of cats and wire hangers

There are a great many things wrong with THE CONVENANT. I was reminded of a novel workshop I took in San Francisco some years ago. As students read their work and the rest of us critiqued it, and the writing instructor — Donna Levin, now a literary agent — shared her words of wisdom, one thing came up over and over: the protagonists tended to be…bleh. A protagonist doesn’t have to be sympathetic, necessarily (although it’s usually a good idea)…but he or she has to be interesting.

The quickest way to make a character interesting is to give them a talent, an ability, an interest, that sets them apart. It doesn’t have to be some superhuman thing. I remember Donna telling one young woman that her writing was smooth and engaging but her female protagonist was at a very low point in her life (or, as Donna put it, “a loser, basically”). So why should the reader follow her through 300 pages? “Give her something to be passionate about,” Donna said. “Maybe she has a green thumb. She lives in this dinky apartment but has these remarkable plants out on her balcony.”

And: the easiest way to make a character sympathetic, even if he’s kind of an asshole? Show him caring for someone, something else, other than himself.

Hence the ‘save the cat’ scene that you see near the beginnings of some movies: the protagonist is going about her daily business when she does some small, nice gesture that serves the plot in absolutely no way at all except to signal that this is a person worth rooting for. It can be saccharine and gimmicky, sure, but it can also be discreet and effective (SEA OF LOVE, which I just saw a few nights ago, has a great example of this).

So, back to THE CONVENANT. The four guys in this movie are immediately presented in a sinister light — badasses with supernatural powers — which is all very cool. (Plus, they’re so pretty.) They’re also rich white boys who attend an elite New England private school.

Upshot: we’re not quite prepared to like them. Why should we? These are, in fact, the kind of people who are so much fun to not like: young swaggering privileged beautiful folk who were born into everything and feel entitled to all of it. These guys can even do magic, for crying out loud.

Except then, as the movie unfolds, we realize that these are the good guys. Or at least, our protagonist is one of them, which means these guys are his friends and he freely chooses to be in their company. And when they’re targeted by the rich white good-looking dude who really is the bad guy, we’re supposed to care if they survive or not.

The problem is…they’re not interesting for long. As individuals, you can barely tell them apart, and as a group, they don’t do anything with their powers except mess around with cops and get in barfights and make bets on what kind of underwear the girl in the short skirt is wearing (or if she’s wearing any) before sending a gust of wind her way for that Marilyn Monroe kind of moment. The movie assumes that these are the kinds of characters your average adolescent movie-goer wants to live precariously through, and sure. Maybe. To a point. It’s not quite enough to hang an entire movie on.

The movie wants these characters to have a Lost Boys kind of cool, but we don’t necessarily want to root for guys like that. We want to be menaced by guys like that. In order for that kind of character to win our sympathy, he can’t just have problems, he has to be tormented in some way, just in order to make up for everything else. It’s not enough for the protagonist to come home to a big dark house and have a tense conversation with his depressed and drunken mother; we don’t think he’s particularly heroic because, as one girl explains to another girl, “he lives at home instead of in the dorms”; the woman should be throwing knives at him; his mommy should be Mommy Dearest, waking him up in the middle of the night screaming about wire hangers.

And it would have helped, near the beginning of the movie, if he had saved a freaking cat.

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