Stephen Hunt on why story will always beat spectacle

In Dark Service author Stephen Hunt explains why special effects are nothing without a great story

9780575092068How special are your effects? When blockbuster sci-fi movies lose the plot!

The movie and TV business times are a-changing and it “wos the internet wot done it.” Actually, dear reader, it was you what done it. The internet was just sitting there with cat videos and dancing GIFs. It was dear old humanity who filled it with streaming web sites with implausible names like Buccaneer Bay-Harbour and packed their servers full to the gunnels with bootleg copies of Game of Thrones and, let’s check, yes, X-Men: Days of Future Past … possibly with a rather shaky camera angle and heads bobbing in the back of a Shenzhen Province  cinema, handily bundled with a hacker’s root kit to steal your Lloyds Online access codes, too.

(Un)Conventional wisdom has it that the tides of online piracy are impacting the industry in a number of ways. Big budget movies with big ticket actors are on the way out and the market is dividing. There are small plucky movies like Monsters made with a credit card, hope in the heart, and semi-direct access to the audience through the likes of iTunes and Netflix. Then there are the large studio vehicles, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. These do have the stars, and the big FX and marketing budgets, and what they want – what they absolutely need to survive – is a sure thing. They want The Hunger Games and not John Carter. To this end they are pulling every trick in the book to copper-plate their chance prior to launch. Rebooting historically popular franchises. Man From U.N.C.L.E the movie, anyone? Raiding other media – games, comics, books – for pre-rolled audiences. Flappy Birds The Movie, anyone? Well, maybe a light kid’s cartoon series first, à la Care Bears.

Of course, the one thing studios can’t copper-plate is the most important factor of all. Story. There are a number of reasons why this strange elixir is unavailable to pour into every film at the foundry mould stage. The prime offender being, story is always a matter of personal taste and opinion . . . and opinions are like arseholes. Everybody has got one. In the oddly extended cluster-shizzle that is the movie business, this includes the scriptwriter, accountants, actors, directors, producers, backers, and seventy-two layers of suit at the studio – plus assorted wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends and significant others of the beforementioned. Stories are usually the product of a single deranged mind. That’s why novels and books are produced by madmen and crazy women, not committees (e.g., nutters like me). Films are always a team game, and their products are a reflection of this. It’s a little like inviting seventy random wine producers to bring a bottle of their best work to a cellar, pouring it into a central vat, mixing it, and hoping you get a Vosne-Romanee Premier Cru out at the other end, rather than a glass of rancid grape water.

For too long, the movie biz had been relying on throwing ever more extravagant FX-led spectaculars which have often left audiences wandering blinking into the light feeling as though they have just watched an extended two hour chase scene complete with space battles, super-powered battles, transforming robots and more wire-work than an orthodontist gets through in a decade. ‘Yeah, great,’ we mutter. ‘But where was the story?’

It’s not reaching beyond the bounds of human achievement to combine a strong story with the big budget, and where this happens, you can get a half-decent film. Captain America: The Winter Soldier could have been a yawn, but the story was enough to carry the FX, rather than other way around. Ditto the first two Hunger Games films. It helps to have a decent story at a movie’s heart. Sometimes this is implanted, as it twas with Suzanne Collins’ novels. But not all implants take, as The Golden Compass demonstrates. Always perfectly possible to take a decent novel (or comic/game) and mangle it into a celluloid travesty of the original.

Sometimes the opposite happens. A not too-polished short story like Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is twisted beyond recognition into a superior work of genius such as Blade Runner. This is a very rare event, but shows that it’s possible.

A lot of talent is now slowly abandoning the one-shot film business and switching into TV, where stories, like fine wine, are sometimes given a chance to develop and breath, helped by the DVD Box Set format. The gift that keeps on giving. The Wire. Breaking Bad. Boardwalk Empire. Game of Thrones. Exactly like a novel that you can pick up and put down and read at your leisure and pleasure. No ad breaks. No waiting a week for the next chapter. No root kit hacks hidden on the CD. Just layer upon layer of story, slowly built up over five or six series . . . and one episode mis-firing does not doom the endeavour. They can find their audience. They can find their mojo. Agents of SHIELD. I rest my case.

Stories are living things. They want to be free. And they’re not done yet. One way or another, Hollywood is in for a few more surprises before its final title sequence rolls …

Stephen Hunt has a new fantasy book out, In Dark Service. It’s the first in his Far-called series. Will it be made into a movie? Would that film ever be successful? He’s busy sacrificing a chicken in the offices of Gollancz to find out. You can get it as an e-book for the time-limited and amazingly reasonable price of £1.99 at Amazon.co.uk.