The Myth of Formula

Posted by : E.v.R. | On : November 26, 2007

In the unusual amount of freedom allowed to me by the Thanksgiving break, I managed to see The Mist and No Country for Old Men, both movies adapted from stories by popular authors.

I’ve read The Mist short story by Stephen King, but haven’t read No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy of “The Road” fame.

Both involve strong characters stuck in sticky dilemmas, forced to make hard choices which the audience may or may not agree with. But wait! Doesn’t the title of this thread imply this post was about Hollywood and formula?

Well here it is; Formula is officially dead. Or maybe it never existed. Love it or hate it, these movies break a couple fundamental rules. Rules that, if there were such a thing as The Formula, are clearly being violated in Hollywood left and right.

One is substituting gritty drama in place of high action. While The Mist does give you a glimpse of its monsters, that glimpse is a fraction of the time invested in the movie. You more often hear characters talking about monsters or arguing about what to do than actually fighting them. It clearly violates the “show don’t tell” rule on many levels. Considering both movies come from books, that’s not surprising.

But to me, the most anti-Hollywood, and anti-formula aspects of these movies involve their endings. I won’t give any details away, but one is about the most anti-heroic ending I’ve ever seen in a movie, and the other ending is non-existent.

Clearly if Hollywood were ramrodding formula down the throats of audiences, not only would these endings not exist — but their movies might not either!

Now, being a bit more of a storytelling classicist and feeling a bit sympathetic towards the principles behind formula (do not piss off the audience, etc.), I must say that I wasn’t satisfied with the ending to either movie.

The funny part is, I feel a bit alone on this. Am I the only one who likes a good Hollywood ending anymore? And by that I don’t mean happy ending — a story can and should have sacrifices, but at the end of it all the sacrifices should mean something. Storytelling is founded upon the sense of meaning that is grasped by the audience. The Mist left me angry, No Country for Old Men left me confused.

Formula is a myth, or if it isn’t a myth then it’s dead. These two movies prove it, in a way that makes a case for formula itself.

Times like this I wish I had spoiler tags. Time to root up a plugin I guess.