(SPOILERS: Robin Hood)
All right, I’m going to start my analysis of Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland) and how the screenplay goes so wrong. However, regular readers will know I’m a big believer in “if it aint broke don’t fix it.” So my process will be to look first at the symptom, then identify the underlying problem, and then try to determine a potential solution. Because it’s easy to pick apart a movie but not very helpful if you can’t figure out how to do better.
There are several symptoms that point to structural issues, so I’ll start there. First, the story takes forever to get going. There’s a lot of action in the first thirty minutes, but we have no idea what the movie’s going to be about. Presumably Robin Longstride is our main character, but he doesn’t get much screen time in Act One. King Richard gets nearly as much attention and he’s going to die and be out of the movie before Act Two!
So my first step in identifying the problem that causes this rambling start is to determine what the Catalyst of the movie is. You’ll recall that the Catalyst is the point where we ask the Dramatic Question, the character problem that will define the movie.
Robin Hood opens with Marion and her problems in Nottingham. War orphans who live in the woods steal the last of their planting seed. Nothing wrong with that – it’s a dramatic and interesting opening. We then get a nice character introduction for Robin Longstride in battle. He has a “save the cat”* moment where he rescues a boy who falls while trying to put explosive bags on the castle gate. Great! We’ll root for that guy. Then there’s a bit with Prince John and the situation back in England. Okay, setting up our presumed villain. Next we see Robin after the battle gaming and fighting with his friends and getting in trouble for telling the truth to King Richard. Good character introduction stuff.
Here’s where things start to go awry. We go back to some different villains – Godfrey and his French cohorts. Next we have a long siege scene where Richard is killed – and none of our major characters are involved. We touch base with Robin and his buddies who decide to desert and return to England. Next we see Godfrey ambush Robin Loxley and finally Robin Longstride arrives and agrees to return Loxley’s sword to his father. Robin also recovers the King’s crown and figures he’ll return that while he’s at it.
Ah ha! A quest. We finally have some sense of where the story’s going. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen until twenty-eight and a half minutes into the movie. I mentioned last post that a late Catalyst is okay if the stuff before is exciting. And there’s some pretty exciting stuff in the first half hour of Robin Hood, I’ll admit. Unfortunately little of it has to do with our main character. So we just seem to be watching a lot of unconnected events that don’t go anywhere.
The solution would be to move the Catalyst forward. I think we could easily get Robin to acquire Loxley’s sword ten minutes in. We can cut out a lot of the drama with Richard that doesn’t add anything to the story. We can push back some of the set-up with the villains until after Robin gets the sword and we know what the story is about. We could have just as much action but focus it on our main storyline.
But therein lies a bigger problem. What is the Dramatic Question of the movie? It’s still not really clear, even thirty minutes in. Robin wants to return the sword and we know Nottingham has problems. Okay, but this isn’t really about Robin returning a sword. And who is the villain? At first it seems to be John but we have no idea how Robin will come into conflict with John yet. And in Act Two John is going to step back from his villainous-ness.
The real antagonist of the movie will turn out to be Godfrey and he’s mad at Robin now for shooting him in the cheek with an arrow during the ambush of Loxley. That’s good, but what does Godfrey care about Robin returning Loxley’s sword? If that’s our story, how does Godfrey fit in? We still don’t see how these two are going to come in to conflict. So though we finally have some hint of forward momentum, we’re still at a loss as to what this story is really about.
In other words, there are even bigger structural problems. In my next post I’ll look at Act Two and see if we can identify what the story of the movie is supposed to be, and then try to figure out how we might have set it up better in Act One.
*"Save the Cat" is the technique wherein you have your main character do something heroic and likable in the first few scenes of the movie so the audience will root for him. Particularly important if the hero is not a particularly likable guy at first. ("Save the Cat" is also the title of a popular screenwriting book.)