The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest – Follow Up

Watched a famous old movie a couple of days ago – A Man For All Seasons.  The flick won several academy awards for 1966, including best picture and best actor for Paul Scofield.  It’s beautifully done, with many compelling scenes, but it also has long stretches of boredom.  Why?  No tension.  It’s an historical film about Thomas More’s principled stand against Henry VIII’s battles with Rome and the Catholic Church over his marrfiage to Anne Boleyn.  I suppose someone who doesn’t know the events of the case might find the story compelling, but the movie does almost nothing to play up the question of what’s going to happen to its hero.  It’s a movie about ideas, not action.  The end seems as inevitable as, well, death.

Needless to say, the movie is very earnest.  There are no villains.  Which brings me back to my original point – protags have to have someone to protag against, or it can be hard to find a reason to root for them. 

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  1. 1. Elias McClellan

    If I understand correctly, it’s a question of story/plot vs compelling characters. It seems to be the similar to the current publishing trends in which SF is devided into camps. A book is either a.) a blood-less, physics text of problem/solution/master’s thesis or b.) the book is ‘space opera,’ and relagated to pulp-status.

    I think ‘A Man for All Seasons,’ was so well received because of the supreme work of Mr. Scofield and the pre-wreck, Mr. Rober Shaw, as well as fantastic writing and cinematogrophy. But it also proved current to the times in which few within the corridors of power seemed able to speak truth to power.

    Now we cater to the ‘don’t think much crowd.’ In place of ‘AMFAS,’ we have ‘The Tudors,’ a compelling but dumbed-down, character-driven story full of tension, serial sexual-tension, but tension none the less.

    Within the SF&F community, I think the challenge is to write better. The writer’s responsibility is to make the antagonist/protagonist accessable to the reader without over simplifying or reducing the character to caracature. On the flip side, the character, subject, or big-idea should not be elevated beyond the scope of the story. The purpose of which, I think, is to entertain.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Nice comparison to The Tudors. I’ll take AMAS over that any time. But what I really like is a combination of the two.

  3. 3. Tim of Angle

    No villains? I guess Cromwell was just there for comic relief?

  4. 4. Elias McClellan

    No, not comic relief, more of a force of expedience to power. Thomas Cromwell was more a true-believer than a villian. I say that as an Irish-Catholic with an ax to grind on (the nephew?) Oliver Cromwell’s noggin. Thomas believed in what he did both against the Catholic church as well as for his king.

    Is he any more a villian than, say Saint Thomas More himself? More lived his beliefs in the face of his king and was found to be a traitor.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Tim – I don’t think Cromwell passes muster as a villain in the movie. He doesn’t drive the action enough. As Elias suggests, More’s more his own villain than Cromwell is. Cromwell is painted as the viallain throughought, but he’s no more responsible for More’s death than Anne Boleyn is.

  6. 6. Elias McClellan

    But Richard Rich, ooo, that’s an unsavory little knat of a man. I concur with and paraphrase Dante, the deepest pit in hell is reserved for betrayers and oath-breakers.

  7. 7. The V Woman

    One of my friends and I are endevoring to watch all of the Oscar winners by the end of the year. Neither of us knew the details of the case and we were not wrapped in anticipation of what would happen to the protagonist. There were good speeches and clever arguments, but the movie as a whole was a dud, especially considering some of the other movies that have won.
    Things don’t need to be action packed or sex-charged to be amazing. Some of the better stories are about a person, their principles, and their struggle with those in power. The Life of Emile Zola (1937) is a good example. The speech he gives near the end is 7/8 minutes long. One shot. Amazing.

  8. 8. Elias McClellan

    V Woman, I can see your point. Still, I think ‘AMFAS’ is profoundly great because, of the simple, a-dramatic presentation. Saint Thomas More was not bigger than his principles and ultimately, his principles were not bigger than the political machine. The beauty of the movie is the simplicity and inevitibility of the story.

    Mark Twan famously said, ‘Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction’s got to make sense.’ It also has to be entertaining. ‘AMFAS’ director Fred Zinneman was unafraid to present the story without gimics or flights of melodrama. By contrast, consider the Bob Dylan bio-pic, ‘I’m Not There.’ Oy vey.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Elias – And Rich was the only one of the three not to have his head chopped off.

    Not having read much history about the time, I withold judgment on any of the characters. It wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood turned a good guy into a bad guy for the sake of the narravtive.

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    V Woman – I actually enjoyed the movie. I’d say there are far worse Oscar duds than AMAS. But then it’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it. But I agree with what you say about how a story can be good without really having an antagonist. As long as there’s still some sort of tension somewhere.

    Elias – It’s the rare movie that doesn’t resort to gimmicks and melodrama.

  11. 11. Elias McClellan

    Yeah, I get you. I was blessed with very good prof at the University of Houston, named Jackson who guided me when I thought I was a history major. There is a lot of conjecture about Baron Rich and not every body thinks ‘AMFAS,’ was a fair depiction.

    But from what I’ve read, he was a rat at least and possibly a narc in extremis. I think he was a petty little climber as he appears to jump from side to side in the intrigues. Plus, as you stated, he kept his head. In those times, at that level of power, that must be a sure-sign of dishonesty.

  12. 12. Elias McClellan

    I see your point about the gimics and I like, say, David Lean as much as anybody. But, as you said, its about taste. I loved ‘Good Night and Good Luck,’ and tolerated ‘Seriana.’ I much more prefer ‘RichardIII,’ to ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Michael Collins’ to ‘Braveheart.’ I love personal, conversational (not sure that works) films that hit you in your thoughts hours or days after you watch them.

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    Ah, Braveheart. Most egregiously historically incorrect movie of all time.

  14. 14. liz

    I saw AMAS when I was ten, and I was blown away by the acting in the scene where Orson Welles as Woolsey confronts Scofield/More. Welles radiated an incredible sense of menace and Scofield made me believe that his character had the strength and intelligence to survive this overwhelming onslaught. AMAS is about nuanced acting and gorgeous language. If you need MTV-style action and folks getting sucker punched, don’t go here.

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    Liz – Nuanced acting and gorgeous language – absolutely. But I like a story to hang them on, too. There’s more to tension than MTV-style action. There is wonderful tension in Pride and Prejudice, for example, and, in the BBC version from a few years back, nuanced acting and gorgeous language too.

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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