So, I’ve mentioned before that I practice martial arts. I have been for a long time (approaching twenty years now), and I’ve practiced a few different styles in that time. However, currently I take (and often help teach) a class in Aikido-Jujitsu Ryu, which is an art that focuses on throws and locks. I was working with one of our students on some kick defenses (throws that begin with an opponent trying to kick you) that he’s working on. One of these was a throw off of a back kick (… this should be pretty obvious…) that involved the nage (defender) reaching through the uke’s (attacker) legs and grabbing… well, whatever he can find, then pulling very, very hard. The uke generally flips and winds up on his back (at least if he’s smart), and even then the technique is very painful. Generally, as the uke, we make our belts very accessible so that the nage has something to grab, and I did this. The student did grab my belt, but he got a handful of… well… more delicate things as well… then he pulled… very, very hard. I spent the next couple of minutes limping and yelling at the student not to apologize for performing a technique correctly. Honestly, I really don’t know if he was trying to apologize or not… I wasn’t exactly paying attention at the time… but this student has a habit of apologizing whenever he thinks he’s hurt someone. This happened about twenty-four hours before I wrote this post, and as I write I’m still hurting a little bit. So, why do I bring this up? Well… for one it’s a great story, and seriously, who can resist reading a post with this title. However, aside from that, a lot of fantasy and action fiction has a… well, let’s just say a creative relationship with the reality of physical injury.
I was watching the Princess Bride the other day (which is a great movie), and I was amazed (as I always am) to watch Inigo Montoya fight masterfully, even though he had just had a foot of steel rammed through his liver… and both shoulders… yeah. In writing we can often get away with a lot, but we have to remember two things: 1) some people are going to realize that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, and 2) what you write influences what people believe. I’ve written about the first issue before. Whatever you’re writing about, if you don’t do your research, and if you don’t take the time to actually think through what you write, then someone, somewhere is going to catch it. Different people will catch different things. A hydrologist might point out that your rivers are impossible. A botanist might catch that you’ve written a jungle plant into a desert setting. A martial artist might catch that the fight you’re describing isn’t actually possible, and a doctor might point out that a person couldn’t actually stand with the wounds you’ve described, much less fight a healthy opponent to a draw. Sometimes you can get away with this, Princess Bride does so because the entire movie has a facetious, slightly ridiculous air, and this fight fits right in. However, sometimes doesn’t mean always.
However, what I want to talk about today is responsibility in writing. I don’t know about you, but whenever I watch an action movie in the back of my mind I’m silently calculating the personal and financial tole that the character’s actions inflict. Some movies recognize this and handle it well. The Avengers is a good example of this. Many of the battles in the movie take place in relatively obscure locations where literal to no collateral damage is possible, and even though the final battle in New York City does devastating damage to that icon of American consumerism, this tole is recognized in several ways. 1) The heroes generally do their best to avoid unnecessary destruction of personal property (with the exception of the Hulk), 2) The personal tole is not only recognized, but turned into a integral part of the movie both through the death of Agent Coleson, and through the scenes featuring Captain America (in particular) going out of his way to preserve the lives of the citizenry, 3) The collateral damage that does take place throughout the move is briefly addressed in some of the new commentary featured at the end of the movie, and both voices calling for the characters to do their part in the clean-up, and voices calling for the heroes to be thanked for their actions are heard.
Compare this to Live Free or Die Hard, in which the ‘heroic’ John McClane causes massive collateral damage, apparently without concern, throughout Washington D.C. in an effort to ‘save the world’, and in which the lingering effects massive collateral damage is simply ignored throughout the movie. While some books and movies do a good job of bringing across the notion that actions, even actions taken for nominally ‘right’ reasons, have consequences, many bring across the notion that only the action matters, and the consequences don’t exist… an attitude that can be seen filtering down throughout our culture.
Now, does this mean that movies like Live Free or Die Hard and Princess Bride have no place in modern culture? Absolutely not. While writers, filmmakers, and any other artists have a responsibility to consider the messages that they are presenting, we as consumers also have a responsibility to consider those messages, and determine what place they have in our lives. Neal Postman argued that television was the great evil because it turned everything into entertainment, and the populace simply swallowed whatever messages were presented (I know I’ve talked about Postman before). He was correct in this, when we do not consider the entertainment that we take in, and make the time to reflect on the messages portrayed through it and their place in our lives, then we destroy ourselves, and the blame for this cannot lie solely on the feet of the producers of entertainment.
However, as a writer, it is your responsibility to present messages that you want your readers enacting in their lives, not simply messages that get their attention and titillate them. While accuracy in the enacting of violence might seem to be a minor issue in this pursuit, it often isn’t. After all, our culture seems increasingly incapable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and if John McClane can drive a car off a ramp into a helicopter without consequence, what couldn’t we…
Obviously, this is an extreme reaction. A better might be, if the A-Team can fire off a thousand rounds without hurting anyone, then why can’t I (your seven year old son) play with your revolver. After all, it’s not like guns hurt people. While we must balance realism with appropriateness for our audience, repeatedly presenting unrealistic situations for the sake of appropriateness is just as, if not more, harmful. Just something to think about.