I’ve been watching action movies since I was 6 years old
when Dad brought me to see Alien at the theater. Maybe that’s why my
expectations for action movies are so high. All I want is a strong, female
action hero (in action clothes – no that doesn’t mean wearing aerosoles heels)
to be the main star of an adventure film. How hard is that? Search the World
Wide Web, and you’ll see I’m not the only one complaining. But at least now I
know why: The Hollywood movie formula.
It started out in the 70’s with movies like Rocky and Jaws.
It’s still around today. Any popular non-indie movie follows the ‘high concept’
formula. It’s simple. The hero has a flaw (so you can relate). There are
enabling circumstances surrounding that flaw. Suddenly, there’s a life-changing
event. The hero faces obstacles and an opponent. The hero also has an ally that
either shows an example of how to change, or how not to be. The hero has many
chances to overcome his flaw but still doesn’t. The stakes change (climax).
Then there’s a choice to be made, but the flaw is tested many times before this
happens. The choice then leads to a resolution which in Hollywood always
equates to ‘getting the girl.’
For example, in As Good As It Gets. Melvin Udall is OCD. He
has a way of life, a job and a waitress (ally) who support his OCD (flaw). The
life-changing event happens when Frank (opponent) tells him to take care of
Simon’s dog, and the waitress’s son gets so sick she can’t keep her job. Melvin
has many opportunities to change, but instead chooses to keep the flaw and
change others. Until he has an opportunity to ‘get the girl’ (the stakes) and
then tries to take his pills and gets the girl.
This formula can be applied to almost all successful movies
today that have immediate success in the box office. Of course there are movies
that don’t follow the formula and are successful, but these are what the
producers look for. So why no women?
The movie that made me realize what was wrong was Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The movie follows three very strong, very beautiful, very
powerful women. None of them ‘Get the Girl’ in the end. In fact, they all lose!
Now there are formulas where the hero doesn’t ‘get the girl’ – a perfect
example is Leaving Las Vegas. In this case Nicholas Cage is an alcoholic
(flaw), he meets Elizabeth Shue (ally) but in the end he chooses to die with
his flaw. But that’s not how action movies go, and I’m talking about action
In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is a woman warrior
who is in love. Her love is away meditating on a mountaintop somewhere. There
is a younger woman. She falls in love. She is also arranged to be married and
must do so to uphold her family’s honor. There is another woman, a woman
without honor, who fights for her right to learn as men do, the secrets of a
certain school of martial arts. They each stay strong until the very end.
Amazingly, their strength is not in their physical ability, but in their solitude.
They never ‘give in’ to their relationships with their lovers. They never allow
themselves to give up on their honor or their obligations to their family and
the one they love. The older woman has a job to do and so does her husband,
they honor their positions, far away from each other despite how much they love
each other. The younger woman longs for a life with her rogue boyfriend but
holds the responsibility of honoring her family so much so, that she jumps off
a sacred mountain believing that it will make her dreams come true. The woman
with no honor is looking for justice and instead gets revenge, killing and
being killed by, the man the older woman loves.
Are men the reason women cannot be strong in today’s movies?
A strong female figure cannot star with a male figure without disabling both
characters. Either the woman has to be strong and the man has to be a wimp or
there is no man at all, and if that’s the case, is there a large enough
audience to support a movie with a single, strong female character? If so,
would the movie producers see it that way? I don’t think so.if it doesn’t fit
the formula, it doesn’t fit their budgets.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon obviously does not fit the
Hollywood Formula – for many reasons. Yet it was successful. James Cameron
directed Aliens. He understands the money-making power of a strong female
character. Yet in Avatar, Neytiri was a perfect opportunity to capitalize on
this, and in a way he did, but following the formula (and not in a good way),
Neytiri gives up and stands BEHIND her man, immediately stripping her of all
More examples (Please keep in mind that most of these
characters are not even leading women):
True Lies.Jamie Lee Curtis has the guts to prostitute
herself to save the world until her husband ‘saves the day!’
Star Wars, Princess Leia kicks ass and brings down the whole
entire empire only to give in to Han Solo with “I love you!” and the
perfect response, “I know.”
The Matrix – Trinity is the star until ‘the one’ has to save
Kill Bill – Lots of great female characters of course and
you can see how it worked so well – the fiancé died at the very beginning of
Harry Potter – Hermione is always second wand, but not bad.
Fifth Element – probably one of the best in my book but of
course she’s not allowed to have a man as she has to ‘stay pure!’ (A Fifth
Element II would’ve been bad).
Pirates of the Carribean – They did this well – keeping the
The Incredibles – great but once again, second fiddle.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider – Just not a good character.
So what do I want? What would satisfy me? An action heroine
(who has a flaw), on an adventure (not a killing spree in heels), who overcomes
her flaw (without being hated), and saves the world. How much is that to ask?
(Information on “High Concept Movie” formula/term
taken from “How to write High Structure High Concept Movies”)
– Heather Harris