Shoot the Rhino
by Alex KeeganLast night we watched some explanatory material, about the making of Gladiator and we saw how three specific things turned an action B- Movie into a very good film that appealed to women as much as men, and on the way saved at least three million dollars, losing something that, had it been in the film, would have attracted a lot of "Ooooh- Aahhh" superficial attention, yet obviously was utterly unnecessary, and very probably would have weakened the film.
The "plot" of the film is simple. A Roman general escapes assassination but not in time to save his wife and child. He sees their bodies. Before he can avenge them (if he could) he is almost killed and becomes a slave-gladiator. He has no wish to fight but once he does, he becomes a near-invincible fighter, and here the plot is nihilistic.
Eventually, as he rises through the ranks (as a killer) he ends up in Rome and in the arena, where first he is masked and then confronts the Emperor. The Emperor secretly wounds him, they fight, the hero wins, but dies. Then, crucially, we see him "transported" to be in Elysium with his family again.
OK so far?
But what the background material tells us is three or four things. First, the "take" on the film was to NOT be "historical" but to aim for a contemporary sensibility. One writer actually spoke of it being Los Angeles as seen from 1,000 years in the future.
Second, they brought in a playwright not a screenwriter who worked on the set-piece dialogue scenes and made them "heavier" almost Shakespearian. This we see added "weight" and profundity to the whole.
Third (and this might seem to us the most important element) a third writer was brought into the movie. The first two writers, producers, directors, actors all knew the script "somehow didn't quite work," but why?
The new writer identified plot holes, issues, but fundamentally he said, the film was about a man wanting to kill (a revenge movie), whereas he wanted to see a film about love something that lifted the spirit.
If the wife and child lived, there were all sorts of plot difficulties, but if they lived ON ie they were dead but in Heaven "waiting," the gladiator's journey was now to be with them again. He was "going home," something simple, deep, basic, fundamental, human, identifiable, universal.
If the gladiator is incomplete, alive but without his loved ones he becomes complete by dying. But our sensibilities are that despite this, he could not just take poison (he's a hero, a gladiator, after all.) We need his death to mean something.
If we sense his nihilism (now explained) and then an inevitable moving towards the meeting with the emperor (and face it, we all know the gladiator will win, the emperor lose), but also sense that this is the gladiator "going home" (honorably) the death becomes a victory "and they all live happily ever after."
So the "color and sensibility" of the script needed to change, and it was changed.
But here is the crucial element for us writers of fiction. The change was of TONE and it was there from the absolute start.
The start was a great battle scene, but we did not start with action, but with humanity. There are moments of near-softness before we see the general as a killing machine. We see him thinking, feeling, see him look at a Robin and marvel at it. Before the battle he walks before the men almost as their mate, a buddy, punching shoulders etc. His transition is almost from "poet" to warrior and in steps, but if we start as "warrior" and then try to add in, "but he's really a soft, sensitive guy" our commonplace preconceptions stop us truly taking his softer side on board.
The story will be about reaching Elysium, so why not a pretty bird, a moment of calm, an "easy" image which can be casual, profound, metaphorical or any shades thereof depending on the reader.
And before the battle the main character actually speaks of the idea of dying and being in Elysium (to his men) but crucially it is spoken of as positive, as achievement (which is how the film ends.)
Not surprisingly, the Romans win, and the Emperor (the good one) asks what he can give his general. Again, reinforcing the theme, the general says, "Let me go home?"
When the third (and crucial) writer talked to camera he continued and explained how the motif "going home" is brought up "quietly" at spots throughout the story. The gladiator talks to a black slave/gladiator, again a family man whose sole aim in life is to go home.
One third of the way through the film we see a transportation/ floating "almost to Elysium" scene (when the general almost dies and is captured). The scene is brilliant because it is real and factual (transported over the ground) while also being metaphorical (almost out of body etc) and foreshadowing a near-identical last few shots when the general finally makes it to see his family.
Thus adding texture and strength to dialogue "meated up" the story. Adding a certain tone at the start which threaded through the story gave it both backbone, a leit motif and a certain aura, a sensibility (which said this is not merely a fight movie but more) and foreshadowing made the end even more believable as we had almost gone there before.
Lastly, that bloody rhino!
Oh, yes, it would have made dramatic action. (It would also have cost $3,000,000). And the director was excited, he wanted to do it. Why? For dramatic reasons, for theme, for artistic integrity? Nope. Just that he had always wanted to do a rhino. As it happened, the rhino was dropped.
Question, how would the rhino-fight have made a difference to the feel, the meaning, the sensibility we are left with?
Answer. Not only would it not have added a thing, it would have detracted from the whole because it would be big and distracting and saying to us, "this is so big, it must matter" when in fact it was just a boy with a toy.
Ask, of your work, where are my rhinos? Do I have this element in my story purely because either (a) I fancy it or (b) I think it's "interesting" or "exciting"?
That isn't the question.
The question is first, is it necessary, second does it make the work stronger, does it enhance the meaning?
Simpler is almost always better.
Focus on the heart, find the story's soul, kill your darlings.
Shoot the bloody rhino.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.