language the movie is in. That’s a challenge. An unenviable one.

And even here, how many times have you sat in front of a person who’s leaned over to ask their loved one “What just happened?!” only to hear him or her call the movie dumb on the way out?

Landon: But I don’t think you’d disagree that the quality of some Hollywood output has suffered by this need to appeal to the broadest audiences possible. It eliminates risk.

Cole: It absolutely does, and it might actually hurt their box office take as well. I’m not saying they should cater to the lowest common denominator, but I think it’s important to recognize that difficulty not just as a business decision, but as a storytelling one.

Somewhere between The Zookeeper and the student films of Jean Paul Sartre, there’s a sweet spot of big-audience film creation. The problem might be when executives think they’re aiming for the middle, when they’re actually aiming for idiots.

Landon: But it’s also a strange contradiction. Big studio movies are not just standalone movies, yet they’re manufactured to be experienced that way. Look at the Marvel releases. They’re each easily consumable origin stories, yet they’re networked. Similar cases go for other adaptations, sequels, and – in the case of Harry Potter and Twilight – half-adaptations.

Cole: Interesting. So maybe the question should be less about what the audience should know and more about what the screenwriters and producers should know.

New rule: screenwriters and producers will get to know the character origins for adaptations, and all relevant information alongside where they need to end the movie.

But nothing else.

That should force them to create a movie that works on its own instead of being a long-form lead up to the next one when “wepromiseitwillgoodweswearthistimethanksforstickingitoutwithus” gets shouted while the credits roll.

Landon: Well-put word jumble, because otherwise sequels don’t even “stand alone” with respect to their predecessor, but exist as a prequel promoting yet another movie.

Building context is necessary for the residual benefits of franchises, yet in this attempt at mass appeal it’s difficult to actually build on what came before.

Cole: It’s probably the fault of that damned mystery box.

What was our original question again?

Landon: Something like, do we have to read before watching a movie?

Cole: Definitely not. Reading is for geeks and Lit majors.

Here’s a more direct question: do you read or learn about stories before they’re adapted into films?

Landon: I like taking to journey of discovering context after the fact. I read a lot of adaptations after I’ve seen the movie.

Do you look at the print before visiting the projector?

Cole: I don’t. Not something I’ve ever really thought about before, but I don’t make a point of checking out something when I hear it’s being adapted.

Landon: While I don’t think it’s often fair to compare books and movies, I find reading the source before to be world-shrinking, but reading after expands the world of the story.

Cole: That makes a lot of sense. Movies almost always have to condense. Reading afterward can open that world up, but it can also change the reading experience when you can only see Emma Watson saying the dialogue written for Hermione.

Or a less nerdy reference.

Landon: So we’re back where we started. Context often helps, but it isn’t necessary.

This has been quite a circle.

And I still haven’t found that goddamned cat.

Cole: See! We should have been looking this whole time.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.