(SPOILERS: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider-Man 3)
One of the common rules of thumb we have in filmmaking is “The One Miracle Rule.” What this means is that the audience will suspend their disbelief for one improbable or even impossible thing, but not more than that. So, for example, we’ll believe aliens exist. Or we’ll believe ghosts exist. But we won’t believe both aliens and ghosts exist.
Accepting a miracle is the agreement we make when we buy a ticket for a particular story premise. So when we buy a ticket for Singing in the Rain (screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden), we agree to believe people break into song on the street, at least for the duration of the film. When we buy a ticket for Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), we agree to believe that people can enter other people’s dreams.
The miracles need not be that miraculous. They can be coincidences. They can be an unusual but plausible situation, such as a man is wrongly accused of a crime. Spectacular skills the main character has would also count. I might believe a character is the greatest marksman in the world, but I won’t believe that he’s the greatest marksman and the world’s leading physicist… unless one thing explains the other. Similarly, if the world’s greatest marksman is wrongly accused of a crime, it better be because he’s a marksman, not just random coincidence.
I had this problem in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (screenplay by Steven Zaillian). I could believe in the unusual situation that Lisbeth would be recruited to help uncover a brilliant, sadistic, serial killer. But at the end of the movie when they ask me to believe that Lisbeth also was able to pilfer millions and millions of dollars from our hero’s corrupt enemy, an enemy completely unrelated to the killer, I had a hard time accepting that additional unlikely situation.
Obviously Lisbeth’s computer skills were formidable – that wasn’t the problem. It was the implausibility that such a character would get both the opportunity to solve an incredibly spectacular murder and the opportunity to pilfer such a huge sum of money. It was one miracle too many.
Some people have that problem with the Marvel superhero movies. They have a hard time accepting that Tony Stark could invent the Iron Man armor and that Bruce Banner could become the Hulk in the same world. Personally, this doesn’t bother me – I feel like the miracle I’m being asked to accept is that “superheroes exist.” But that is the advantage of the X-men: all the heroes in that world have the same source of power – mutation. It’s a single miracle.
The Harry Potter movies work similarly. There would seem to be a lot of miracles in those – everything from wizards to dragons to time travel to ghosts. But all of it stems from the concept that “magic exists secretly in our world.” That’s the miracle that we’re asked to accept, and everything else extends from it. That allows for a lot of latitude, but an alien invasion in the Harry Potter books would probably break the reality.
That doesn’t mean these kinds of “broad miracle” movies can’t fail the rule in other ways. Double coincidence also counts as two miracles. Spider-Man 3 (screen story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi, screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent) fails on this count. I can accept that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider that gave him superpowers. But then an asteroid crashes near him and he’s infected by Venom.
I can believe Venom exists in this superhero world – I accepted Doc Oc and the Green Goblin – but it’s too coincidental that both the radioactive spider miracle and the asteroid miracle happen to the same person completely independently. Sadly, the solution is glaringly obvious. If Peter Parker encountered Venom because he was investigating an asteroid crash in his guise as Spider-Man, then I’d buy it. The first miracle explains the second.
By now you may be thinking of movies like Star Wars (written by George Lucas) or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). There are a lot of miracles in those. In Star Wars, you have the force, faster than light travel, lightsabers, aliens, etc. How do they get away with it?
These kinds of movies take us to another world. That other world can have many things that are different from our world. But they can’t do just anything. They have to have an internal consistency. You have to set up the rules of the new world – then anything that violates those rules counts as a miracle. So elves and magic swords don’t bother us in Lord of the Rings, but a car would… even though we know in reality cars exist and elves and magic swords don’t!
Most of Star Wars can be excused with the idea that it’s set in a technologically very advanced world. The few elements that are not a given – the aliens and especially the force – are established as part of the world early. We’re told up front this is the world and we either accept it or we walk out of the movie. But once the rules of the world are laid down, they can’t be violated. The world is the first miracle. No more are allowed.
If you find yourself in a situation where two miracles have to be present for your story to work, try to figure out a way for one miracle to lead to the other, a la my fix for Spider-Man 3. Otherwise, the audience may find the whole thing too implausible.