Monday, June 20, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #80: Real Disabilities Aren’t Personality Flaws



This is a tricky one, because it seems to blatantly contradict a previous rule of mine. In that case, I praised Steve Moffat for giving Watson’s mental affliction a temporary physical manifestation in his adaptation of “A Study in Scarlet”. But I should have made it clear then that this trick only works if you’ve make it very clear from the beginning that the problem is psychosomatic. What doesn’t work is when characters clearly have a real medical diagnosis, and then they “rise up” though an attitude adjustment and shirk off their disability. That’s just plain insulting, both to actual disabled people and to your audience.

One of the most noxious examples of this was in Forrest Gump, where it tied into the movie’s overall gooey tone, but it happens all the time onscreen. Even Up, which I loved, lost a lot of my respect right at the very end… If you watch the end credits closely, you’ll see that final photo montage implies that Carl doesn’t need his walker anymore now that he’s got a better attitude. Really?

Writers love to load their heroes down with challenges, and then they love to show how their heroes cleverly overcome those challenges, but you can’t cheat. Don’t give your hero a serious disability unless you’re willing to accept the long-term consequences of that.

How to Train Your Dragon is a great movie about disability (another element not in the book). In the beginning, a young Viking, Hiccup, uses a catapult to shoot down a dragon, then goes to finish him off, but can’t bring himself to do it. The dragon tries to fly away, but can’t, because he lost one of his vital tail fins in the attack, permanently disabling him and stranding him in a valley-bottom that he can’t lift himself out of.

Hiccup can’t stand to see the dragon starve, but rather than simply bring him food for life, or, even worse, tell him that he can fly out of there if he simply believes in himself, Hiccup finds a realistic solution: he invents a prosthetic that will allow the dragon to fly as long as he has a human pilot. The dragon’s slow, grudging acceptance of his disability and newfound dependence on a human is remarkably affecting, because the writers never cheat.

Rather than the “if you can believe it, you can achieve it” mentality of most kids movies, this is a movie about finding strength through acceptance of limitations. At the end of the movie, (SPOILER) Hiccup and the dragon save both of their tribes, but Hiccup loses his own foot in the effort. The prosthetic that replaces it is one specifically made to work in conjunction with the dragon’s prosthetic. Hiccup doesn’t mind too much, because he’s already learned that more can be accomplished through interdependence than independence. That’s a tough but true lesson that most movies don’t dare teach.

2 comments:

James Kennedy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Kennedy said...

Lord yes. One of my favorite worst offenders of this rule is PEARL HARBOR, the scene where John Voight's FDR pugnaciously rises out of his wheelchair in order to make a point:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9e922ofjMI

It almost feels like the beginning of an "Saturday Night Live" skit -- I kind of wish that, after Voight stood up, then every other general and administrator in the room heroically overcame his own peculiar limitation in order to make his own rhetorical point (paralyzed arm suddenly throws a punch, bald man's skull erupts with lustrous hair, eczema clears up, irritating habit of continuously clearing throat inspiringly vanishes...)