Updated: Aug 27
We live in narrow, winding valleys wedged between towering mountains of opposing views, conflicting demands, and coarse judgments. We do our best to manage the crowding pressures.
But what happens when opposing views come into conflict? That’s when trouble appears. Trouble has breathed life into stories around the world for millennia.
In literature, only trouble is interesting.
-- Janet Burroway
Actually, that’s what used to breathe life into stories. I believe trouble has been replaced with violence.
Instead of two schoolgirls arguing over a boy, what happens in movies today is one of the schoolgirls kidnaps the other, ties her up in her basement, and begins to pour acid on her. The boy shows up in time to save the girl, but not before having both of his arms broken.
How is it that I can come up with next month’s blockbuster movie in 30 seconds? Is it because they’re all the same?
Hollywood has become obsessed with violence.
Hollywood claims to be anti-gun, yet guns saturate most of its movies nowadays. When I see a gun featured in a movie poster, the first thought that comes to my mind is cliché. My next thought is the word pablum.
I haven’t seen any of the John Wick movies, so I have no opinion of them. They may be wonderful. I’ve heard that Keanu Reeves is a nice person. I wish him the best.
But when I see the movie poster showing the gun in his hand, I say to myself, “Nope.” Not because I’m anti-gun. I’m not even anti-gun in movies. I’m anti-cliché.
Non-violent movie plots
To demonstrate how easy it is to avoid excessive violence in fiction, here are a few ideas that involve little danger but would still be exciting to watch on the big screen:
The antagonist, whose identity is unknown, keeps knocking out the protagonist with a drug and transporting him to some random country with no money or identification. The villain does this repeatedly to torment him.
Hand wipes sold by a store in a town inadvertently burn the customers’ skin after a several-day delay. It takes a while for the community to determine the source of the burns. Just as the community is about to have the store closed, a positive medical use of the hand wipes is discovered.
Girls in high school (antagonists) keep hiring certain popular boys to alternate between adoring and rejecting the protagonist. The protagonist becomes completely unraveled by this and begins to think she’s losing her mind.
A brother of the pastor beloved by his community visits the pastor. It turns out that he and his brother cannot stand each other’s presence. But the community keeps getting them together at social and church events. The two brothers must outwardly act like their relationship is positive, but the stress takes a toll on them and their families.
A wife discovers that her husband has been unfaithful and does all sorts of mental manipulations to take revenge against him. She goes so far as to convince her husband’s associates and employer into taking part in her schemes.
A bacterium inhibits the tastebuds of an entire community. What effect does this have on its families and businesses? The protagonist is the owner of a local restaurant.
A minister who is adored by his congregation is painfully (pathologically) shy. No one in the congregation, including his wife and children, knows that he suffers from this affliction because he is so dedicated to his calling and to his family that the condition is not apparent.
I bet you can come up with ideas that are better than mine. Why can’t Hollywood?
Basic Human Needs
Shouldn’t the most timeless stories involve the most basic human needs?
Physical Human Needs
Emotional Human Needs
I would think an infinite number of compelling stories could be written that address these issues without the constant use of violence.
Audiences used to be drawn to the possibility of danger. Examples are:
Circuses with lions, elephants, bears, trapeze artists, sword swallowers, fire eaters, etc.
Escape artists, such as Harry Houdini.
Buster Keaton films
The prospect of danger used to be enough to create tension. It was the thought of the bomb going off. It was the mysterious man walking behind the woman on a dark night.
Watch the following scene from Rear Window (1954). Notice how terrified the characters are for the safety of Lisa (Grace Kelly), who has just broken into the suspected killer’s apartment. Notice the deep concern they have for her. This is what's missing in too many movies nowadays.
When did we go from being awed by the fear of danger to being awed by danger actually happening?
I don’t have the answer. But the good news is the answer doesn’t matter! Our job is to create a wide variety of rich and imaginative stories to entertain and amaze. From a fiction-writing standpoint, we must be repulsed by cliché in all its forms, including constant, repeated violence.
In 1984, Steven Spielberg directed the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (rated PG). That same year the movie Gremlins came out, also rated PG (produced by Spielberg). Both movies enraged parents nationwide for being too violent for a PG rating. At the time, there was no rating between PG and R. Steven Spielberg believed there should be a rating between the two. He convinced the Motion Picture Association of America to create the PG-13 rating.
I remember watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and didn’t like it, mostly because of its needlessly excessive violence. Later I was surprised to learn that fewer people were shown dying in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom than in the original Indiana Jones movie. Twenty-three people died in the first movie, while seven died in the sequel. What enraged parents was how the characters died.
Star Trek and Marvel movies
I’ve stopped watching the most recent Star Trek and Marvel movies. For fiction to work, the fans must believe that the characters can survive the events of the story. Seeing Captain Kirk and his crew avoid death countless times began to be unbelievable to me. In the case of Marvel movies, something even worse happens. The main characters somehow come back to life after they’re killed. This makes death meaningless in two ways: 1) It doesn’t matter, and 2) it’s not permanent.
I recently saw the movie Thirteen Lives (2022). The movie depicts the true account in 2018 when twelve boys and their soccer coach became trapped in a pocket of air for eighteen days four kilometers deep in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand after heavy rain flooded the cave.
The movie terrified me because I knew it was a true story, and I couldn’t remember what happened to the children in real life. Sometimes movies depicting real-life events don’t end happily.
The actual amount of injury and death depicted in that film was minor compared to nearly all other films shown in the past few years. But it terrified me more than the others!
Examples of scary/suspenseful movies with less violence
The following is a list of scary/suspenseful movies that make use of significantly less violence compared to the typical scary movie of today.
Rear Window (1954)
Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Innocents (1961)
The Birds (1963)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The Shining (1980)
Village of the Damned (1995)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
What Lies Beneath (2000)
The Others (2001)
The Ring (2002)
The Messengers (2007)
The Village (2004)
The Woman in Black (2012)
World War Z (2013)
The Babadook (2014)
The Boy (2016)
A Quiet Place (2018)
Thirteen Lives (2022)
My mother used to tell me that The Innocents was the scariest movie she had ever seen. Night of the Hunter was so disturbing to me that I hated Robert Mitcham for months after seeing the film before I got over it.
While watching the movie World War Z, I became increasingly astonished because none of the main characters were being killed by zombies. My amazement continued through the end of the film. Kudos to the filmmakers of World War Z for not following the overused trope of having one main character die after another until one or two remain at the end of the movie. (Many zombies die. But they're zombies.)
I assure you that stories can provide plenty of tension, trouble, suspense, and even terror without the use of constant physical violence. Our task is to improve our storytelling skills to the point that they can stand up on their own without the use of crutches.