POSTS Screenwriting

The Steven Spielberg Approach to Character

When we look at Spielberg’s characters, we find that they are most often extreme. Polarities create conflict, and Spielberg wants as much conflict as possible to drive the narrative. Consequently, the young/old, black/ white, Jewish/Gentile grid (schematic or narrative polarity) is applicable to the main character/antagonist relationship in Spielberg’s work. To articulate this relationship, we turn first to the presentation of the main character.

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The Main Character

Spielberg’s main characters share two qualities, regardless of their age. The first is a childlike innocence. The result may be playfulness, such as one finds in Jim, the young boy in J.G. Ballard, Tom Stoppard, and Menno Meyjes’s Empire of the Sun. Although Jim is caught in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion, and although he will be imprisoned, separated from his parents, and placed in considerable danger, he remains open to seeing the world through a curious, individualistic, and playful perspective. The same can be said for Indiana Jones in George Lucas, Phillip Kauffman, and Lawrence Kasdan’s Raiders of the Lost Ark , and for Dr. Alan Grant in Michael Crichton and David Koepp’s Jurassic Park . Although Indiana Jones and Dr. Alan Grant are adults, they each retain a childlike enthusiasm and belief in their work. They are the opposite of jaded characters.

Second, Spielberg’s main characters typically display a great amount of reluctance. This is not to say that they are passive or ambivalent, but rather that they are characters not easily or impulsively affiliated with a goal. However, once they do commit to a side, they do so to the fullest. Captain John Miller in Robert Rodat’s Saving Private Ryan, Oskar Schindler in Steve Zaillian’s Schindler’s List, and the lawyer Roger Baldwin in David Franzoni’s Amistad are examples of this personality trait.

As expected, all of these characters are goal-oriented and will compassionately see that goal through to its successful conclusion. Sheriff Brody will do all he can to eliminate the threat of a shark against the people of Amityville in Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb’s Jaws. Roger Baldwin will do all he can to defend Cinque in the slave revolt in Amistad. Elliott will do all he can to save the alien in Melissa Mathison’s E.T. And once committed, Oskar Schindler, in Schindler’s List will do all he can to save as many Jews as possible from extermination in Nazi death camps. In each case, the main character’s initial reluctance gives way to heroic effort and achievement of the goal.

Excerpt from Alternative Scriptwriting: Beyond the Hollywood Formula, 5th Edition by Ken DancygerJeff Rush © 2013 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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