by Adam-Troy Castro
And now let us speak of that thing movies, even science fiction movies, cannot live without: character.
And let us do it in the context of drawing a line between character and character traits.
A character is the illusion of a living, breathing being. I would say human being but this is fantastic fiction, after all, where we are regularly expected to fall in love with creatures who don’t exist and in many cases may not be able to exist, creatures like werewolves, vampires, robots, gods, men who turn into Hulks, Terminators, and what have you. Fantastic fiction is actually not alone in this, because even in mainstream fiction we have the animal kingdom, and if you take the time to, for instance, read Susan Wilson’s terrific novel One Good Dog, you will find in the canine person of the much-abused pit bull Chance, a creature capable of anger, passion, introspection, and growth, all things that render him as real as the printed page as same novel’s human lead, Adam March, who adopts him. (Seriously: you’ll weep buckets in the first two pages.) Similarly, if you want to torture yourself with the 2015 film White God, which is best described as Spartacus with Dogs, you will find in the character of another abused canine a creature whose heart and soul are known to us, even as they are heartbreakingly twisted by the perversity of our species into something murderous. (More buckets.)
Characters live. Who would doubt that, at this point in his development at least, Sherlock Holmes fulfills all the classical requirements of life? Including the ability to multiply? To venture past his original boundaries into realms never dreamt of by his parent/creator? To replicate himself into newer and increasingly mutated forms?
If one simple definition of a story is an opportunity to learn about the characters in it, then Sherlock Holmes certainly fits that requirement, because the more we know, the more we want to know – and this persists even when the facts as posited by Conan Doyle and others contradict each other in critical ways. (Conan Doyle even contradicts himself, more than once.)
We never stop learning about Sherlock Holmes.
But not all characters who we think of as characters fulfill these requirements.
And this is where I tempt internet rage.
Let us consider Chewbacca, the Wookiee.
What do we know of Chewbacca, really?
And in asking the question I must draw my lines carefully. The Chewbacca I reference is not the character as he appears in any number of comic books, or tie-in novels, or cartoons, or encyclopedia entries, heaven help us Holiday Specials, places which canonical or otherwise – and thanks to Disney, now mostly “otherwise” — posit any number of facts about his background that are not evident in the film series. That would include, in one novel that I believe to have been wiped out of official continuity, his eventual fate. If you’ve spent all these years willing to amass the library, it must be possible to write a pretty damn exhaustive biography of the big furry guy and establish for him an existence as well-documented as David Copperfield’s. But I am not referencing any of that. I am talking about the Chewbacca we know from A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, and will soon see again; the Chewbacca specifically of the films, which all that other stuff sought to annotate.
What, precisely, do we know about that guy?
He’s big, strong, furry, brave, loyal, prone to fits of temper, joined at the hip to his human friend Han Solo, and possessed of a vocabulary that to most people sounds like endless repetitions of “Eouwww.”
Now: with all the subsidiary material off the table, what else do we know? Do we know anything about the planet he came from? What its culture is like? Whether he’s smart or dumb? Whether he has an inner life? What his political opinions are? What he does when he wants to relax? If he believes in god, or a god? If there’s ever anything he’s done that he’s profoundly ashamed about?
Based on the movies, we know nothing; he’s just a presence, a big furry guy who makes various inarticulate sounds of agreement or dismay or amusement.
Let me ask you something. At one point in The Empire Strikes Back, Princess Leia says to Han Solo, “I’d just as soon kiss a wookiee.” Chewbacca is fortunately enough not present to hear that. But let us create a little alternate world version where he was just out of sight, and capable of hearing this rather unpleasant statement from a human being who, at that point, he had every right to consider a trusted companion. What would he think? I am not asking you for a canonical answer. I am asking you to consider what we know about a sentient being’s personality and apply it to how he would react to physical affection for his kind being used as a snappy invocation of all things revolting?
Would he roll his eyes and think, “Screw you, lady, you’re pretty disgusting by my standards too?” Would he raaar in amusement? Would he be stunned and shocked and hurt? Would he be driven to a fit of melancholy by the reminder that he’s isolated from other members of his kind and living among beings who sometimes forget to consider him anything but a walking carpet without feelings? Would he get as mad as he allegedly does whenever he loses a board game, and rip Leia’s arms off – a development that would have certainly beaten “No, Luke, I am your father,” as the plot twist of the year? (Do you “let the Wookiee win” when playing Spin the Bottle?)
We know Chewbacca so little that we don’t have a clue.
We learned very little about him, and then stopped learning.
