November 15, 2021

While working on Network, their 1976 satire on television news and the American public, director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky mocked what they called the “rubber-ducky” school of screenwriting: “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer,” Lumet writes in his memoir Making Movies. He continues: “I always try to eliminate the rubber-ducky explanations. A character should be clear from his present actions. And his behaviour as the picture goes on should reveal the psychological motivations. If the writer has to state the reasons, something’s wrong in the way the character has been written.”

I wonder what Lumet would make of studios greenlighting entire movies to “state the reasons”. Largely thanks to Emma Stone’s spiky charm, the 101 Dalmatians prequel Cruella made $233m on its release in May. If Hollywood can rehabilitate a puppy-skinner who is basically called Cruel Devil, then all bets are off. Following prequels to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ratched) and The Sopranos (The Many Saints of Newark), get ready for the origin stories of Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story and Gru from Despicable Me. The ubiquitous Timothée Chalamet is currently shooting the Roald Dahl prequel Wonka. Now that Netflix has acquired the Roald Dahl Story Company, the only obstacle to a Young BFG movie is that he would sound too much like a rapper.

Blame, in part, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which bucked William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything” maxim by building a series of interconnected movies into Hollywood’s dream scenario: a safe bet. Constructing a universe around beloved IP is the business model of our times, besides which inventing characters and worlds from scratch looks like a terrible bother. But the MCU has six decades of comic-book mythology to work with and, because it had a plan from day one, relentless forward momentum. Most IP-juicing requires starting with well-known movies and working sideways or, increasingly, backwards.

For the Star Wars empire, whose first three prequels notoriously depleted global supplies of exposition, that means Solo and Rogue One, both set prior to the Star Wars movies that people fell in love with. For The Wizard of Oz, the blockbuster musical Wicked asks how those witches ended up so mean. Meanwhile in the world of superheroes, Joker reaped 11 Oscar nominations by presenting Gotham City’s murderous chaos agent as the product of bullying, insufficient mental health care, urban decay and toxic showbiz. Not so judgemental now, Batman.

Some of these are successful entertainments but, nonetheless, ones that nobody asked for. I doubt that any child has ever watched the Wicked Witch of the West and thought, “Huh, what’s her story?” Most of these stories were originally written before the rise of pop psychology, when it was OK for a character to be wicked or bizarre without inviting an investigation into nature, nurture and the long-term consequences of trauma.

It’s not that there are no successful attempts to mine a character’s past for information that might decode their behaviour. Citizen Kane’s Rosebud or Vito Corleone’s salad days in The Godfather Part II are gold-plated arguments for the value of an artful backstory. But screenwriters are obsessed with providing damp-squib answers to questions that nobody was asking. I enjoy reading interviews with the people behind prequels as they try to justify the exercise without admitting that the only important question these movies are answering is “How can we squeeze more money out of this IP?” Ever wondered how Han Solo got his name? Me neither. Turns out he was alone a lot. Cool.

Television has its own version of rubber-ducky syndrome, now that flashbacks are de rigueur and grief has replaced alcoholism as a short cut to depth of character. Baptiste was already the most depressing cop show on TV — Camus of the Yard — before they killed off Baptiste’s daughter and his hallucinations of a stuffed toy elephant turned tragedy into accidental comedy. Another recent BBC procedural, Vigil, was grippingly assured in the present-day scenes but drifted off course in the flashbacks. It was as if writer Tom Edge didn’t trust us to believe that a woman would feel uncomfortable investigating a murder on a submarine (pretty stressful!) unless she had previously experienced her own watery calamity. Watching these shows back-to-back with Mare of Easttown, I began to wonder if a shocking bereavement was a requirement of the job. It feels a little crass to milk grief so frequently, and unnecessary, too.

How much do we need to know about a TV detective to be invested in a whodunnit? Columbo had an indelibly eccentric personality (mostly improvised by Peter Falk) but no stated first name and no private life except for a wife we never saw (unless you happen to have watched the flop 1979 spin-off Mrs Columbo). Columbo was what he did, and that was enough.

What Lumet and Chayefsky were really getting at with their rubber-ducky quip was the pretence that explaining everything is akin to psychological veracity. We are all shaped by our experiences, good and bad, but rarely in a clear or simple way. Psychotherapists don’t identify one essential turning point in a client’s life (“Hmm, Dalmatians, you say?”) and then close the case. Sometimes, one can know every factor and still encounter a terrifying, unilluminable void at the heart of a personality. In real life, not everybody who does appalling things is misunderstood.

There is, of course, a humane liberal impulse to understand how circumstances can corrupt an individual; how the abused can become the abuser. It is the job of psychologists and the criminal justice system to get beyond the idea that certain people are irredeemably sinful, and the task of historians to fathom how seemingly ordinary people could become complicit in atrocities. Authors such as Gitta Sereny (who wrote about the Nazis Albert Speer and Franz Stangl and the 10-year-old child-killer Mary Bell) and Gordon Burn (who chronicled the serial killers Peter Sutcliffe and Fred and Rosemary West) dedicated their lives to interrogating the problem of human evil.

Disney and Warner Brothers, needless to say, are not engaged in that painful work but in the trivialising of trauma to give profit-seeking entertainment a veneer of psychological curiosity. It is both morally dubious and narratively absurd. In storytelling, villainy often has a theatrical boo-hiss quality that requires no elucidation.

Why is Cruella a canicidal fashionista? Because otherwise Dodie Smith’s story would have been just a bunch of dogs running about. Why is the Joker a cackling killer? Because the joylessly uptight Batman needed an antithesis. In Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, a pompous psychologist appears on a talk show with the Joker to argue that he is not so much evil as horribly mistreated. The Joker promptly kills him, and everybody else in the room, with glee.

It’s true that Miller was a law-and-order conservative who enjoyed poking fun at bleeding-heart liberals but, like Christopher Nolan, he also knew that the Joker is compelling because he is beyond understanding. Ridley Scott squandered a great deal of time and money on making two prequels to his own Alien, even though the unknowable menace of the creature was what made the 1979 movie such a taut shocker. More often than not, additional information makes antagonists less intriguing.

As one of the showrunners of Lost, Damon Lindelof was as responsible as anybody for the backstory epidemic, creating a time-hopping narrative tangle that concluded with a crushing disappointment. He was then a co-conspirator on the Alien prequel Prometheus. On his next show, The Leftovers, he learned his lesson and leaned into his characters’ reactions to the mysterious disappearance of 2% of humanity rather than the reasons for the event. Trauma was the cake rather than the icing, and therefore taken seriously. In becoming so comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, Lindelof made one of the finest shows of the decade. The theme tune of the second series summed up the ethos of the whole show and the reason behind its success. It was a song by country singer Iris DeMent: Let the Mystery Be.