The Monster story is one of the favorite types of Myth Archetype: the main character goes through an Outer Story, and that Outer Story symbolizes an Inner Story of emotional change.
Monster stories have been popular for centuries. Initially, a monster of some kind menaces the hero and the community. In Beowulf, the village is threatened by Grendel. In the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, the world is threatened by a monstrous supervillain. The monster can be an extraterrestrial monster, as in Alien, a monstrous animal, as in Jaws, a monstrous human, like Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, an evil horde like the Persians in 300, even a disease threatening the main character or all of mankind.
The main character fights against the seemingly unbeatable monster, losing most of the battles until it looks like he has no hope and will ultimately lose the war. But, in the end, through superhuman effort, the main character manages to overcome the monster and “kill” it in some way.
These stories often feature a main character who undergoes little or no inner change. Instead, the monster symbolizes a human fault that the main character has to overcome. Killing the monster is a symbol of evolving and overcoming an inner flaw.
Jaws is the paradigm, but the Monster movie has several variations. Knowing how the Monster movie is supposed to work – on a symbolic level – lets us analyze these variations to see if they will satisfy an audience.
Movies like Frankenstein and King Kong start out in standard fashion. A hideous, scary monster is introduced and starts to wreak havoc on the human community. But partway into the movie, the audience gets the message that the monster isn’t so bad. Indeed it seems to be better – more human – than the actual humans trying to kill it.
Kong, for example, is exploited by the evil hunters and showmen who kidnap the giant gorilla from his island. He loves the beautiful Ann Darrow and protects her from pushy dinosaurs. He protects her right up to the moment he’s shot and plunges from the Empire State Building to his death. To put it simply, he’s not very monstrous; he’s actually kind of sweet.
This switcheroo tends to muddle the symbolic Inner Game. Not being so bad, the monster no longer coherently symbolizes an inner flaw, so the audience unconsciously tries to reconstruct the narrative in a way that makes Inner Game sense. It doesn’t always succeed. The latest version of King Kong grossed a little over $200 million domestically, but with a budget also a bit over $200 million, it wasn’t exactly a rousing commercial success.
Given the symbolism of the Monster story, it’s important to avoid certain pitfalls. One is the misuse of what I call a Run Away! story, a story form that usually doesn’t work. Recent examples of this are War of the Worlds, The Happening, and 2012.
In War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise spends the movie running to escape an overwhelming alien invasion. Sure, the military is futilely trying to kill the aliens and their deadly machines. But Cruise isn’t, he’s just running away.
This is not to criticize the fictional character – in real life, if you encounter a technologically advanced alien invasion, I’m advising you to run away. But it doesn’t work as symbolism; you can’t overcome your inner flaw by running away from it. Wherever you run, your inner flaw stays right with you. In a Monster story, the character can try to escape the monster at first, but he must eventually realize that that’s not going to work and turn his attention to killing it.
That’s what happens in Duel, Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough TV movie. Dennis Weaver is a motorist tormented by an unidentifiable truck driver, who pursues him relentlessly. Weaver spends most of the film trying to get away from the truck, but, in the end, when he realizes he can’t escape, he turns and fights, and kills his tormentor.
And remember the turning point in The Matrix. The humans must constantly flee from the all-powerful agents, but at the climax of the movie, Keanu Reeves instead turns to do battle with Agent Smith. He realizes he must kill the monster, and Laurence Fishburne marks the realization by saying “He’s starting to believe.” Reeves kills the monster and saves humanity from the matrix.
By way of contrast, in War of the Worlds, the aliens eventually succumb to earthly bacteria, so the final symbolic message is something like “If you run from your inner flaw, you might get lucky and it will go away on its own.” Not quite as inspirational as “If you battle your inner demon, you can defeat it.”
The Happening has the same problem. Mark Wahlberg runs away from another monster, this time an air-borne disease that causes people to commit suicide. He and a few others run and run and run… and eventually the disease stops. They’ve outrun the monster. Again, symbolically (you can outrun your inner flaw) unsatisfying.
Finally, look at 2012 – it has exactly the same problem. John Cusack stumbles onto an impending disaster – neutrinos are causing the earth to heat up and melt the crust layer we all live on. He manages to pick up his family in a limousine so they can escape the devastation and sneak onto giant arks the world’s governments have built to save a select few.
In this movie, too, the monster just goes away. Once the melting has caused massive earthquakes and tidal waves, the damage is done and the survivors just have to wait on the giant boats for a few years till the water recedes. Yet another symbolically unsatisfying message: “Avoid your inner flaw long enough – it will do a lot of damage but ultimately someone else will save you.”
Maybe the symbolism issue is why another movie – which also employed Run Away! – did succeed, in fact becoming the most successful movie, based on cost, in history – The Blair Witch Project. A group of documentarians/investigators hiking through the woods find they’re being tracked by a supernatural predator. They try to flee, but they can’t get away, and in the end they’re all caught and killed. This time, the Run Away! symbolism actually works: if you simply try to run away from your inner flaws, you won’t escape them, and eventually they’ll destroy you.
This same thing works in Cloverfield. A group of twenty-somethings flee for their lives from a giant creature that is laying waste to Manhattan. As in Blair Witch, it’s all being caught on someone’s videotape. And in the end, again as in Blair, they all end up dead, killed by the monster.
Cloverfield was another box office success, grossing over $80 million on an estimated budget of $25 million. So Run Away! can work, but only if the screenwriter follows through with the archetype’s symbolism and lets the monster kill the characters in the end.
Another example of a variation on Monster is offered by Basic Instinct. Sharon Stone portrays the genital-flashing, murderous monster being tracked by detective Michael Douglas. But he gets tricked by Stone into believing that Jeanne Tripplehorn, the police psychologist he occasionally has rough sex with, is the actual killer, and he shoots Tripplehorn dead. In other words, he kills the wrong monster.
In the final scene, Douglas is in bed with Stone, and we see her icepick on the floor underneath. Seems like it’s not going to work out for Douglas, which is symbolically appropriate – if instead of solving your actual inner problem you solve another problem you think you have (but don’t), you’re not going to get any better. A fascinating variation on Monster – Wrong Monster.
A similar dynamic occurs in Mystic River. Sean Penn comes to believe that his daughter has been murdered by his childhood friend Tim Robbins, so he murders Robbins in return. Then he finds out his daughter was killed by someone else. He thought he was killing the monster, but he’s killed the wrong monster. And his other childhood friend, and now cop, Kevin Bacon knows it. As the movie ends, we’re sure Penn is in for more trouble as a result of what he’s done.
Killed by the Monster
A final example of a Monster variation is one that doesn’t work very well. In Valkyrie, Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer who mounts a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and free Germany from the Nazi regime.
The conspirators do eventually set off an explosion, but Hitler survives and all are executed, including Cruise, who is shot by a firing squad.
Valkyrie barely outgrossed its estimated budget, because of its handling of the Monster archetype. Main character Cruise does everything he can to kill the monster (Hitler), but in the end the monster kills him. The unfortunate symbolic message is that you can fight your inner flaw, but sometimes it’s just too strong to defeat, and instead it defeats you. Not very inspiring, and not very lucrative at the box office.
These Monster variations are just a few of the story types discussed in my book The Inner Game of Screenwriting. Check it out for a thorough understanding of how movies really work.