Last week I saw the movie Sucker Punch.
The movie focuses on Babydoll, a girl committed to an asylum when she accidentally kills her sister.
Once in the asylum, Babydoll’s evil stepfather pays off an orderly to have the girl lobotomized. Babydoll, knowing her time is short, devises a plan to escape.
The thing about Sucker Punch is that it tells the majority of Babydoll’s experiences in the asylum in dreamlike sequences that are like fevered geek-boy fantasies. Dragons, zombies, killer robots and more all become obstacles Babydoll and her friends must overcome in gaining items needed for escape. Add into the mix a group of attractive young girls dressed scantily with guns, and well, you can see the demographic this one is gunning for.
My wife and I both enjoyed it. Yes, we are those kind of geeks.
We started talking about the film and the various imagined worlds Babydoll & co. encountered. At one point I said to my wife, and yes this is the point of this post, “Do you think he really meant it to be that deep, or are we just putting our own ideas into it?”
The question that still lingers in my mind is, did the writer intend for us to interpret things the way we did, or are we seeing those themes and ideas because we brought them to the movie ourselves?
How much control should writers exert over the audience experience? How clear should we make our thematic intentions?
When your audience completes the tale you’ve written, do you want them to think a specific way, or do you want to leave it open for numerous interpretations?
Sometimes this can work. When a story has enough layers, enough emotional power, leaving room for audience interpretation makes the story more personal for each person that experiences it.
Years ago, an anime called Neon Genesis Evangelion caught my attention. Evangelion left so much open for debate and interpretation that even today, more than a decade after it’s run completed, people still debate various plot and philosophy points. It’s given the work a staying power that is rare in our consume and toss society.
But does it always work? Well, let’s look at Sucker Punch. Fact is, this movie has the world pretty divided. Some see it as having a deeper psychological message about trying to overcome feeling owned and trapped. Other people see it as a pointless story that exists only to satisfy an orgasmic display of anime and video game inspired imagery. Even those who recommend Sucker Punch do it more for the visual appeal as opposed to the story.
Simple fact is, Sucker Punch doesn’t have enough meat to allow the audience a deep level of participation. It’s too easy to see the film as exploitation as opposed to being a statement against it. It’s far too easy to walk away with no message at all.
So how do you do it? How do you strike a chord that unites the audience, yet leaves them enough room to make the story their own?
I think the trick is balance. First of all, you need a good hook. This should be clear, no room for interpretation.
What’s the hook? Crooks break into people’s dreams to steal information.
It’s clear, no one is going to debate that their interpretation is any different.
But as Inception continues, it starts to throw ideas out that ask more of us. The deeper we go, the more the film allows multiple interpretations, but only a handful.
For instance, the ending presents us with a simple is he or isn’t he? type conundrum. The writer has still controlled our experience. He knows we will walk out thinking one of two things. There is room for personal thought, yet it’s still been controlled and manipulated.
When I watch Inception, I know the writer intends to leave us hanging. I know he intends to leave us slightly disoriented and questioning. But one reason it still worked was that it made perfect sense in context of the story we had watched. Either possibility was plausible.
In Sucker Punch, Babydoll’s delusions, while being visually engaging, leave us wondering where the imagery came from. How does a girl in what appears to be the 1950s or 60s have visions of giant samurai or killer robots? Instead of fitting in with the story, it takes us away from it. Instead of Babydoll’s experiences informing her delusions, it is the author who is informing the visuals. This robs the film of a genuine voice of its own.
But I liked it, so I start peeling at the nasty rind to find the juicy orange inside. I see the movie how I would’ve written it. I have no idea if I see things for the reason the author meant, because I haven’t been given enough clues for guidance. I am intervening into the film as opposed to following the author’s intentions. And I’m doing it to justify my enjoyment of the movie.
Here’s what I’ve learned;
- You can leave some things open for interpretation, but they must be informed by the story
- You can’t just throw things in because you think they’re cool & expect the audience to buy it
- You need to exert control over situations where multiple interpretations present themselves.
- You should know the majority, if not all, of the ways people will view the story and its themes.
- Don’t allow the audience to question your intentions. Mean everything you do.