Friday, May 15, 2015

Enough already with the Raiders of the Lost Ark “Story Problem”

Okay, here’s the deal: I’m getting really tired of hearing this idea that the character of Indiana Jones doesn’t matter in the outcome of Raiders of the Lost Ark. If I remember correctly the first time I heard this was in a piece written by Peter David quoting something that MarvWolfman had said to him about how Raiders of the Lost Ark would end the same way even if Indiana Jones did not exist as a character. I’m paraphrasing, but that was basically the idea.

Since then, I guess this idea has come up on the show The Big Bang Theory. And now it is all over the internet.


When I heard it the first time I shrugged it off, but now that it’s become a full-blown meme, I’ve got to get this off my chest. If you are looking for problems in Raiders of the Lost Ark, you are digging in the wrong place.


First, ask yourself what the movie is about. Legendary director Sydney Pollack once said that if you ask a writer what their script is about and they start giving you plot, then you’re in trouble.

What did he mean by that? What he meant was your story isn’t about the plot.

So I ask again, What is Raiders of the Lost Ark about? Some of you will go right back to plot after this question. It’s about an adventuring archaeologist who must find the biblical Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. Maybe that’s what most of you would say.

But if you take away the plot, what is the movie about? It’s about a man who does not believe in the supernatural, or the power of God, learning that these things are real. The story is about the change in Indiana Jones.

The structure of the film and the setup of Indiana Jones as a character makes this clear.

When the government men come to enlist  Prof. Jones to help them find the Ark of the Covenant, he tells them all about the history of the Ark and shows them an illustration from an old Bible. When one of the man asks about the beam of light coming off the Ark and striking down soldiers, Indiana explains, “Lightning, fire—the power of God.” He shrugs this off as unimportant.


That scene alone would not be evidence of what Indiana Jones really thought. But in the next scene, Indiana Jones is busy packing (in preparation for his trip to find Marion Ravenwood, who he suspects may have a clue to help him find the Ark), while talking with his colleague Marcus Brody. Brody tries to impress upon Indiana the power of the Ark.

BRODY
Marion's the least of your worries right now, believe me, Indy.

INDIANA
What do you mean?

BRODY
Well, I mean that for nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost Ark. It's not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It's like nothing you've ever gone after before.

INDIANA [laughing]
Oh, Marcus. What are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. We've known each other for a long time. I don't believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance, you're talking about the boogie man. Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.
[throws his gun into his suitcase]

It is clear that Indiana Jones does not believe in the power of the Ark.  He doesn’t believe anything could be a danger to him that he can’t shoot with a gun.
Through the course of the movie we the audience get small glimpses of the Ark’s power. For instance, it burns off the swastika stenciled on the side of the wooden crate where it is being kept.

At the end of the movie, when the Ark is opened up, Indiana tells Marion not to look, and they both close their eyes as everyone around them is killed. At the end of the movie, Indiana Jones understands that there may be something beyond his physical world. There may be something he can’t shoot with a gun. There may even be, after all, a God.


 If Indiana didn’t believe this he would’ve kept his eyes open to see what was happening. The Indiana Jones at the beginning of the movie would have.

If we want to talk about flaws in the film, I think the one place you might look is here. Knowing now that the movie is about a man going from disbelief in the metaphysical to crediting such things, where do you think that flaw might be?

I’ll tell you what I think it is: It is in the fact that none of the supernatural things that happen before this moment happened for Indy’s benefit. He does not see the Ark burn off the swastika, for instance. There is no place where he actually changes—where he is challenged to change.

But here’s what’s interesting: The power of a character changing is so strong, that if you have just a suggestion of it in the script your audience is likely to accept it.

So, yes, it’s true that if Indiana Jones was not a character chasing the lost Ark, the Nazis may well have still found the Ark, opened it, and all been killed. But as story-master Billy Wilder used to say to his writing partners, “Don’t give me logic, give me emotion.”

Many great stories have logic problems, but they will be invisible to most people as long as they care about the characters, and as long as what’s happening to those characters serves the theme. As I have said before in other places, theme beats logic.

The most important part of Raiders is that Indiana Jones closes his eyes. He has changed.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in 1981. It has taken all that time for people to see this “mistake”, while in the meantime the film has become a bona fide classic. Could the mistake really be that big? In fact, this mistake doesn’t matter at all.


I’m going to listen to Billy Wilder on this one, “Don’t give me logic, give me emotion.”

17 comments:

Maxwell said...

It really is getting to the point of willful ignorance with the Raiders story problem crap. You have to not understand the role of protagonist in a story, or pretend not to, to indulge in this fantasy. Just because the movie is called Raiders of the Lost Ark does not mean that it is actually about the ark. In fact, it is about the raiders, particularly Indiana Jones. He makes a classic hero's journey from a spiritually blind man to a fully formed person, ready to accept love, and life's other mysteries. The ark is essentially the biggest McGuffin in movie history. The fact that it actually delivers divine miracles is only really relevant in the sense that it proves the Indy has completed his spiritual journey.

It's probably not worth trying to talk somebody out of the story problem way of thinking, but here's a little trick. The kind of person who thinks it's clever to talk about the Raiders story problem is also highly susceptible to believing in the Ferris Bueller doesn't actually exist theory, which is at least a little more interesting, but still wrong. However, it does demonstrate in a much plainer way how the titular character is not only a non-protagonist, he's also almost dismissible.

Essentially, anybody who believes both theories is straddling a huge intellectual contradiction, or more likely, just messing with you for attention. Point this out, and excuse yourself quickly from the conversation.

olafolaf said...

