Recently, one of my client’s scripts included a rape-and-murder scene: an act of pedophilia that ends in a child's death. The writer’s heart was in the right place, and it was obvious to me that he identified with the victim, not the perpetrator. Still, I knew that - on the big screen - it won't really come across the way he intended.
This script really got me thinking for the first time about something I’ve known intuitively for decades. Why is it that, whenever we see a rape or torture scene in a movie, we end up in some strange way identifying with the villain, instead of with the victim?
Why do these scenes always feel “exploitive” in some way - as if the filmmaker sympathizes with the rapist or torturer, and is getting some kind of perverse pleasure out of the victimization? Could it be that there is something inherent in the medium of film (and in human nature) that makes it difficult to show rape, torture, or “blood and guts” on the screen without appearing to endorse and glory in it?
I’m no psychologist, but I think the answer is “Yes.” I’ve come to the conclusion that the more graphic a scene of violence is on the big screen, the more we will tend to identify with the victimizer rather than the victim. Here are a few theories as to why I think that’s the case:
Most normal people get uncomfortable when witnessing acts of violence, even in a movie where we know it’s not “real." Violence against women or children is particularly likely to make audiences squirm and feel revulsion. The longer the scene continues and the more graphic it is, the more uncomfortable the audience gets.
When a film audience feels uncomfortable, they unconsciously start to blame the filmmakers and the victim for their discomfort (in a movie scene of violence, the character who makes us most uncomfortable is the victim, because we identify with her suffering, and she usually seems weak and vulnerable). This also leads the film audience to think that the screenwriter and director must be “enjoying” making them feel uncomfortable (after all, they put it up on there on the screen). And if they are enjoying it, then the message is that they expect us to identify with the villain, not the victim, and enjoy it too.
The audience members who find that wrong, will start tuning out from the movie, and “blame the victim” for putting them through this emotional turmoil. Conversely, those who enjoy the violence or who are desensitized to it will continue to watch, and unconsciously identify with the person in the scene who has the power and control: the perpetrator. Some people might even laugh or cheer him on. And the more uncomfortable people get, the more they have nervous reactions that may seem inappropriate, or get confused about what they are “supposed” to feel.
In order for a film audience to feel empathy with a movie character who is a victim, they must remain engaged with what is happening on the screen and the victim’s perspective. But graphic violence tends to have the opposite effect on most normal people. We want to turn away, to disengage. The more detached we are, the more likely we are to identify with the perpetrator, who holds the power in the scene.
Some people are naturally detached, and on some level may get the same kind of adrenaline rush out of the victim’s suffering that real rapists do. When people see movies in theaters rather than at home, strange crowd dynamics can take hold (mob psychology), and the reaction of the audience as a whole to violence on the screen can take strange turns.
I don’t know about you, but when I see a Tarantino movie, for example, I get the feeling he is reveling in the violence rather than identifying with the victim. Whether this is actually true or not, I can’t know. And this is not to say that he isn’t a very good filmmaker. I thought the first twenty minutes of Inglourious Basterds were superb. It just means that I believe that Tarantino's sometimes lingering and lovingly graphic depictions of acts of violence are more likely to make one intrigued by the violence and relate to the power of the victimizer, than empathize with the poor victim. That’s one reason why I thought the long opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, which contained no violence at all till the final seconds, was far more effective in making us identify with the victims than anything else in the movie.
What does this mean for you as a screenwriter? If you want to write a scene that depicts the horror of violence and want us to identify with the victim’s suffering rather than with the villain’s sense of power and control, the best way to do this is not to make the violence all the more visible and graphic. The trick is to create empathy for the character before the violence occurs, and then depict “the act” in such a way that we are not compelled to emotionally disengage and detach.
There’s really no way around it. Put “blood and guts” on a movie screen, and you may end up making a movie that appears to be a cheerleader for violence, and your “message” about how bad violence is or how abused and exploited the victim is, can get entirely lost.
Remember that the violence we can see in our mind’s eye is far more graphic and powerful than anything you could ever show us. If you, as a screenwriter or filmmaker, can inspire our imagination, this will make us engage with your movie and its hero rather than turn away.
The way to depict violence on the screen is to force us to fill in the blanks with our imaginations. The reason to skip the graphic stuff is not just because it’s exploitive and unnecessary. It’s also because it is far, far more effective on the screen to show violence in ways that reach us at our core, instead of in ways that make us squirm or turn our stomachs.
I am certainly not advocating censorship, nor suggesting that violence should be sanitized, or that it doesn’t belong in movies. Quite the contrary. I think violence in movies is in some ways too “clean” and “fake," and doesn’t give us a real sense of what it really means.
Here are some tips on how to “show” acts of violence on a movie screen so that they are really effective in sending the message you want to send:
1.) Show what happens before the violence, or the aftermath, without showing us every detail of what happened in between. For example, think of the scene in Gone with the Wind, when the camera pulls back to reveal an endless sea of dead and wounded Confederate soldiers’ bodies laid out at the railroad station, as an overworked and exhausted doctor tries to care for the wounded. That single boom shot is more powerful than a thousand other war scenes that show soldiers’ getting shot. It speaks volumes about the tragic cost of war, and the utter waste of young lives. It’s also shocking - we see only a few bodies at first, and the shot expands and expands. We realize then that the war is already lost for the South.
2.) Use sound and editing creatively.
3.) Show us the reaction to the violence by someone observing it, instead of the violent act itself.
4.) Freeze the action or cut away at precisely the right moment (See the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).
5.) Use objects to show us the moment of death or violence indirectly (e.g., the snow globe falling from Kane’s hand to the floor, in the "Rosebud” moment that starts Citizen Kane). In old movies, they did this kind of thing so many different ways that were creative and wonderful. Who can forget the brilliant, tragic ending of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), when the hero, a soldier in a trench in World War I, reaches above it to try to catch a butterfly - a symbol of life and beauty and peace and freedom - and then we just hear the sound of a sniper’s bullet, and see our hero's hand slowly sinking to the ground. Nothing else.
6.) Remember that threatened violence can be scarier than violence itself. Remember that Wicked Witch’s scary threats to set the Scarecrow on fire in The Wizard of Oz?
Can some of this seem corny? Yes, because these things have all been done before. It’s your job as a screenwriter to come up with new ways to show violence and death on the screen that enhance your story’s power—and our humanity.
Keep pitching. See you next month.