So I saw the new Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay, and it reminded me of something that really annoys me about movies and TV shows.
Here’s an example. Think of Dr. Mindy Lahiri, in The Mindy Project, storming into the doctor’s office at the end of an episode. She’s chasing her boyfriend, Dr. Danny Castellano, and they’re about to have a mild confrontation about their relationship that will resolve the arc of the episode. (This has happened on The Mindy Project more times than I can count.) As soon as they enter the doctor’s office, they’re squabbling with each other, and every single person in the room turns to watch them. Whether it’s their fellow doctors, or patients in the waiting room, or the UPS guy who needs someone to sign for a package, every single person in the scene will stop what they’re doing and watch the drama between Mindy and Danny unfold. Usually these people have no context for the drama, because it all began in private – for example, Mindy is upset at Danny because he won’t let her keep a toothbrush at his apartment, which she feels is indicative of his fear of commitment. But suddenly everyone in the background seems to understand what these two are fighting about, and they seem to think it’s the most gripping scene they have ever witnessed. The bystanders know what Mindy is talking about when she refers to Danny’s toothbrush by its adorable, private nickname – they chuckle when they hear it – and then everyone coos and pats the shoulder of the person next to them as the happy couple makes up. Half a second later, in unison, everyone returns to typing at their computers, rubbing a sore elbow, or signing for a package.
What the fuck, right?
When it comes to background characters, The Mindy Project is trying to have it both ways. They want everyone in the doctor’s office to function as secondary characters – realistic human beings with lives and preoccupations that extend beyond the central drama of the scene. But they also want everyone to function as a Greek chorus – an anonymous group of spectators who view the action and reflect our feelings about the drama. The problem is, you can’t have it both ways on TV. When secondary characters are forced to serve as both “real” people and a Greek chorus, their behavior starts to defy logic. And it distracts the hell out of me.
It’s like the Jumbotron at a ballgame. 40,000 people arrive at the stadium, and everyone is leading their individual lives, eating hot dogs and scolding their children and checking the score. We’re all separate, whole, background characters in each other’s little dramas. Then some guy on the Jumbotron gets down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend, and for a brief moment we all become an official audience for their private drama. We ooh and aah and act like we know their story. But as soon as the camera cuts away, we go back to eating our hot dogs and scolding our children. We never think about those Jumbotron lovers again.
The phenomenon is bizarre enough in real life. Now imagine that the Jumbotron can float in midair, and it follows you everywhere, and the same couple keeps reappearing on the screen, and you occasionally find it impossible to remember anything about them. This is what happens in movies and TV shows all the time.
I propose we call this the Jumbotron Fallacy. It’s a jarring inconsistency in how minor characters behave toward main characters.
The first time I got really, truly distracted by this phenomenon, I was watching the Harry Potter movies. If you’ve seen the movies then you know how, according to the whims of the plot, Harry is sometimes depicted as a poor, forlorn, orphan boy with only two friends in the whole world, and he gets jostled around by his classmates, who barely know (or care) that he exists. But at other times, Harry is the famous subject of various legends and prophesies, a redoubtable hero who saves the entire school and the lives of everyone at Hogwarts in what is inevitably the dramatic highlight of each school year. Come next year, his fellow students will ignore him and jostle him all over again.
As it happens I have some experience with this sort of thing. From 1999 to 2000 I attended to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. It’s a very Hogwarts-looking place, and this was the same year that Prince William, the future King of England, enrolled at the school. So I have been one of those background characters in the Harry Potter movies. I have been an anonymous member of the crowd through which the legendary boy-hero makes his way. And I can tell you that the way the Harry Potter movies depict interactions between the hero and the crowd is wrong at both extremes.
Prince William was never “off the radar.” Any time he was in the vicinity, we all knew about it. I remember sitting down in a computer lab, and immediately the person next to me, a total stranger, whispered that Prince William was a mere two rooms away from us, in a study room on the other side of an adjacent computer lab. Thanks, total stranger, for telling me exactly where another total stranger is! But while he was never off the radar, Prince William was never the center of everyone’s attention, either. I remember him in the dining room at St. Salvator’s Hall, three or four tables away from me, surrounded by friends from Eton and the Art History program. They were a faraway jumble of blond heads. Their voices rarely pierced the general din of the meal. If a scene of the utmost dramatic importance had occurred between the future King of England and one of his table-mates, hardly anyone in the dining hall would have noticed, because we were all listening to someone nearby yammer about how cold the wind had become, or what happened in the pub last night. We were always, on some basic level, aware that a prince was among us. But he was never completely forgotten, like Harry Potter often is. And he was never glorified as a celebrity like Harry Potter, either. When I see those extremes depicted in movies, they both ring false.
So it is with the new Hunger Games movie. When Katniss Everdeen—our protagonist, the Girl On Fire, the Mockingjay—arrives in District 13, she is already the famous champion of a nationally televised bloodsport, and she has become the lightning rod for a populist uprising. Everyone knows her face. The sight of her can prompt total strangers to whistle three notes, kiss their fingers, and raise their hands in salute. But as she walks the corridors of District 13 looking for her sister, or eats with her only friend in the cafeteria, nobody notices Katniss. When the president of District 13 makes a big, televised announcement that the famous Katniss Everdeen has agreed to join the revolution, Katniss herself is standing in the crowd like any other anonymous citizen. During the announcement about her triumphant role in their revolution, the people standing next to her don’t even glance in her direction. Mockingjay seems incapable of making up its mind about whether Katniss is the focal point of every other character’s life or not. It’s maddening.
The problem, of course, is point of view.
If you were Katniss or Harry or Prince William, you might feel, at times, like nobody is paying attention to you. And you might feel, at other times, like everyone is staring at you. We have all felt that way. Our experience of other people’s attention runs hot and cold. That’s how it’s depicted in Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and The Mindy Project. For the most part, this depiction is true to the experience of the protagonists.
But movies and TV shows don’t just depict the experience of their protagonists. They also depict the experiences of every other person in the scene. They show us the “reality” of a whole system of looks and glances and attention, whether it’s casual notice or intense scrutiny. And they show it in the most literal way, with photographic evidence.
In a written story, you can say that Harry Potter is walking down the hall and everyone seems to be staring at him. It doesn’t matter if everyone is really staring or not, because what we care about is Harry’s experience, and for Harry the stares feel true. In writing, we can be ambiguous about reality in order to convey the truth of the experience. But in a movie, you can’t say “seems to.” You can’t fully depict Harry’s individual experience because you have to show an unambiguous, photographic “reality.” Either the camera catches people staring at Harry, or it doesn’t. In order to show us that Harry feels like everyone is staring at him, everyone has to be staring at him, even when it makes no sense for their characters to do so.
Basically, writing is the best.
As usual, The Simpsons is ahead of the game here. How many times has Mr. Burns asked Smithers to explain who that Homer Simpson fellow is?
In one episode Smithers gets a little embarrassed. He reminds Mr. Burns that “all the recent events of your life have revolved around him in some way.”
Mr. Burns: “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
– Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Founder of Fiction Advocate.