Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Saving the Cat Query

Having recently read Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, which Jacqueline has often recommended, I’m wondering about an apparent exception to the “save the cat” rule in classic literature. Snyder lays out the principle that the protagonist should do something early in the story to make the reader (or viewer) like and root for him or her, to hint that even if the central character looks like a bad guy, he is redeemable. As an extension of this principle, Snyder says that if the protagonist appears to have no redeeming traits, the same goal can be achieved by introducing another character who’s even worse.

So how does Ebenezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL fit into this pattern? In the opening scene, he does nothing whatever to win our sympathy or display any redeeming characteristics. Everything he says and does in that scene, in fact, seems designed to demonstrate what a lost cause he is. He bullies Bob Cratchit, rudely dismisses two gentlemen collecting for charity, drives off a boy singing Christmas carols, and picks a quarrel with his nephew who drops in to invite him to dinner. Scrooge does perform one positive act, giving Cratchit Christmas Day off, but it’s done so grudgingly I have trouble seeing it as a “save the cat” moment. The Scrooge figures in some of the many film adaptations behave even worse. The singing star in A DIVA’S CHRISTMAS CAROL makes her entourage work on Christmas. In AN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CAROL, the Scrooge analog even fires the Cratchit analog on Christmas Eve. Returning to Dickens, some readers might suggest that Scrooge’s bleak, solitary lifestyle is meant to evoke sympathy, but I think any tendency to feel sorry for him is undercut by the evidence that he’s perfectly content with the way he lives. (“Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.”) And in no case does the author (Dickens or later adapters)—in the opening scene—present a character worse than Scrooge to make him look less unappealing by contrast.

The latter technique appears to striking effect in a modern novel, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. While Dr. Hannibal Lecter isn’t the protagonist and shows no sign of being redeemable, the author gives him audience appeal by implicitly contrasting him with characters who make him look good by comparison. Dr. Chilton, head of the institution where Lecter is incarcerated, makes a strongly negative first impression on Clarice Starling and on the reader. The inmates of cells adjoining Lecter’s are crude, violent men who verbally abuse Clarice. Lecter, in contrast, apologizes to her for the ugly treatment she receives. Moreover, he helps Clarice by giving her cryptic but useful clues in her investigation of the “Buffalo Bill” killer. Also, while we’re TOLD about Lecter’s horrible crimes, what we SEE at first glance is a brilliant, cultured man suffering harsh imprisonment. In fact, Thomas Harris’s strategy is so effective that, when HANNIBAL came out, some fans actually insisted in online comments that Lecter wasn’t such a bad guy after all! So one of the villains of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS comes across as more attractive than Scrooge, a much less evil character who’s the protagonist of his story and destined for redemption.

When the Ghost of Christmas Past shows up, we begin to witness a side of Scrooge that’s worth saving and capable of being saved. That happens quite a way into the story, though. Of course, a genius such as Dickens can get away with breaking “rules.” Still, is there any way the reader’s first meeting with Scrooge can be interpreted to fit into the “save the cat” pattern? Maybe Dickens’s strategy of making old Ebenezer, although grotesquely unattractive, an irresistibly entertaining character (his dialogue includes many examples of dry wit, though that impression might be more attributable to the acting skills of stars such as George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart rather than to the character as written) fits the criterion. But that seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. Okay, RE Scrooge, I have to confess I overlooked a "save the cat" moment at the beginning of the Patrick Stewart CHRISTMAS CAROL. It's not in the opening scene but in a prologue, seven years earlier, that does not appear in the book—Marley's funeral. (Dickens mentions it but doesn't show it.) In the movie, left alone with Marley's coffin, Scrooge says an unsentimental but clearly affectionate farewell to his partner and only friend. His warm-ish feelings toward Marley don't show up in the book and other films until the visit of Marley's ghost.

  2. Margaret: Yes, now you see. Blake Snyder was giving us a breakdown of MODERN BLOCKBUSTER FILMS.

    His advice was all about how to write a BLOCKBUSTER FILM SCRIPT -- not an Indie script, or a genre script or a B-picture script, but one that producers could get high budget backing for.

    He analyzed a multitude of these films, and found the certain elements that all of them had. Everything else is variable -- but SAVE THE CAT is absolutely necessary, and must be the intro.

    The novel CHRISTMAS CAROL was not written to attract tens of millions of people to pay $15 a head -- all within a few weeks time-span -- and didn't cost tens of millions of dollars to print and distribute, thus didn't have to appeal to a WIDE audience.

    Even in serialization, to newspaper readers -- the brutal truth is not everyone read newspapers even then. Literacy - especially literacy to the degree required to enjoy reading a story rather than just writing your name - was rare. And it's rare today.

    Most people don't read books, and of those who do, most of them read non-fiction.

    Novel writers are not playing to the broad audience a film must attract, so the "rules" are different.

    However, the closer to that broad-audience-rule the novelist can get, the more copies their books will sell.

  3. Thanks, Jacqueline. The contrast between films and novels makes the thing that was puzzling me much more understandable. Still, I would claim Dickens did appeal to a wide audience -- throughout the rest of his career, audiences thronged to hear him read aloud from A CHRISTMAS CAROL. And while literacy may have been rare in the nineteenth century compared to now, it was becoming common enough that the "penny dreadful" serial novels (e.g., VARNEY THE VAMPYRE, which goes on for over 800 pages in book form) had a huge readership, and they were targeted to working-class people who didn't have much money to spend.

  4. Margaret: Consider that today's "blockbuster" film audience is more people than were alive in the whole world in Dickens day, and have access to a wider variety of choices, have to be lured away from those choices, etc -- it is just not that same thing at all.

    What is delightful -- Dickens' works (all of them) translate easily and beautifully into product today's audience is consuming hungrily! That's why writers should study Dickens.