Friday, May 21, 2010

Coincidence? Er...yeah.

Coincidence has no place in twenty first century writing. It's actually a worse device for solving plot problems than the supernatural and I hate the supernatural in fiction. Magic explains and excuses everything but coincidence is still a higher category of crime because it only works if the audience or reader is not deeply engaged: coincidence assumes that you, the paying punter, are really really stupid.
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Ridley Scott and his screenwriter Brian Helgeland used coincidence not once, not twice but three times to get out of difficulties they had painted themselves into with their re-imagined version of Robin Hood. Each coincidence acted like a magic feather to solve a plot problem which could have been solved in a better way if the writing had been crisper and less indolent. These are the three occasions:
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1. When Robin and his men are making their way cross country through the forest (i.e. not using a trail) in France they - by coincidence - come across the ambushed Robert of Loxley and his men who are taking the news of the King's death back to England. The forest was frickin enormous, they set off hours before Loxley, yet the two parties (three if you include the French) all bumped into each other in the woods.
2. Robin agrees to take Robert Loxley's sword back to his father for reasons I'm still not clear about. When he arrives at Loxley's series of man sheds (definitely not a castle) outside Nottingham William Loxley (Max Von Sydow) realises that Robin is in fact the son of the man who wrote the Magna Carta and who he (William) had executed years before. Can you imagine what an extraordinary coincidence this is? In a bloody wood in the middle of France Robin promises to return the sword of a dying man to his da and by an amazing goddamn stroke of luck the returnee is the only person in the world who can tell Robin about his mysterious origins. The sword incidentally has a cryptic motto carved on it about sheep which is also part of the same ridiculous coincidence.
3. The barons rebel against King John and King John decides to meet them in battle. Where? Why at Barnstaple of course which by coincidence is the very place where Robin's father was killed at some kind of pseudo Celtic cross. When Robin gets there he has a flashback, digs into the cross and finds his father's motto about the sheep - the same one that's on the sword. All the plot problems about Robin's origins are sorted out in an utterly shameless and truly insultingly stupid manner.
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Yes, Ridley Scott did a decent good job directing this film but good directing doesnt excuse lousy story. If we allow them to get away with this kind of shite we deserve nothing but Avatars and Robin Hoods from now on which for some of you (I'm looking at thee Empire Magazine) would, I suppose, be just fine.
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Friday morning update: John McFetridge pointed me in the direction of this interesting blog post by William Martell about what went wrong with the original script: How Nottingham became Robin Hood.