Do or Do Not.

Serving The Story

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Okay, any of you who haven’t seen Serenity yet — and that’s probably most of you, honestly — stay the hell away from this post if you have any intention of seeing the movie. I mean it. Don’t read any further. Well, OK, you can go a little further, but when you come to the SPOILER WARNING, know that I’m serious about that and you should move along to whatever’s next on your daily reading list. I’m going to talk about things you really, really shouldn’t know about in advance of seeing the movie.

Have I made myself clear? Good.

I’ve been thinking about Serenity pretty much round the clock since seeing it last Thursday night, and I’ve been thinking about the fundamental difference in the nature of storytelling between episodic television and movies. As much as I love movies, I’m more drawn to well-done TV shows. There’s a depth of characterization that episodic TV can attain that’s difficult for movies to reach…well, I think breadth of characterization might be more a accurate term.

I’ve always been more interested in watching a character’s growth (or deterioration) over time and movies just aren’t the ideal format for that kind of thing. They can do it, sure, but it’s rarely done all that well. Most movie series that have recurring characters tend to be action flicks, and yeah you can get some growth there, but there’s simply not enough time in a movie to get that into a character’s head. Further complicating my personal preferences: I like ensembles, and movie series (serii? serieses?) that track a group of characters and can give each of them the screen time necessary are rare.

Which brings me back around to Serenity, which springs forth in September from the torched TV series “Firefly.” This combo provides me the perfect opportunity for thinking about the modes of storytelling because, unlike most other TV-show-to-movie transitions (say, The X-Files), this one I actually care about.

Right here is that Big Damn Spoiler Warning, by the way.

“Firefly” had a pretty large regular cast for a series: nine credited regulars during the show’s first and only season. Over the course of a twenty-two episode TV season (or even an abbreviated fourteen-episode one like “Firefly” got), that’s plenty of time to devote to each of your characters, at least enough to make them feel like more than placeholders.

And the writers and cast of “Firefly” were really, really good at that. Given that there were only those fourteen episodes, I felt like I had a great understanding of each of the characters and came to like them all. There’s not a character on the show I didn’t like, not a one I didn’t want to know more about.

So when I realized after the first round of preview screenings that not all of the cast would survive the movie, I grew very worried. Very, very worried — part of me (a small part) didn’t want to see the movie because I didn’t want to lose any of these people I’d come to care about so much. That alone says something about how well the TV show did its job, I think.

When I saw the movie and saw not one but two of the crew members of Serenity die…well, honestly, I was OK with it, as much as it hurt.

That Joss chose to kill Shepherd Book didn’t come as a complete surprise for me. Just the fact that he was no longer onboard Serenity as the movie began was a little bit of a tipoff. I’d been wagering with myself who would die during the movie and I’d assumed Book was safe, if only because I couldn’t see a valid story reason for offing him. But upon reflection afterwards, I realized that there wasn’t a valid story reason for keeping him around, either.

Had the television show continued, I doubt Book would have died. Joss and company obviously had some very intriguing backstory to fill in for Book and I think that in time we would have found out exactly what Book did before he became a shepherd. But in movie form–well, chances are good that we never would have had a chance to hear his story. Book even tells Mal that during their one scene together:

MAL: “You’ll have to tell me sometime how a shepherd knows so much about crime.” BOOK (smiling): “No I won’t.”

And Book’s death serves an even more important story function than simply pruning the unwieldy cast size. His death at the hands of The Operative was what prompted Mal to action, what made him begin to question exactly what he’d been doing and what he needed to do. Book’s death, unfortunate as it was, plays much the same role as Tara’s death in Season Six of “Buffy”: a minor character (Book, Tara) had to die to get a major character (Mal, Willow) to the place their story demanded. If Book hadn’t died, Mal wouldn’t have been compelled to take the action that propelled the story toward its conclusion.

The death of Wash, on the other hand, fulfilled a far different but just as vital story point. Wash’s death was what created the tension that fueled the last thirty minutes of the movie — once Wash (one of the most popular characters on the show) had been killed, we were into an “all bets are off” scenario. During the final assault by the Reavers, I honestly didn’t know who — if any — of the crew were going to survive. Had the Reavers not killed Wash, the audience would have assumed all of the heroes would come through that ending battle unscathed…which might have worked fine if Joss were writing a fairy tale. But his story demanded that the audience feel the danger these characters were in.

And man, did that ever work. I was sad when Book died, but when Wash died…that hurt. I actually said aloud in the theater “Oh, son of a bitch” quite a bit louder than maybe I should have.

So why Wash, you ask? Why not kill Kaylee? Inara? Jayne? Couple of reasons, I think. On a purely practical level, Alan Tudyk has by far the biggest movie career of any of the cast. I find it entirely probably he didn’t want the three-picture commitment to which Universal supposedly has the cast signed. But from a purely story point of view, Wash’s death gives us more insight into Zoe (her strapping down of her emotions at first and the subsequent “berzerker rage” during the fight with the Reavers was compelling). And anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Joss Whedon’s work knows that if there’s one thing he cannot abide, it’s a happy couple — either Zoe or Wash had to go.

Also, Wash’s death was really the first evidence we’ve had of exactly how dangerous the Reavers are. We’ve been hearing about them since the pilot episode of “Firefly” but have rarely had any real sense of the danger they present outside of what we’re told. In one moment all of that violence that’s been suggested for so long hits home and makes us fear — really fear — for the rest of the crew.

Would Wash have died if that battle had been in the context of the TV show, if they knew the show would be back for a second season? I don’t think so, but Joss has certainly shown he’s not above killing off beloved characters for the sake of story. But given the story needs presented above — especially the need to let the audience know that these people’s lives are really on the line — I can see it happening during the season finale of the first season.

I know there are many people who’ve seen the preview screenings and are incredibly pissed at Joss for daring to kill Wash. There’s at least one “Save Wash” petition floating around asking that the last half hour of the movie be reshot and reedited between now and September. But even if Joss and company could do that in such a short time frame, they shouldn’t. Doing so would neuter the story.

Those people who are so upset about Wash’s death are being selfish — they want the story changed because they liked and will miss the character. I can understand that. He was one of my favorite characters, too. But Joss’s loyalty is only secondarily to his audience — and I don’t think anyone can doubt the level of devotion he feels toward his very devoted audience. His first loyalty is to his story, and the fact that he treasures the story he’s chosen to tell above all else is one of the biggest reasons why those stories resonate as they do, regardless of medium.

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Written by Allen

May 30th, 2005 at 10:49 pm

Posted in Pop Culture,TV,Writing

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One Response to 'Serving The Story'

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  1. Interesting post. There’s more on the storytelling differences between TV and film (and speculation about Joss Whedon’s fitness for one versus the other) in this Slate article.

    Abner Gromble

    2 Oct 05 at 11:58 pm

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