Saturday, February 26, 2011

Robin Hood Analysis Part III – Antagonist Confusion

(SPOILERS:  Robin Hood)

At the end of my last post I said I would next address possible structural solutions for Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland).  But I’ve realized there’s another issue I have to deal with first:  the antagonist.

In the traditional Robin Hood legend the antagonist is Prince John, with the Sheriff of Nottingham as his henchman.  Or occasionally John is relegated to the background and the Sheriff is the primary antagonist.

In this movie we have both John and the Sheriff, but neither are the antagonist.  As I mentioned previously, the antagonist the filmmakers use here is Godfrey and his French allies.  This is clear because it’s Godfrey that Robin runs afoul of at the Catalyst and Godfrey who he fights in the final showdown of the Resolution.

(And by the way, why are we to assume the French are so bad?  Don’t we open the movie with the English sacking a French castle for no apparent reason other than to get treasure?  Maybe the French are justified in their invasion.)

Now it’s not necessarily a problem to create a new antagonist for a classic story but I really question what the purpose is here.  And as executed, it creates a level of confusion in the drama of the story, especially when we consider the preconceptions the audience brings into the theater from their previous experiences with the legend.

The role of John is particularly confounding.  We introduce him as a villainous figure before we get to Godfrey’s treacherous deal with the French.  Because of our knowledge of the legend, this causes us to assume that this version of Robin Hood will use John as the antagonist just like all the others.  This seems to be borne out in the first half of act two when we spend a lot of time at court watching John seize power and remove those who counsel better treatment of his people.  Meanwhile, Godfrey acts like a henchman.

However before Robin even encounters John in person, John is alerted to Godfrey’s treachery and turns on him.  At the end of Act Two Robin and John actually team up!  This is not very good villain behavior.  It might be interesting to explore some of the political underpinnings of the Robin Hood story, but if we were going to do that then Robin ought to be involved.  Specifically, I would have Robin be the one that turns John against Godfrey.

As it stands, John’s transformation only serves to lessen the movie’s tension.  One of Robin’s biggest obstacles has been removed.  Robin’s primary action at the end of Act Two is to convince the nobles and John to make peace with each other to fight their common enemy.  But is that really our story?  Is that what Robin has been striving for throughout Act Two?  No.  And instead of upping the tension it gives Robin a powerful ally for Act Three, lessening the drama.

We get a clue to what the filmmakers might have been thinking at the end of the movie.  John betrays Robin and breaks his promise.  We see that Robin, Marion and their friends have moved out into the woods.  Then there’s a title card that says, “And so the legend begins.”

Ah, they were planning for this movie to start a franchise.  It’s meant to be an origin story showing how Robin and John became enemies.  Here’s a tip, though:  if you want to start a franchise you have to make a good first movie.  Otherwise you never get to make the next one.  And if that was the goal, I question the wisdom of using Godfrey as the main villain and John’s wishy washy flip flopping.

As for the Sheriff of Nottingham, he’s largely extraneous.  If he didn’t play such a large role in previous versions of the legend we would barely notice him.  In this version of the story it probably would have been better just to cut him out.

So what does this mean for our structural fixes?  Well, if I was making a Robin Hood movie I would really want to use John as the antagonist and the Sheriff as his henchman.  And I would make the story about saving Nottingham from their oppression.  It’s simple and clear and dramatic.  After all, it’s worked for dozens of previous tellings of this story.

But my mandate here is to try to fix the story that the filmmakers seem to want to tell, and that story is the story of Robin fighting Godfrey to prevent the invasion of England by the French.

So next post I’ll try to figure out a structural approach to make that story more dramatic.

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