I waited until 2011 to watch Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie Alexander, even though I’m a fan of Stone and a sucker for ancient Greece. Critics and moviegoers alike trashed the film, so I put off seeing it until I was sick last week and needed to kill three hours from the couch. I’m glad I waited, though, because now I can draw a critical storytelling lesson from this failed epic.
Critics slammed Alexander on many levels, but I saw one central problem with the movie: a tragic failure to give us a central character that we’ll want to watch for any length of time-not to mention for nearly three hours.
Stphen Hunter writes:
If you played a word-association game with “Alexander the Great,” you’d probably come up with “conqueror,” “king,” “warrior,” “legend,” “despot,” “wastrel” or “killer.” Unfortunately, Oliver Stone has chosen to build his epic of the Macedonian military genius around a word highly unlikely to make the list: “crybaby.”
It’s almost as if Stone set out to make one of the world’s most storied conquerers as weak and unlikable as possible. With a strong, charismatic Alexander, this film might have turned out fairly well. Without such an Alexander, it’s a disaster.
The first problem I found was that few characters in the movie actually liked Alexander. David Farland once pointed out in one of his free Daily Kicks that in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of the reasons we like Ferris is because everyone else does; he’s incredibly cool. Stone’s Alexander isn’t. His soldiers argue with him. His mom thinks he’s a “boy” even when he’s a grown man. His dad nearly kills him and frequently threatens to do it. His wife doesn’t respect him. Many of the finest men in his army think he’s a royal putz.
And you expect me to care about the guy? Maybe if Alexander seemed like a real victim–just a poor misunderstood guy. But that’s not what we get here.
Compounding this problem is Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Alexander (I liked Farrell in In Bruges, btw). His errors remind us that a protagonist shouldn’t make us want to slap the snot out of him in every scene. Desson Thomson writes:
Farrell puts a lot of energy into his role, but his character’s pulled and tugged in so many directions, we’re not sure what to make of him. He’s tough in the battlefield, anguished over mutiny from his soldiers, torn between lovers, impulsive and fearful, heedlessly brave and fitfully sensitive.
His Alexander, as expressed through the weepy histrionics of Colin Farrell, is more like a desperate housewife than a soldier. He’s always crying, his voice trembles, his eyes fill with tears.
So, few characters in the movie really like Alexander and Alexander himself is a jittery mess. Can we at least feel sorry for him? I didn’t. Sure, he had a complicated childhood. But Stone and Farrell never gave me much to actually like about Alexander.
Alexander says he wants to do good things for the people he conquers, but this feels hollow when he seems to be driven by an ambition that comes out of his Oedipal psychology. Then he actually does some nice things for the conquered, but his men sneer at him for favoring foreigners. Even when he marries a sexy Persian dancer, Alexander gets no dap from his boys.
Our protagonist just wants to be loved, but even after he sexually conquers his tigress of a wife, he whispers something in her sleeping ear (or at least he thought she was sleeping) about her heart being a pale reflection of his mother’s. Meanwhile, Alexander doesn’t have the conviction to give himself to his true love (his boyhood friend and lover Hephaistion) in a passionate way; or, if he does, it happens off stage.
And then he wants his men to cross snowy mountains to die in India, while none of them seem to want to go along with him.
What am I supposed to feel now?
Pity? Meh. How many people has he gotten killed?
Admiration? What’s there to like?
On top of all of this, Alexander just seems bland. Roger Ebert writes:
Farrell is a fine actor, but on a human scale; he’s not cut out for philosopher-king. One needs to sense a certain madness in a colossus; … Farrell seems too reasonable, too much of ordinary scale, to drive men to the ends of the world with his unbending will.
Stone and Farrell gave us plenty of reasons to dislike Alexander and few (either unconvincing or undermined) reasons to like him.
As a writer, telling a good story with an unlikable protagonist takes great skill and creativity. When a story like Alexander’s depends wholly on that central figure then it’s even more important that the character works. When writing about a relatively unlikable figure, at least give us something to like or respect about the character, and at least define him well. Alexander wasn’t likable to begin with, we never quite figure out who he is, and he ultimately meets a tragic end without redemption. So I just watched a movie about someone I want to choke, someone I don’t understand, whom no one else seems to like.
And then he dies.
Note to self and kids: Don’t try this at home.
Indeed, that movie always annoyed the hell out of me, but I never really thought to deconstruct why. You’re absolutely right about this.
It would be interesting to get inside the screenwriter’s head and find out what went wrong. Surely he/she didn’t set out to create such an unlikable character, right? Speaking as someone who has accidentally created some fairly unlikable characters in my time, it might be informative to look at some of the well-intentioned choices we make as writers that lead us down such sympathy-annihilating rabbit trails.
Film is collaborative, however, so it’s entirely possible the screenwriter got it right, but the director and actor got it wrong. In the case of writing novels, there’s only one person to blame for an unlikable character — the author.
I watched Oranges and Sunshine last week (or maybe it’s Sunshine and Oranges). It’s about child deportation from Britain to Australia and should have been very powerful but wasn’t. It seemed, to me, that I had no reason to care about the main character, the woman who ultimately exposed the child deportation policies of the British and Australian governments. She was a nice person and she was trying to do the right thing but there was nothing personally at stake for her so I didn’t really care about her. Now if the main character was maybe one of the Christian Brothers or nuns who were responsible for the abuse many of these kids suffered in state-run homes or if the main character was one of these adults searching for answers about who they were, I might have cared more because they had something to lose.
Good grief, I can so relate. And again goes to that previous post by Mary on the Ponies and how their characterization made us care. I have certainly written some boring, whiny, uninteresting (or worse) characters. When my CP writes on my page “Bitch”, “Coward”, “Wimp”, “Creepy” and so on… I get it. Didn’t see it when I wrote it, but I see it now. It’s a constant struggle.
Thanks for the deconstruction, Moses. I love Larry Brooks for all the deconstructions he supplies on his blog, http://www.storyfix.com. I need to work on this skill, so I could see it better in my own writing.
@Evan: Great points. I really like Oliver Stone as well as the story of Alexander, so I felt sad that this one didn’t work. I know I’ve had to work on a couple of pov characters in my novel that not everyone likes. While I have done some things to make them more likable (one was probably too wimpy and the other too pouty and immature), I think one thing that helps is that neither of them is the leading protagonist on either side of the war. So they can perhaps be more unlikable while being in more secondary roles. But even then, I’ve learned that you don’t want to irritate people too much with a pov character and I’ll have to see how the reception is to my novel to see whether I got it right or not.
@Kylie: It sounds like that would’ve been a perfect solution for that movie. That’s a great example.
@Clancy: It’s great you’re more aware of that now. I’ve been working on this too in my current book. I haven’t checked out storyfix in a while. I should do that again.