I finally saw '300' last night. You'll have to indulge me a small rant here. Or jump ahead a couple paragraphs if you prefer your scriptwrangling straight up.. The film is a bloody, stylized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, where an elite force of 300 Spartans managed to hold out against 150,000 Persians in one of the most dramatic battles in history. The film tells the story about how these 300 straight white guys defend country, truth, democracy, and family against the Persian Empire, which was apparently a rainbow coalition of transvestites, muslims, black people, and the handi-capable. More than half the movie takes place at this mountain pass, which, especially in the long shots, is rather disturbingly Freudian. The 300 fight an assortment of effeminate brown people, stopping only briefly to announce that freedom isn't free, and how they of course get all their strength from their women. Then it's back to defending the hole.
What's particularly galling is that the 300 Spartans in real life were actually 150 homosexual couples, chosen to fight together because they would die defending their lovers. Guess that wouldn't make them too sympathetic for the average red-stater this seems targeted at. Alas. it makes me realize just how screwed up our culture is -- literally -- how things get stuck somehow, then twisted around on themselves several times. They aren't gay warriors. They're straights fighting transvestites. But they wear leather underwear and long crimson capes. And they cackle heartily whenever they say "sculptor", or "boy-lover". Yeesh. And then boring.
I thought this would be a good place to talk about "character sympathy" in screenwriting terms. "Sympathy" is one of those terms -- like conflict, misbehavior, flaw, etc. -- that are NEUTRAL. Hannibal Lecter has sympathy because he promises surprise, and he's extremely dedicated to his task.
For the screenwriter, it's absolutely paramount that the viewer have sympathy for the main character. Doesn't have to like him. But he has to care what happens to him. He has to invest in him. There are a couple ways to do this.
ENTERTAINMENT POTENTIAL. The character conceit is so strong that the audience just wants to get to the next laugh, or murder, or whatever. There is the potential for surprise, or strong choices. I got bored with 300 because I realized all I was going to get was another battle scene, more platitudes.
STAKES. The harder you make a character fight, and the more you make him fight for, the more we care. It's natural. People like underdogs. I think this was the writer's (Zack Snyder) approach with the 300. They need to defend Sparta's rear pass against the effeminate brown masses. Didn't work for me, because I knew they were going to lose, and they seemed to crave nothing more than death.
MERCY. HUMILITY. When audiences see a merciful act, they have a hope that it will be returned to the deserving main character. This is one place where 300 especially failed for me. He comes from a society without mercy. He rejects the pitiful cripple who wants to fight. And frankly, I'm glad when the cripple takes his revenge.
AUDIENCE IDENTIFICATION. We see ourselves in the character. This is the Erin Brockovitch approach. She's got more kids than she can handle. She's got a checkered past. She's not the brightest crayon in the box. But she's loyal, and she'll fight -- for us. I think 300 tries to do this. The Spartans spout the catch-phrases from the war on terror. Fear and barbarism are all full of homosexuality. Xerxes all but mounts Leonidas at one point. Uh oh! There's a real drive to get all the team thinking alike. If it wasn't so pitifully screwed up it mighta worked.
There WAS one character I had strong sympathy for: the young Leonidas. Following Spartan ritual, the seven-year-old is taken from his mother, and forced to live in this army camp for kids. We know he's a sweet kid, the apple of his mother's eye. We don't know what will happen to him. We don't know what he'll become. We don't know if he'll survive. And this is the one place where the violence is really affecting. He punches another boy, and blood flies from his mouth. The transformation has begun. Two little boys fighting can engage an audience better than armies of elephants plunging over an ocean cliff or dudes in burkas throwing hand grenades (hundreds of years before Islam or the invention of gunpowder). Yes, it can.