I watched Chinatown a couple of nights ago, for the fourth or fifth time. It’s an atmospheric film with sharp acting, particularly the lead, Jack Nicholson. Though Jack seems to be playing a variant of many Jack Nicholson characters—snide, cynical, violent—he does it with such panache that it’s a thing of glory.
As the work develops, the story arc gets darker and darker and the villain who emerges turns out to be volcanically more villainous (and amoral) than first imagined. The script has several moving parts, but they are well greased, so that when the gears whir, they move you forward, into a fine mix of alarm and dread.
I’m talking about this because as I watched the movie, I was considering it against the collaborative novel of mine and a fellow writer’s that will be published soon. Jack’s character, detective Jake Gittes, is a kind of antihero, though in his two-steps-up-from lowlife role, he has no small charm. Gittes is like that line from a Dylan song, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” He adheres to a creed, even if it’s a bit crusty.
External and Internal Evils
Antihero or not, the villain in the work, the Noah Cross character, is actually evil. There’s a strong contrast between Detective Gittes’ ethical ambiguity and Cross’s crossed-every-line corruption. My Prohibition-era novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub, doesn’t have a clearcut villain, excepting for the lead character’s (Pinky DeVroom) poor judgment and impulsiveness. His villain seems to be his own consciousness, which despite his best efforts, keeps throwing him into absurd and emotionally dangerous situations. The Great Crash and subsequent Depression is also villain of sorts, exerting strong pressure on the story.
Pinky mistakenly thinks one of the secondary characters in the book is a villain, and that mistake turns into an emotional and practical disaster for him. But later in the work, an evildoer does come into view: corporate criminals wreaking societal havoc. Pinky finally has actual scoundrels to combat, drawing on resources that he might or might not have. Books and film scripts can work with both sharply drawn external villains and more ambiguous internal ones.
Interestingly (and I’m guessing you’ve seen the film, but if not, spoiler alert!), Chinatown has far from a Hollywood ending. The suggestion is that the villain will get away with it, and many people will pay harsh consequences.
I won’t tell you how Shrub will end, but I will say that it’s good writerly practice to see how film scripts work, to try and discern what forces try to tear the protagonists down, whether external or internal, and what’s left of the characters in the end. You will want your readers to be able to dramatically visualize your characters on the page in the great movie screens of their minds.
And of course, if we sell the movie rights to Shrub, Jack is a natural to play Pinky.