I just got back from watching Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters with MzSusanB.
Now, I really don’t like writing negative reviews, but I want to spend some time talking about what I think didn’t work in this movie, because it’s relevant to my own work. Essentially I feel the film suffers–and suffers greatly–from a lack of a coherent philosophy.
The individual elements of the film were, by and large, well done. The art direction was beautiful, and the action sequences, while over the top, were well filmed and the pacing was mostly appropriate to a big budget action movie. The story, in broad outline, was based on a clever idea: Hansel and Gretel grow up to become professional witch hunters.
However, the elements, I felt, never truly meshed into a coherent whole. I did not come away with any overall feel for the cosmology of the world.
Yes, there are witches in this world, and these witches have supernatural powers… somehow. There are references to demons and Satan, but the witches’ powers don’t seemed to be derived from any external entities. Witches look inhuman, in various ways–except when they don’t. Witches aren’t human, and they seem to be all female, and there is no real biological explanation for how this happens.
The world seems to be pre-industrial, but Hansel and Gretel have access to advanced firearm technology and occasionally speak in twentieth century slang. One character has access to what appear to be newspaper stories about Hansel and Gretel, but there is no other evidence that the technology for mass communication exists. (Except for a scene in which bottles of milk are being sold with flyers of missing children tied to them.)
All of which undermined, for me, the basic dynamic of the story. We are supposed to identify with Hansel and Gretel and fear for their safety, but in order to do that we have to feel that there is genuine risk to the characters, and risk is meaningless in a world without rules.
In order to be afraid of the witches, we have to know that in this world witches can this, that, and the other thing, but also what they cannot do. In order to applaud the heroes we have to understand what the heroes have to work with and be impressed by how they overcame their limitations.
I didn’t get that from this film. During the action sequences I spent more time wondering how much of the effects were physical and how much CGI than wonder how the heroes were going to escape the bad guys. There wasn’t even any real feel that the bad guys were bad in any real way except for not being as pretty as Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton.
Which brings me to my work. I believe very strongly that in order for my readers to care about my characters I have to be very clear on the rules of my world and not deviate from them. Catskinner has superhuman combat abilities, but also some very serious limitations.
He can makes James’s body into a weapon, but only for a limited time because James has a finite supply of energy. Catskinner is also subject to alien rules that James does not fully understand, he can be immobilized or bound by certain forms of Outsider technology. James and Catskinner are both contained in a very human body and while Catskinner can dodge most forms of attack, that body can still be killed by sufficient trauma.
The other semi-human and inhuman characters have similar limitations. An ambimorph’s symbiote can repair damage to her human body, but that repair takes time, and there are limits. The blue boys’ metal content makes them inhumanly strong and tough, but their eyes are still soft. And so on.
So while I was somewhat disappointed in the film, it did get me thinking about how my own work is progressing and it made me ask, once again, am I being fair to my readers? Am I taking the time to make sure that the rules are clear and the risks are real? When I put my characters in danger, are my readers going to be scared for them, worrying about what is going to happen next? When my characters triumph over adversity, do they use abilities and tools that my audience has already seen, or am I just pulling rabbits out of a hat and justifying it because “it’s science fiction–anything can happen”?