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1. From the Hollywood Paradigm to the Proppian Plot Genotype

Long dominated by the Hollywood memoir and the “how-to” manual, the art of the Anglo-American film screenplay has a relatively brief academic history.1 In Script Culture and the American Screenplay (2008), Kevin Alexander Boon argues: “Literary scholarship, while fully absorbed with drama, ignored the screenplay, and film studies, though aware of the screenplay as an interstitial cog in the filmmaking process, only occasionally cast a critical eye toward the written text, which had been the controlling narrative voice in most contemporary American film production for nearly a century.”2 The reasons for this neglect are not hard to discover. Unlike film, the drama of the theatre has strong historical ties to the university, with an academic pedigree defined by Aristotle’s Poetics and the art of William Shakespeare. In contrast, the beginnings of cinematic art and the film screenplay are somewhat shabby. Originating in the peep shows and nickelodeons at the turn of the twentieth century, the cinema, despite its rapid rise to financial importance, was long kept at arm’s length by the academy.3

2. Vladimir Propp’s Functional Analysis of the Fairy Tale

In The Poetics, Aristotle suggests that a plot needs to have sufficient amplitude to allow a probable or necessary succession of particular actions to produce a significant change in the fortune of the main character.1 What this means for Aristotle is that in comedies, the main character moves from bad to good fortune, while in tragedies the main character moves from good to bad fortune. With these definitions, Aristotle commits himself to the view that all well-structured stories have something in common.

3. A Functional Analysis of Charles Perrault’s Cinderella

As Vladimir Propp notes, “fairy tales possess a quite particular structure which is immediately felt and which determines their category, even though we may not be aware of it”.1 Nowadays, Propp is remembered principally because of his discovery of this plot structure. The way he made this discovery was by focusing his attention on the central importance of plot function.

4. Formulating the Concept of the Plot Genotype

Is it possible to reconcile the work of Syd Field with that of Vladimir Propp in order to create a better method of analyzing a typical Hollywood screenplay? It would appear so. According to Syd Field, the paradigm of the Hollywood screenplay consists of three Acts, with two plot points used to connect them. Within this structure, a plot point serves to unite Act I with Act II; a second plot point serves to unite Act II with Act III. As Field states:
Before you can begin writing your screenplay, you need to know four things: the opening, the plot point at the end of Act I, the plot point at the end of Act II, and the ending. When you know what you’re going to do in these specific areas, and you’ve done the necessary preparation on action and character, then you’re ready to begin writing. Not before.1
If we take a look at Propp’s work, it seems intuitively clear that the plot points correspond to the concepts of the Pivotal Eighth Function and the Pivotal Nineteenth Function. As Propp argues, the Pivotal Eighth Function is the function that truly serves to set the fairy tale in motion. It marks the difference between the Preparation and the Departure for the Test. Similarly, the Pivotal Nineteenth Function concludes the Struggle and prepares the way for the Return of the Hero to face a Difficult Task. At this level, the work of the two great theorists of the plot is compatible.

5. The Robber Bridegroom Genotype

The Robber Bridegroom is one of the most memorable stories in the entire collection of the Brothers Grimm. It is a tale in which a young woman must resist the advances of someone who is intent on killing and eating her. Unlike the 31-function fairy tale, the 29-function structure of The Robber Bridegroom does not end with a marriage but concludes more simply with the survival of the Reluctant Bride and the Punishment by execution of the Robber Bridegroom and his Godless Crew. This 29-function plot structure was entirely overlooked by Propp, even though it follows from his groundbreaking work.

6. The Robber Bridegroom Genotype in Wrong Turn (2003)

Rob Schneider’s Wrong Turn (2003) offers a classic instance of a screenplay that uses the Robber Bridegroom plot genotype. The plot genotype is worth studying because other horror films, including Severance (2006) and Hostel (2006), are organized in very similar ways. There is also a long history of cannibal movies that share this plot genotype.

7. The Frog Prince Genotype

In recent years, the idea thatPretty Woman (1990), Garry Marshall’s early 1990s romantic comedy, is a Cinderella story has become quite widespread. What is more, there are references to the Cinderella plot of Pretty Woman in such scholarly publications as the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folk and Fairy Tales.2 The basis for this belief seems to be that the film offers a “rags-to-riches” narrative about a young woman. Interestingly, however, there is one person who doesn’t entirely agree with this statement — the director of Pretty Woman himself, Garry Marshall. Instead, Marshall offers the parallel with George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

8. The Frog Prince Genotype in Pretty Woman (1990)

But you might ask, if it is so obvious that Pretty Woman has the same plot genotype as The Frog Prince, why has no one ever said this before? It is a good question, and there is a good answer. The reason that more people don’t see the connection between Pretty Woman and The Frog Prince is because the gender roles of the Hero and Heroine have been reversed. In Pretty Woman, it is Vivian Ward who plays the role of a Frog Princess, while Edward Lewis plays the role of a Reluctant Prince.

9. The Puss-in-Boots Genotype

In the plot genotype of Puss-in-Boots, the Hero, the Youngest Son, who inherits Puss as a Humble Inheritance, requires an Angelic Double in order to win his life’s fortune. The role of the Angelic Double is to dispatch the Reluctant Hero and to go on ahead of him, carrying out tasks that the Reluctant Hero would find either difficult or impossible to do. In this way, the Angelic Double carries out the preparatory work that will allow the Hero to marry the Princess.

10. The Puss-in-Boots Genotype in The Mask (1994)

The Mask (1994) is an interesting variant of the Superhero theme in contemporary Hollywood — and it serves to shed light on the dynamics of many other Superhero movies. The basic plot involves an ordinary nice guy who is transformed into an Angelic Double possessing special powers.

11. The Little Red Riding Hood Genotype

Charles Perrault’s version of theLittle Red Riding Hood plot genotype is comparatively short, consisting of just 18 functions, from Departure to Defeat. And yet it is of remarkable interest because it helps to explain a minor cinematic puzzle that will be discussed when we analyze Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

12. The Little Red Riding Hood Genotype in Psycho (1960)

One of the constant refrains in the film criticism about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the sheer unexpectedness of the murder of Marion Crane at the hands of Norman Bates. For example, in his study Hitchcock’s Films, Revisited (2002), Robin Wood says that “so engrossed are we in Marion, so secure in her potential salvation, that we can scarcely believe [this murder] is happening”.2 Wood adds that Marion’s death strikes us as “irrational” and “useless”; the shower bath murder is “probably the most horrific scene in any fiction film”, partly because of its sheer “meaninglessness”.3 In some ways, however, this reaction is misplaced. The audience has seen this shocking denouement before. After all, this is the way in which Charles Perrault concludes his version of Little Red Riding Hood. Once this is pointed out, the reason why this Eighteenth Function has proved so popular should become evident: the screenplay of Psycho is the most famous instance of the Little Red Riding Hood plot genotype.

13. Conclusion

In Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Syd Field suggests that all well-written screenplays exhibit a Three-Act structure. Each screenplay consists of a Set-Up, a Confrontation and a Resolution, with the movement from Set-Up to Confrontation and the movement from Confrontation to Resolution being marked by separate plot points. A plot point, according to Field, is defined as “any incident, episode or event that ‘hooks’ into the action and spins it around into another direction”.1


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