And this is okay, because he’s a supporting character, the kind of creation who is often just a sketch, there to help illuminate the folks in the foreground – but, seriously, three movies, a fan favorite for decades, and we honestly don’t have a clue how he would react to those few ill-chosen words by Leia. He’s a few connected traits. Not a character.
Now, let us talk of Captain Kirk.
It is comparing apples and oranges, and not just because we’re leaping franchises, or addressing a lead character whereas we last looked at a supporting player. The characters possess different places in their respective firmaments, which are also pitched at different layers of script sophistication.
But of Captain Kirk, we know that he’s a warm man with a sense of humor, a speechmaker, a fighter, a fellow who sometimes needs to be knocked around a little before he comes around the peaceable ways of resolving his differences, a man who adores women but is not above manipulating them for his purposes, a guy who is capable of having his heart broken, a leader who makes mistakes, a leader who deeply feels every lost life he could have saved, an isolated man who sometimes resents his duties because they keep him from living a full emotional life. We know that he can be impatient with foolishness while very happy to play the fool, if it suits him. We know that he sometimes loses the forest for the trees. We know that he is no stranger to rage, or to hatred, or to grudges (or, later, to bigotry). We know that he’s a reader, a student of history, a man not always comfortable in his own skin, a man who denies himself shore leave until it is forced upon him by his first officer’s superior logic. We know that he obeys the chain of command but is willing to bend or defy it out of personal loyalty. We know that he’s prone to despair but also that he won’t give up. We know the particulars, including what starships he served on and what traumas afflicted him during his formative years, but the end result is that he’s a man of significant dimension, a man who embodies any number of contradictory impulses, who nevertheless coheres as a person, regardless of what you think of the individual stories, by individual writers, that added to the gestalt over the many decades of addition to his legend.
What would Kirk do if he overheard some alien princess of some species other than his own snarl, “I’d rather kiss Kirk!”
Some of you might think he’d immediately set about seducing her.
I think he’d smile to himself, taking secret pleasure in being taken down a peg.
A case can be made that we’re both right. Depends on the day.
Kirk emerges as one of the most fully-realized characters ever created by multiple writers, in the history of fiction, to come off as a single consistent character, contradictions and all, because even those contradictions service the sense that he’s a real person. This is not true of Batman, who is not always the same person; it is certainly not true of Sherlock Holmes, as the Basil Rathbone and Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller and Ian McKellen versions of that character might not even recognize each other, let alone like each other. Some colossal missteps in the comics keep it from being true of Peter Parker. But Kirk is always Kirk, even when he is surprising us. Even when we’re still learning about him. There’s always something new.
What about Mad Max?
The character played by Mel Gibson in three prior films returned this year in Mad Max Fury Road, having morphed into Tom Hardy, and it must be said that while that’s one of the most enjoyable action films in many a year, it’s hard to see him as more than a collection of traits. We know that he’s traumatized by past losses, that he avoids people whenever he can, that he is inevitably drawn into the problems of others despite himself, that this connection is difficult for him, and that he is always left alone even when society is offered to him. But does he change? Does he grow? Well, he’s certainly a different person at the end of the first Mad Max (1979) than he was at the beginning, but was there an equal amount of development in The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), or Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)? Of course not; after the first film, he is a template, who can be stretched only so far before he bounces back to his original form at the onset of the next installment, down to somehow being once again provided ownership of the iconic car even after it was completely totaled each and every time (and somehow staging the approximate same age despite internal evidence that he’s been wandering this wasteland for many many decades). Every story hinged on the people he met, the circumstances he endured, while remaining resolutely his own self. It’s a given that if George Miller or anybody who continues or reboots the franchise after Miller gets the go ahead for another film, Mad Max will continue to be the same surly bastard we’ve known all these years, because you honestly can’t change him all that much before he’s no longer recognizable. Fun as his adventures are, he’s done changing, and we are done learning about him. Which is why he’s always less interesting than the people around him.
This is why the character with whom he shares the latest installment, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, in many ways the de facto star of the film, because we never stop learning about her. The movie’s journey is all about who she is, how she ended up in her position, how she rebels against it, what she’s willing to do, what memories drive her, what news is capable of destroying her. This extends as far as the hand gestures she employs, when she meets people she knows from her childhood, clearly cultural things she remembers despite many years as the property of Immortan Joe. We understand her more at the end than we did at the beginning. We may find out that there’s still more to know, or we may not. But it’s clear that she’s a living character in the way that Mad Max Rockatansky, much as we love him, is not. (Indeed, she’s the best action character in years.)
Characters are about the changes. Characters are about having more to tell us. Characters are about living and breathing.
Anything else is just glorified branding.
In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.