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Manipulating the audience

One of my favourite movies from last year was the James Cameron produced, Robert Rodriguez directed cyber-punk story 'Alita:Battle Angel'. I've been a fan of 'Gunnm', the original Japanese manga that it was based on, since its first issues hit the West in the early 1990s, and both Cameron's original treatment and Rodriquez's re-write do a very good job of compressing and re-working the sometimes sprawling storylines from the first four volumes of the manga into a coherent 2 hour plot that both respects the original source material and expands and refines it into something more suitable for the big screen. 

The story, while being a high-octane thrill-ride of sometimes violent action, also has a surprisingly emotional and tender core. It's essentially a coming of age story as we follow the eponymous cyborg heroine on her journey from broken, amnesiac 'insignificant girl' to the discovery that she's actually someone 'very special'. Along the way there's a developing father / daughter relationship, star-crossed teenage lovers, betrayal, bravery, revenge and redemption. It's got a great cast that includes Christophe Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, and Rosa Salazar as Alita (in performance capture) gives the film its poignant and emotive heart.

OK. What's all that got to do with writing? Well, yesterday, a YouTube video about the film popped up in my suggestions, and I found it really interesting from a writing perspective. I don't agree with the video's creator's less than complimentary take on the plot (or lack of it) but his central thesis is interesting and insightful I think.

Essentially, he steps us through the film examining various ways that the film, and its writers, cleverly and deliberately manipulates the audience into first liking and then loving, the central protagonist - identifying with her, sharing her passions, her pains and her joys, and in the end being helplessly caught up in her story... despite (in his view) the actual plot not being all that good.

It gave me lots to think about, and I think he identifies many lessons for all of us as writers, either new or perhaps as reminders of the tools we have at our disposal to manipulate our own readers into identifying with our characters.

It's only 15 minutes or so long, and well worth a watch. 


WARNING: the video is FULL of spoilers. It practically reveals the entire plot. So if you think you might want to see the film (which I heartily recommend) and want to avoid having key themes and events of the plot spoiled for you... watch the film BEFORE you watch the video linked below! 😁 


That said... enjoy! I'll be interested to see what other people think!

Alita Battle Angel — How to Manipulate the Audience | Film Perfection

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Replies (4)
  • Thank you!

    I will have to watch the movie too. :)

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    • Thanks for sharing this Jon, I watched with interest and it does identify key components of creating characters to root for - although I found Akita's relentless likeability far too sugary and prefer my protagonists to have more flaws I realise the type of film and its relationship to Disney based characters/themes. A great explanation of constructing a character in a deliberate way to evoke a certain response. 

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      • Yes, I agree. In the original manga she's still very likeable, but her darker side is made much more explicit, where it's only hinted at in the film. In fact what makes her such a compelling character, and gives such scope for inner conflict and redemptive arcs is the constant tug-of-war between her essentially kind and generous nature and the innate capacity for violence and love of combat that's built into her by her training in her original life. As she describes it herself in one of the stories - the pure moment when 'everything turns white' and nothing exists except battle.

        But then the film only tells the very beginning of her post-rebirth story. Yukito Kishiro's original 'Battle Angel Alita' manga runs to 9 volumes in its English translation (of which only the first 3 plus a small element of 4 are present in the film). There are then 19 volumes (!) in the 'sequel' - 'Last Order'. And a sort of 'preque / sequel' that delves even more deeply into her past - 'Mars Chronicle' - is at 7 volumes and still ongoing!

        In the 30 years since its first issue there have also been several side-stories and spin-offs! It's an extraordinarily epic creative work from a writer/artist who writes and draws it all himself!

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      • An interesting little film/analysis. I will keep it in the back of my mind.

        It does appear that Hollywood needs to simplify things to make their format work. The multi volume original manga sounds a lot more intriguing.

        Thanks for the link

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