Protagonists that fail

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  • Protagonists that fail

    I'm about to start a script that will end with my protagonist failing to achieve his goal. The story is resolved and the "bad guy" dies, but the protag ends up sacrificing so much of himself and his morals that he becomes everything he hates at the beginning of the story.

    I'm looking for some thoughts on other movies that have a similar kind of ending where the protag fails - not just where he/she realizes they've had the wrong goal in mind, but just flat out fail. Something like Raging Bull (although it's a biopic, so it might fall into a different category) or Chinatown or The Conversation.

    What makes them work? What's the payoff for the audience?

  • #2
    Re: Protagonists that fail

    Well, the failure to achieve the goal isn't such a big deal, it happens in movies frequently. However, the protagonist has to come away with the knowledge of how they've changed.

    I think Million Dollar Baby fits into what you're looking for.

    But, as to why I think they work; the protagonist must be aware of how their life has changed and do they think it's for the better or for the worst? Does the protagonist come to realize, and accept, that he was always a cold-blooded killer? It's okay to end on a down note, to end sadly; just don't end badly.

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    • #3
      Re: Protagonists that fail

      Characters have physical goals and emotional needs. As long as the emotional need is fulfilled, the success of their physical goal is secondary, and doesn't have to succeed at all.

      Gone With the Wind -- Scarlett ends up with Tara, with Ashley, with everything she thought she wanted, but her emotional need was left unfulfilled -- not a happy ending.

      WITNESS -- the physical goal (get the bad guys) was met. The emotional need was not. Thus, the bittersweet ending.
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      • #4
        Re: Protagonists that fail

        Failure is always relative. McMurphy "fails" in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in that he ends up lobotomised. He succeeds, however, in that he didn't compromise what he believed in and he inspired The Chief to be free.
        Craft maximises talent

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        • #5
          Re: Protagonists that fail

          In Chinatown, Jake sets out to find out who set him up and really killed Mulray. he succeeds and discovers it was Cross. Jake doesn't fail to achieve his goal and resolve the primary dramatic tension.


          Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Lear are all stories about characters who fail to achieve their dramatic goal because of their internal flaws. But tragedy has fallen out of favor with audiences and today is almost always adapted from pre-existing works.

          There are always exceptions, like Million Dollar Baby and American Beauty, but Million Dollar Baby was not a spec script and American Beauty was written by a guy who was a well known and much sought after award winning TV writer with powerful connections.

          What you should really be doing is looking at SPECS that have been sold by outsiders and first timers where the hero fails to achieve his dramatic goal. Those would be your templates since you are selling an original spec in today's spec market.

          I don't think you will find many specs being sold by new writers where the hero is a total failure. You might think this is a bonus because it will make your project stand out. I think it's a sign that the market is not looking for spec scripts from unproven writers about a character who is a total failure.
          Fortune favors the bold - Virgil

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          • #6
            Re: Protagonists that fail

            In 'The Lord Of The Rings' Frodo fails as a protagonist when at Mount Doom he chooses to keep the Ring instead of destroying it. It is Gollum (an antagonist) who completes the two goals of a) killing all the bad dudes and b) destroying the ring when he falls into the volcano.

            (In the movie it was changed so Frodo gets some kudos because he pushes Gollum in and risks his own life.)

            But the book is a perfect example of a character failing the goal yet still everything turning out alright. Bitter ending for Frodo, happy ending for everyone else.
            One meets his destiny often in the road he takes to avoid it. - French Proverb

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            • #7
              Re: Protagonists that fail

              What are you trying to do thematically. Are you trying to say that good people MUST do evil things to stop the actions of evil people?

              If you are going to do something in the third act that is convention-breaking, make sure that it is absolutely the only way that the story can end, and that it's absolutely necessary that it ends that way.

              If it's an action script and it's possible that it could have a happy ending, some bonehead producer will probably tell you "no, let the hero win, and don't have him do those unsympathetic things or the audience won't like him."

              Figure out what you are trying to do thematically and build the story around that, and do it in a way that the story as it happens is the way that it has to happen.

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              • #8
                Re: Protagonists that fail

                just don't make your hero weak in the end.

                though i was in high school at the time (long before my interest in screenwriting began), i recall watching 'miller's crossing' with my dad. something stuck out in my mind that i'll always remember - he said that the movie never did that well because people didn't like seeing the hero crying when he thought he was going to be killed in the woods. i'll never forget that.

                walking that fine line of humanity and weakness is a tricky thing.
                People are always writing, but not always thinking.
                -Anonymous

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                • #9
                  Re: Protagonists that fail

                  tradgic hero.

                  i never felt like he was a coward. it just unwinded for him. we've all been there. not in the woods with no hope, and a gun to your head, but just spent.

                  when toturro was brought out into the woods the coens framed that scene to hammer home the theme of the movie. what was the theme?

                  torturro begged and groveled. toturro was shameless. he asked the man holding the gun for forgiveness.

                  but when the dane brought our hero into the woods, his crying was different. he wasn't begging. he brought this on because he showed mercy. he didn't beg or whimper he accepted his fate, and he feared his immortality. the undertones of religion was huge. to me he was asking god to forgive him.

                  he hated himself.

                  his entire character was predicated on the notion that he was being watched over. that god had a place for him and when it came to bare that his time was up he was crying not for mercy from death, but gods forgiveness.

                  that was jesus's walk up the hill to be nailed to the stake. that's what they were going for. they stopped at the same place torturro kneeled.

                  it didn't matter that dane was there with a gun. he was grieving for himself. men who take great risks in life believe that they are being watched over and when that is obliterated you become mortal.

                  when you give yourself up, in church, you kneel before god. torturro was asking for mercy to a human so he could live, and continue to sin.

                  our protag was asking god to forgive him. huge difference. and guess what, god gave him a pass and the man he didn't kill, killed somone else, and that little bit of serendipity led to his enlightment.

                  in normal terms, when you look at the movie in real time, it's just a coincidence, much like the wallet scene in training day.

                  but in the movies reality it was about much more than that. he didn't fear the dane, or men, he didn't know if he would be redeemed.

                  all the coens work revolves around a theme. and that theme is divine intervention. the coens believe in fate and their coincidences are rooted in the belief that everything happens for a reason, not to serve the story, but to serve the THEME.

                  when your writing works on multple levels and ideologies you're going to lose people. i like miller's crossing more because of what they said, without being overt.

                  i can't say enough good things about millers crossing. a movie that every time you watch it you pick up more subtext.

                  the high hat

                  vig
                  Last edited by vig; 06-30-2005, 01:02 AM.

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