Sunday, August 03, 2008

Suspension of Disbelief

One of the very few negative comments I've heard (and read) about The Dark Knight is that it stretched the suspension of disbelief just a little too far. This puzzles me. Batman is a comic book. That's what comic books do. Suspend disbelief.

So, I pose this question - how far is too far? Where is the line? Is the line Stretch Armstrong far for animated films and slashers but only to the edge of your elbow for every other genre?

Perhaps it's an occupational hazard that screenwriters must analyze everything we watch, but really, this comment about the suspension of disbelief has never made sense to me - ever - because it's one of those things that writers control by the reality they establish in the story. As a screenwriter, I decide what the reality of my story is. You don't get to choose reality. I do.

What I really think is that when people talk about stretching the suspension of disbelief too far, they're really saying one two things: either the reality of the story doesn't sustain certain story elements which means somebody didn't do their job well enough OR a circumstance in the story would never happen in real life which is just plain silly.

  • The reality of the story doesn't support certain elements of the story. That doesn't mean the film suspended disbelief too far. It means the film didn't clearly establish its reality. It's still a development flaw but from the ground up. We wouldn't expect to see a duck lay golden eggs in a film like Liar Liar but we have no trouble believing that a little boy can make a birthday wish that supernaturally comes true. Why is that? Because the film firmly establishes the whimsical reality that the protagonist lives in.

  • That would never happen in real life. Of course, it wouldn't. We go to films to escape real life. I've never seen a single person laugh hysterically in the cemetery after burying a daughter but that's my favorite scene in Steel Magnolias. I doubt many people could get away with stealing their dead father from a hospital but Little Miss Sunshine pulled it off.

There may be a third possibility here, too. Maybe a role was miscast. The actor or actress gave a performance that was too subtle, too over the top, or they just didn't get their character at all and that weakened the credibility of the suspect story element.

Asking an audience to suspend disbelief is kind of what we're all about, isn't it? You've heard what I have to say so now I ask you -- how far is too far?


Anonymous said...

Interesting point. I do think it's a matter of establishing the "rules" of your world up front. You run the risk of the audience balking if you wait too long to play your hand.

This is one of the reasons I never finished reading Stephen King's THE STAND, which everyone else on the planet seems to think is his best book. Until Flagg shows up, the whole book is a very plausible science fiction story. Half-way through, it turned into fantasy. I love fantasy, but the left turn was too sharp and I couldn't stay with it.

Something that's always fascinated me, though, was how well the fantastical creatures (animated, no less!) worked in LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. Not everyone liked the film, so I may be in the minority, but it really worked for me and for the life of me I can't see why.

Similarly I know some people just could not get past the flying in CROUCHING TIGER. I totally bought into it.

Maybe there's just no pleasing some people.

As for DARK KNIGHT, I can't imagine what people are bitching about. Do you know of any specifics? I'll tell you the one place I did bump --


When the man on the ferry decided he couldn't pull the trigger on the detonator after all. It was just too easy, and didn't feel earned.

And sometimes I think that's another thing that audiences are reacting to when they say they lost their suspension of disbelief -- that the filmmakers didn't earn the moment. It was too quick, too convenient, or just too easy.

David Anaxagoras said...

Well, that's the last time I sign in with OpenID. Links to a blog I don't maintain. Huh.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

It's funny you mention Stephen King because I have the same issue with several of his books.

I can't remember the specifics of the Dark Knight comments. Seems like it had to do with Harvey Dent's arc and the whole keeping him a hero thing. I think some critics are just looking for something, ANYTHING, they can fault. Most of the film critics I've read and heard had only good things to say, though.

The moment you mention was a little snag for me, too, but only in so far as I knew it was coming. The set up was to prove that the moral compass of most of humanity didn't blur the lines between good and evil, cruelty and compassion, etc. I was okay with it but saw it coming. I don't know if that's because I was looking for it or if everyone else saw that, too.

Eddie M said...

I didn't hate TDK, but I didn't love it either. They crammed a lot of stuff in there, and I definitely felt that last half hour(in a bad way).

As for suspension of disbelief, even in a comic movie, I felt the Joker's alway being one step ahead of the police and Batman, hard to swallow. He's pretty much captured or figured out several times, only to have some already in-motion plan for his escape. Based on the rest of the movie, there's no reason for us to even think the Joker will wind up in jail; he'll simply have some other "magic plan already set up" and the police will have to release him.

The way to fix this would be to show or hint at some of these plans being set up without giving away the details. If your character's going to pull a magic rock out of her pocket to foil their enemy, then at least show us her searching for magic rocks, or polishing a mysterious rock, etc.

Nice post, MaryAn, always something to keep in mind.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

That may be what others have said as well, Eddie. I don't remember what the "suspension of disbelief" arguments were. But, it's a valid point. The Joker's genius may be a bit of stretch even for a comic book. That didn't bother me but I was a little disappointed that they LITERALLY left the Joker hanging. He's foiled them time and time again so did they get him this time? Put him in jail? Did he escape on the way? I guess all that remains to be seen.

All that said, I thought it was a great film. Maybe not as great as everyone else thinks, but great.

Grubber said...

That criticism always confuses me, politicians expect us to do the same thing every four years :)

mernitman said...

clearest, most coherent clarification of this subtle, oft-overlooked issue...

MaryAn Batchellor said...