First published in Produced By, the official magazine of the Producers Guild of America.
Myth to Movie
By Ken Atchity
By Ken Atchity
“I’m tired of the same old clichés,” Sam Goldwyn once said. “Bring me some new clichés.” Since Homer’s Odyssey, which describes its protagonist as a teller of twice-told tales, storytellers achieve greatness by finding new ways to tell those universal stories that have been around since the beginning of storytelling. “It could happen anytime—anywhere—to anybody. Yes, it could even happen to you,” to quote from the opening titles of William Dieterle’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941). These perennial tales are what we call myths, and our new takes on them work best when we clearly recognize the exact myth from which we’re spinning a new yarn. Films go astray when the myth is lost sight of. “Writing free verse,” Robert Frost remarked, “is like playing tennis with the nets down.”
For us development producers, the “nets” are the “obligatory beats” in the myth that’s generating the screenplay we’re working with. You simply have more creative control if you know where you’re starting from. Take one of Hollywood’s favorites—“the deal with the Devil” (human POV) or the “Devil tempting humans” (Devil POV, the latter going at least as far back as the Book of Job). This temptation-to-supernatural power-and-redemption myth decisively predates the namesake it’s often identified with (Doctor Johannes Faust actually existed in the 16th century, a famous magician renowened for his devotion to necromancy), going back at least as far as Prometheus (who enables man to go beyond his nature), touching down again memorably with Satan offering Jesus from the mountain “all the kingdoms of the world, if you will fall down and adore me” and reappears memorably again with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s wildest dream become real enough to destroy him.
The myth generates stories that fall into two categories: in one set of stories, often called “Faust” stories, like “Damn Yankees” (1958), “Alias Nick Beal” (1949), and “The Devil’s Advocate,” a living protagonist makes a deal with the evil spirit; in the second set, like “Heaven Can Wait,” “The Devil and Max Devlin,” “Angel on My Shoulder” (1946), and Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn,” the protagonist Al Simmons is murdered by his evil boss Jason Wynn, then makes a hell of a deal that brings him back to life (the story is muddled by putting in too many elements that undermine the power of the myth to involve us personally).
The Faust stories may be slightly more popular to filmmakers because they remain rooted in earthbound reality without having to deal with visualizing the afterlife except in the random nightmare flash. In the typical Faust story, the protagonist wants something (eternal life, power, knowledge, the perfect woman—or lots of her) so badly he attracts an evil spirit (the Devil, Satan, “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko) who promises to help him get it, for a price (usually his immortal soul, almost always his morality). Note that the devil’s deal is usually deceitful in some way—why wouldn’t it be?—though the protagonist is blinded to the deceit by his greed. The protagonist longs for a power beyond the ordinary, the devil comes to offer it to him in exchange for his soul. He accepts the bargain, and enjoys what he longed for until he realizes the enjoyment is hollow. The devil then comes to claim the bargainer’s soul. In the final act, Faust ether is redeemed and given a second chance or is taken, howling, down to hell. Note that in either version the important catalyst the athe antagonist’s 9the devil’s )The details of the bargain laid out, the deal sealed, our hero gets the girl, or the money, or the power—but finds something wrong either with what he wanted or what he has to pay, or with both. Then he tries to get out of it, and—in act 3—either succeeds or fails (comedy or “tragedy”). Cases in point: consitgency. Faust may change his mind, and wish the deal undone; but the devil sticks to his guns.
• In Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” (1586), the price is his soul, the exchange 24 years of service from Mephistopheles, bringing him knowledge, power, wealth, and beauty; the outcome, tragic: Repentance is too little too late, and Faust is dragged howling into hell by demons. Yet he’s still seen somehow as a hero, of man’s transcendence of his own nature.
• Goethe’s “Faust” (1808) brings an Enlightenment twist to the familiar story: the protagonist scientist, master of his own destiny, is the one who lays down the conditions of the demonic deal. Tragedy is transformed to comedy by a literal dues ex machina – when Mephistopheles comes to collect his soul, angels beat him to it and carry Faust off to heaven. The angels in Goethe’s tale are man’s higher nature, saving him because of his desire for knowledge on behalf of all humanity.
• In “The Devil & Daniel Webster,” the payoff for xxx is seven years of prosperity, but Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) is defeated by the oratory and Yankee ingenuity of Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold): “No American citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince.”
• In “Mephisto” (Mephistopheles is the name of the devil in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Faust), the devil is the Nazi regime, the payoff to the actor-protagonist is being allowed to continue in the theater.
Typically the storytellers’ desire is t somehow save Faust, for saving him would allow audiences to believe that transcendence is possible, that one can go beyond the limits of human nature with impunity. The trick is how to save him believably, and that is a tough trick to pull off.
The producers’ challenge is to work with the screenwriter to think up a twist that excites audiences to take this “same old ride” one more time. In “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), the twist is that the diabolical deal is made by the protagonist’s husband and she’s left holding the bag—er, the baby. In “The Devil’s Advocate,” the twist is that the protagonist played by Keanu Reeves finds out he’s the Devil’s son. In both cases, the stories have clear and satisfying resolutions because the storytellers have kept sight of the invisible net—the mythic understructure of the story--which allows them to play tennis as though they and the audience could see it. When the story gets the myth right, even with all its twists and turn to “make it new,” the audience sighs with relief—redemption, even after great evil, is still possible.
But if the twists and turn twist the essentials of the myth too much, the story falls flat. “Bedazzled” (2000) has a cool twist, with the devil as a saucy woman (Elizabeth Hurley), but by adding the “seven wishes” motif to the basic Faust myth, muddles up the the myth by, among other things, trying to mix it with the “three (in this case seven) wishes” myth and the writing isn’t strong enough to pull off the graft effectively.
In Indecent Proposal, the innocent young couple encounters the handsomely tuxedoed John Gage (his dapperness reminiscent of Ray Walston’s Mr. Applegate in “Damn Yankees”). But Ray Walston was no romantic competition for Tab Hunter. “Indecent Proposal” goes awry for the audience because once the audience has seen the devilish gleam in Robert Redford’s eyes, they, like Demy Moore’s Diana Murphy, lose their rooting interest in husband David (played by hapless Woody Harrelson). The producers chose the star system over adhering to mythic storytelling—the devil’s not supposed to be the good guy, but by the end we’re rooting for Diana to stay with him and his lovable dogs, not go back to her ineffectual husband and his white rhinoceros. For the devil to play antagonist, you need a heavy, like Al Pacino in “The Devil’s Advocate” or Robert de Niro in “Angel Heart.” But of course Redford wanted the role, and who wouldn’t want Redford? The film did over $300 worldwide on an all-in of $63 million. It just felt fuzzy at the end because we lost sight of the nets. Moral of the story: when in doubt about your script, attach a star!