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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Deus Ex Machina

Script Whisperer partner Andrew Zinnes has contributed today's elucidating and educational RW blog post:

Many years ago in my development days, I had to critique a draft of the thriller SPY GAME. If you recall the film, it opens with Brad Pitt’s character breaking into a Chinese prison to rescue Catherine McCormack – his true love. But Brad is captured and thrown into the cell next to her and well, and well, there is a reason Club Med doesn’t have a Chinese prison locale. In the draft that I read, an earthquake occurred as Brad starts his assault and it acted as the perfect distraction for him to slip past a myriad of human and electronic security obstacles.

Wow! Brad Pitt can control the tectonic plates of the Earth! No
wonder he gets a hot babe like Angelina.

This is a good example of something you should avoid when writing:
deus ex machina or literally translated “God out of machine.” It is
when an unexpected, artificial or improbable character, device or
event appears and alters the plot significantly – usually helping the
main character out of a major jam. The term comes from ancient Greek
theater when a playwright, usually Euripides, would use a crane like
machine to lower an actor playing a God or rescuing force onto the
stage. It drove Aristotle nuts, apparently, and he lambasted those
that used the device incessantly in his critiques.

But why is deus ex machina such a bad thing? Because it should be the
characters, their actions and their choices that drive the plot, not
some random force of nature.
Otherwise, you are saying that the
characters have no control over their world and become by default,
passive. And that is perhaps one of the biggest no-no’s of writing
film personas. Your characters must constantly be doing even if doing
is having an epiphany about their lives while reading Proust in an
Amsterdam hash house. That might be a little tough for your director
to film, but hey, that’s why they get the “film by” credit, right?

But wait, you say, in WAR OF THE WORLD, the aliens die not at the
hands of the humans, but because they cannot tolerate the germs and
microbes of our world. And that is one of the all time classics of
American literature! Right? Take that, blog boy! True, but in that
case H.G. Wells was making a thematic point that the largest, most
advanced and most bad ass of things can be brought down by the
smallest. This notion permeated the book and Spielberg definitely
played it up in the most recent film as witnessed by Morgan Freeman’s
voice over. Because of this, this deus ex machina is excusable
(although not by all) because it is consistent with the central
premise of the film. It is not completely random.

So going back to SPY GAME, in the final film the earthquake beat was
changed to something like Brad’s character being able to sabotage the
electrics of the prison via his vast spy training, which makes a lot
more sense and is a hell of a lot more fun. I’m sure Angelina thought
so, too.

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JargonX said...

Just look at Stephen King's The Stand. SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK.

The climax of the book, when Trashcan Man's nuke goes off in the middle of Las Vegas, occurs literally at the
"Hand of God." Literally.

The bomb is sitting by itself, unmolested on a cart. The heroes are bound, helpless as they wait to be executed. Then, a giant, glowing red hand of immaterial force, called, as I said "The Hand of God" materializes and detonates the bomb.

Normally, this is terrible. Literally, God has come down and ended the story. However, within King's larger themes of religion, belief, and the divine throughout this book, it makes sense.

In fact, given the book's stance on God, and his presence and control over what we think is free will or random, it's perfect.

Liz Holliday said...

**WAR OF THE WORLD, the aliens die not at the
hands of the humans, but because they cannot tolerate the germs and
microbes of our world. And that is one of the all time classics of
American literature! Right?**

Uh... well, it's certainly not a classic of American literature. But it might arguably be a classic of British literature... Otherwise, good post!

Julie Gray said...

Liz - I think you misunderstood Andrew. He acknowledges the book is a classic (American, British and just about everywhere else!). His point is that Orwell had a thematic reasoning for this seeming deus ex.

Liz Holliday said...

I'm confused! I understood his point (and nothing in my post indicated that I didn't, by the way.)

Are you saying that what he says is a 'classic of American literature' is not War of the Worlds but the idea of bugs killing aliens? If that's what he meant, I think that it's badly expressed and I'd really like to see something else (apart from Independence Day!) that uses it.

I really appreciate your blog. I really hate it when Americans try to colonise the whole of world culture.


Julie Gray said...

Hi, Andrew, here. I think we are all getting a bit excited over what was a simple mistake on my part. I said H.G Wells was American instead of British. My point was to play devil's advocate to my theory - that a great piece of literature contained Deus Ex Machina so you can use it if you wish. And then I said why it works in that case. You should still avoid it. That's all. Let's keep writing!