The Nazis getting killed with Indiana Jones present or not isn't even a logic problem. We could call it dramatic irony but we don't even need to go this far. No, a hero getting tied up and the bad guys foolishly killing themselves is a completely valid story decision. Especially since we know they frigging want to open that thing. And Indy doesn't fail killing the Nazi's, because that's not what this story led up to (other than we might have expected) he fails stopping them opening that thing. The story made us suspect that the Nazis might gain great power opening that thing. Indy realizes that's not how it's gonna be. But he realizes it in this sequence (or rather, we didn't ponder about that up until now. Well and Indy needs to be there to make that realization and be proven right and become the other Indy you speak of.

Matthew Ritter said...

Personally, I have always found a problem with the ending. It's not so much that Indy has no active role in his own climax. That isn't a problem alone to him, and is fairly common of rather religious or spiritual stories. I'm not a fan, and it's always bothered me because of the nature of the kind of movie it is (Two fisted adventure).

What I've never liked is that I feel that as this well written essay points out, the change comes from nowhere. Why does he now believe in god? What has happened to make him believe in god? The REAL change, the one that comes in small little steps is that he's gone from a grave robber to the idealistic lover of history he probably was as a kid. He's willing to die, to let the Nazis have the Ark rather than destroy it. I love this moment, this moment of real change that happens. When he lets himself be captured he is not the man who opens the movie taking some random natives most treasured relic and selling it.

So, I want him to escape of his own power, because it is from his own power and his own change he is in this mess. That he also now has religious faith is fine, but the movie never feels like it's about that so much as it is about reverence for the past.

For me I think the movie would be better if in the end he'd killed some more Nazis. If i want to watch a movie about rediscovering faith and believing in the power of god... I'll watch Last Crusade.

John Gorenfeld said...

Was glad to see you're blogging again, as I find myself thinking about Invisible Ink a lot.

Character change aside, doesn't Indy cause the events at the end of the movie by expertly finding the Ark, while the Nazis were digging in the wrong place and might never have found it?

NotLuke said...

This is a well-argued essay, but I do have to take slight umbrage at one particular point:

It has taken all that time for people to see this “mistake”, while in the meantime the film has become a bona fide classic.

It's Appeal to Common Belief of the worst kind, especially as it's (ie. the first part of the sentence) simply not true. The passiveness of the main character (a character i had seen heralded as one of the greatest cinematic heroes, no less!) was my main gripe with the film when I first saw it about 15 years ago. (The Temple of Doom is even worse in that regard, relegating Indy to the role of a henchman for a big part of the climax. The Last Crusade, on the other hand, I consider as close to a perfect adventure story as movies get.) I am sure there were many more viewers who felt the same, and just because we don't have the reach and influence of Big Bang Theory (or, say, Roger Ebert or Zero Punctuation, etc.), doesn't invalidate our experience.

Other than that, again, great post. Made me re-evaluate the screenplay quite a bit.

@John Gorenfeld: Actually, this point is countered in the embedded video. ;)

John Gorenfeld said...

I re-read the transcript of the Big Bang theory scene...

It's interesting, I guess the assumption here is that the Nazis would inevitably have found the Ark, even if Indy had not sped their search. Would they? I don't know the answer. I guess Belloq was smart enough. Maybe.

But what about the outcome of the Ark finding itself safely in the hands of the U.S. government at the end of the movie? If Indy hadn't changed, if he hadn't acquired a respect for the unknowable and the supernatural and then outlasted the Nazis, yes, the bad guys would still have melted. But wouldn't the Ark still be out there in the open, waiting for Hitler to send a backup team to get their hands on it?

imyjimmy said...

There's no sense in debating what could've happened if something did or didn't happen--you can pick apart so many good movies that way. The bottom line is, a movie needs to be about somebody...it might as well be about Indy and his change, which this movie executes almost perfectly.

Suzanne Brazil said...

I get it...finally. Just finished Invisible Ink. I want to try it out on everything and am driving my people crazy. Steve Carrell in the first episode of the office asks the camera what the most important part of a business is, profits, sales, stock? No, it's the people. In the movie Kingsman Secret Service, Colin Firth states that a gentleman isn't determined by circumstances of birth, but by the life he tries to lead.
I see the "flaw" in Indy but agree that he's transformed, he was a skeptic, a non-believer and at the end, he realizes not everything can be discovered and explained. I'm a believer!

SCRIPTMONK!!! said...

Nice analysis. I came to an insight a while back that the true purpose of plot is to force character change. The Story Problem and Story Goal are just excuses contrived to get the character off his or her butt and put them on the road to personal change. Plot exists to serve character, not the other way around.

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Neko Miffy said...

Dear Mr. McDonald,
I have no idea if you're even reding this, but it's the only way I found to reach you. I'm a huge fan of your book "invisible ink", and for months now I've been trying to get my hands on "the golden theme". It seems to be out of print completely. Neither amazon nor the usual bookstore companies can get it. I'm living in Europe, by the way. Do you have any idea how I can get a copy, or a digital version? I really feel like Indy inches away from the Holy Grail and still not getting it...

Best regards
Julia

benton jew said...

Are Indiana Jone and Han Solo the same character? They are both doubters of the supernatural, but sort of have a "come to Jesus" moment in the end. ;-)

Love.Peace.Chocolate said...

Hi Brian,

I am a beginner screenwriter and came across your books on amazon. 'Invisible Ink' looks amazing from what i have seen of the preview and the reviews. However, it costs £243!!! All of your books retail for hundreds of pounds for some reason! I see that the publisher closed down and wonder if this is why. I am just wondering if you knew of an affordable way to get hold of your books? It is a shame that they will be inaccessible to aspiring screenwriters who just don't have £555 to spend on 'The Golden Theme' or £243 to spend on 'Invisible Ink'. Many thanks in advance. x