So far I have viewed and reviewed 3 romantic comedies for The Rom-Com Project – only 49-99 to go (depending on the time I have). This weekend I had a conversation about my project at a birthday party. One of the party guests immediately and passionately expressed his dislike for romantic comedies and how they’re all contrived, stupid, and “always have posters with two people facing back-to-back with their arms crossed and smirks on their faces” (and then, quite amusingly, demonstrated said back-to-back smirkiness).
His reaction was rather typical of people who I tell about my rom-com project. I tell them I plan to spend a year reviewing romantic comedies, and they usually say, “God, why?” (And after watching something like Valentine’s Day, I’m asking myself the same question.) I tell them that these movies are marketed towards women, supposedly appeal to women, and I want to examine the feminist or social implications of these stories.
You know all this, so why am I repeating it? Because I have another motive for examining the romantic comedy that I’m divulging to all of you now: I’m in the process of writing my own. Two of them, in fact.
I’m not going to reveal the plot or characters or even concepts right now because I don’t want someone else on the ‘net stealing my awesome ideas, so I’ll give you the basic facts: one is a screenplay, the other is a novel that would make a really good movie eventually (but I’m writing it as a novel anyway). The screenplay is a modernized adaptation of a classic text, set in a high school (think 10 Things I Hate About You/The Taming of the Shrew and Clueless/Emma) and the novel is (what I hope is) an original story about grownups (well, people in their mid-twenties. They count as grownups, right?) In writing these stories, I’m trying to avoid some of the contrivances that seem to frustrate people with the romantic comedy genre: namely, the stupid reasons for keeping people apart until the very end.
There’s something inherently problematic with the modern romantic comedy structure, at least in terms of believability. Most romantic comedies center on getting the male and female lead together by the end of the movie. They can’t get together at the halfway point because then the movie will be over, so writers have to construct ridiculous contrivances to keep the characters apart. Usually, there’s some sort of stupid misunderstanding between the two characters that cause the couple to NOT get together, or break up for awhile, until someone makes a grand romantic gesture to win the person back.
Usually, these contrivances are over-the-top and don’t resemble what people do in real life: have a fight and then make up shortly afterwards. The movies where the characters don’t even get together at all are even worse. Those romantic comedies would have you believe that getting together with your true love is really hard where you face seemingly insurmountable obstacles (obstacles that are somehow still overcome by a public declaration of love or chase through the airport). It bears no resemblance to what usually happens in real life: you meet someone you like who likes you back, you start dating, and either stay together or break up and meet someone else.
I’ve noticed that some recent romantic comedies are starting to break away from this formula. Recent romantic comedies like Going the Distance, (500) Days of Summer, and the upcoming The Five-Year Engagement all follow couples over the course of time, where they get together or are already together at the beginning of the movie. The stories look at their relationships after the getting-together phase. I’d like to see more romantic comedies follow this structure.
Still, the more traditional romantic comedy has its appeal. Sometimes they do well commercially despite not being very good, and sometimes they make Oscar history. On the other hand, It Happened One Night was made almost eighty years ago – would that same movie with different stars be as critically successful today? I doubt it. If romantic comedy writers want to bring in the critical praise along with the big bucks when writing a more traditional script, they need to raise the stakes. They need to come up with logical, believable reasons why the two characters wouldn’t get together until the end of the movie.
In other words, they need to reread their Jane Austen.
Jane Austen’s novels have been called the predecessor to modern romantic comedies, and with good reason. All of her books have a romantic relationship at the center of the story, and the main character never gets together with her love interest until the end of the story. Yet all of her books are more entertaining and insightful than most of the romantic comedies we see in film. One of these reasons is obviously because her dialogue and biting social commentary is so witty and clever, but I also think her stories are successful because the characters have actual reasons for not getting together until the end of the story.
Take Sense and Sensibility. When Elinor Dashwood meets Edward Ferrars, he is already engaged to Lucy Steele. They obviously can’t get together when Edward is unwilling to break off his engagement (even though he loves Elinor) because he doesn’t want to leave Lucy in the lurch. Getting married was a very serious business and Lucy could have no future or financial stability if she didn’t make a good match, and Edward wants to do the honorable thing.
Or look at Persuasion. The obstacle that keeps Captain Wentworth from marrying Anne Elliot was their past relationship where she broke his heart after feeling pressure from her family. They haven’t seen each other for awhile and he needs to learn how to trust her again. The conflict is internally motivated and more sophisticated than a lot of romantic comedy films.
Or look at Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth doesn’t accept Mr. Darcy’s proposal the first time because she just plain doesn’t like him. Some of her dislike is based on incorrect rumors, and some of her dislike is based on the fact that, well, Mr. Darcy can be a total jerk sometimes. They get together only after she’s known him for a longer period of time, where her dislike turns to appreciation which turns into love.
Her other major novels are a little more contrived – In Mansfield Park and Emma, the characters (Edmund and Emma) don’t realize that they’ve been in love with their love interests all along! And in Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland can’t get together with Henry Tilney because she thinks Henry’s father is a murderer (awwwwkward!) Still, that story is more of a parody of Gothic literature than a straight-up romantic comedy, so it works in the novel.
I try to think of Jane Austen when writing my own romantic comedies. The “teen adaptation of a classic text” screenplay combines the Persuasion method with the Emma method: there’s a past fling between the two characters that ended badly and forgiveness has to be earned, but they are also in deep denial that they have feelings for each other at all (with – I hope – hilarious results!)
The novel I’m writing uses a bit of the Sense and Sensibility method of outside, social problems keeping the main characters apart – but they still get together at the end of the first third of the story. That’s because the story is more about the female protagonist’s struggle to find a work/life balance and maintain her relationship while advancing her career. In fact, you could argue that it’s not a romantic comedy at all, but a coming-of-age story about self-discovery and identity that happens to have a romance as a very, very prominent subplot.
Then again, sometimes I wonder if any romantic comedy will be able to truly reinvent the genre. After all, there are no 100% original story ideas anymore. Most stories follow a particular structure and all stories follow a particular structure to a certain extent. Maybe the romantic comedy doesn’t need to be entirely reinvented in terms of structure. Maybe a romantic comedy can be entirely structurally predictable but still be enjoyable and artistic due to strengths in characterization and dialogue.
Anyway, these are the the things I think about instead of actually working on said novel or screenplay.