The Truman Show is a perfect example of how much money a “high concept” movie can make. It’s also a textbook case of how shallow a high concept movie can be if you don’t find the right structure to express the inherent themes. That this movie is being heralded as the most original of summer ’98 says more about the sad state of creativity in mainstream Hollywood and the need to sell magazines than it does about the quality of this film.
Most screenwriters know that high concept is essential for a script to succeed in mainstream movies. What most don’t know is that high concept only gives you two or three fun scenes. Then you have to know how to develop the high concept through opposition and theme to get two hours of great writing.
The Truman Show is a story of a man who discovers that his entire life is a television show. This puts us in the realm of social fantasy, an advanced form of fiction that allows the writer to compare social worlds. Fantasy always involves two tracks, the fantasy world and the real world it is commenting upon. Without the real world reference, the fantasy story is clinically interesting, as an act of creativity, but never compelling.
When you look at the structure the writer chose for The Truman Show, you see immediately why this movie was doomed to blow most of its immense potential. Instead of starting in the mundane world then going to the fantasy world – as most great fantasies do – the writer chose to have the hero – and the audience – slowly discover that he is living in a fantasy world. That makes the hero a kind of detective solving the mystery of his own life.
This choice appears, at first glance, to be a good one. Audiences love a mystery because mysteries give us a clean desire line and a lot of reveals. And a detective story where a man solves the mystery of his own life is a brilliant premise.
Problem/Need: But the reality here is much different. The so-called “coming-to-awareness” structure causes you to start your hero as a clean slate. He’s quite happy with his life before things fall apart. But this means you cannot detail your hero’s Need, whether psychological or moral, up front. Since need is the wellspring of any good story, and the source of the self-revelation, this is a serious loss. Truman is portrayed from the beginning as little more than an impossibly cheerful optimist.
Desire: The detective structure, in this case, also gives the hero the lowest of all possible Desire lines: to escape. By ending the film with the moment he breaks out of his trap, the author guarantees that this low desire will structure the entire story. And that has a devastating effect on plot. Instead of giving us lots of great reveals, we have only one, repeated time and again: “I am caught in a fictional world.”
Opponent: Using the detective structure also diminishes the Opponent. In the Detective Class I talk about the negative effects of hiding the opposition. The most serious drawback is that we have no opportunity to contrast the values of the hero and opponent until the end, when it is too late for detailing and texture. In The Truman Show, the director is nothing but an omniscient presence until the end of the film when he spouts a few platitudes about Truman being the star of his own world.
Since the opponent in a social fantasy also stands for a larger alternative world, the detective structure makes it impossible to have a deeper comparison between this safe, fictional world and the freer, real world outside.
A look at the premiere American social fantasy on film, It’s A Wonderful Life, shows how important the right structure is to making the larger themes pay off. It’s A Wonderful Life uses an elaborate storytelling structure in order to give us the centerpiece of the film, which is an immediate and highly detailed juxtaposition of the same town under two different sets of values. The Truman Show gives us only one version of the world for the full two hours.
Battle, Self-Revelation: No wonder, then, that the Battle and Self-Revelation are anticlimactic and stale. Truman gets smashed in the boat by an all- powerful director and has a simple self-revelation – “I’d rather be free” – that was a foregone conclusion from the first reveal.
Social fantasy is among the most challenging and satisfying of all story forms, especially in film. But it requires a mastery of craft and theme to fulfill its massive potential. Finding a great high concept premise is the single most important factor in successful Hollywood screenwriting. And it certainly made everyone associated with this film a lot of money. But it is not enough for great writing.