How not to write Fantasy: The Forbidden Kingdom

The movie is based on one of the oldest known novels, Journey to the West, a Chinese Epic. Written down finally in the 1590s from oral stories dating much farther back, it’s 100 chapters long and is one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, so any screenwriter would have challenges in writing up even a portion of it for screen. Whether The Forbidden Kingdom works on a literature-to-movie basis or not is not my point below. It doesn’t matter to me if the movie represents any part of the classic novel itself, or whether the Monkey King is true to character as depictd by Wu Cheng’en, the purported author of the novel.

To me the problem is always how the film stands up as a story. And here for me the movie serves as a good example on how not to write a Fantasy.

1. There is very little character set-up for the main character and the character that does develop is unlikeable. His name is so forgettable that I have forgotten it. Josh or Seth watches a LOT of kung-fu movies–we know this because of his room decor, posters and posters of old films. He rents movies. He has a thin relationship to the old shopkeeper–who seems to run a kung-fu Movie Warehouse and Knick Knack store. The movie seems in a hurry to get us to the “object”–the staff–and so makes Josh/Seth see it through a door that’s been left open, pick it up off the floor, and we get to feel the “weird” importance of the object. In the next scene, unknown girl gets Josh/Seth to tell us what he does and why he lives there–she’s so much a schill that she doesn’t even scream when Josh is then beat up by a gang of thugs. He doesn’t react much either. When they discover he has rented movies from Shopkeeper’s Kung-fu Emporium, they assume he can get them in to see the old guy and rob him. He walks them straight to the shop, tricks the shopkeeper, and watches as they beat him up.

Okay, I don’t like this character already. He’s shuffled through his plot points like an understudy during a rehearsal (and then you’ll stumble here and then you’ll look pathetic here and then ….) and allowed to have no reaction to what the director wants us to think as weakness. But this isn’t just weakness of strength and skill–as the movie makes it out to be–but HUGE weakness of character. He doesn’t have to lead Thugs to the Shop. He has taken thugs to an old man to beat him up. Without more plot to tell me he was forced or coerced, he’s an accomplice. I could have actually liked him if they had beat him up because he hadn’t led them to the old man. But now I think he’s worthless. The Thugs are merely there so we can (spoiler!) see them beat up at the end.

We know nothing about Josh/Seth but that he has an addiction to Kung-Fu. No background, no relationships–he’s a cypher. His choices are to not choose. I don’t believe he doesn’t try to run or fight back against the thugs. I don’t believe he would lead them to this shopkeeper. I don’t believe he’d stand back and let the shopkeeper get beat up. And if I DID, that would make Josh/Seth into a worthless person, not a sympathetic one, and not one who gets to go to 13th Century China, or is that 12th? Anyway.

On another note, the only movies that the writers have seen are the Karate Kid movies—Josh/Seth is a dead ringer for Ralph Macchio, and the beat-up gang scene and the old man are plot point for plot point Karate Kid; even Josh/Seth’s past–a kid from New Jersey–is straight from KK’s bio.

2. Pick up Companions at the Corner of First and Main. Well, Joseph Campbell would have been happy. Naive character, after going unwillingly into adventure, is taken to an otherworldly bar. I was waiting for the Star Wars Cantina theme here as Josh/Seth tried to get Jackie Chan to help him. All the main companions will say no first and then there they are marching with him. We merely pick them up as the plot goes on, and we pick them up for no reason. There are no extra characters–those we might pick up, those who might become important–just the Main Characters and the Villains.

3. Josh/Seth’s unprecedented rise to Kung-fu competency: never before has one mastered Kung Fu so quickly except in the Matrix. There are some funny moments here, more than anywhere else in the movie, genuinely good dialogue that plays on J/S’s knowledge of kung-fu moves, or rather the names for moves. This should have been a constant shtick–J/S quoting movie references, etc and pitting them against “reality”. Unfortunately, he seems to know as much about those movies as Wikipedia could tell him. He can list off moves. But what do his movies tell him about plots, expectations, characters?

4. None of the places are really used. I loved the movie, Hero, because each setting became a living character, part of the plot, and part of the action. Here a cherry blossom orchard is a backdrop. A pit that leads to magma is merely a piece of furniture–not a real obstacle for any of the fighting….there’s no threat that anyone will fall into that magma. A field of very long reeds/wheat/something is merely there to cut into for some training. Our characters go from sudden desert to sudden lush green hills–quite the ecosystem juxtapositioning.

5. The characters are plastic with plastic motives. Sparrow is out for revenge. Jackie Chan is along for the ride, perhaps to be the kid’s mentor, though we don’t know why. Jet Li is a monk seeking the staff. The Witch wants immortality–because everyone wants it (apparently there’s only enough juice to make one person eternal). The Jade Warlord wants the staff. The kid has to return the staff to “its rightful owner.” No one in the story thinks about the motivation they were handed on a card. No one thinks of turning back, of making a different decision, of negotiating a deal. There are NO complications. Fantasies can’t be built on a single plot system–with no twists. We know that the characters have to reach their destination–it’s in the script. I’m never in doubt because these aren’t real characters–they are an assembled entourage for the audience. They escort us through the plot–and, dang, they aren’t even that entertaining.

I almost walked out of the movie–it had nothing to hold my interest. Even the fight scenes. Nothing new was given to Kung-fu repetoire–not like the movies it purported to love in the opening credits. I got tired of watching the kung-fu kicks–and I can watch Matrix 1-3, which can’t be comparable to classic Kung Fu, several times!

There was one surprise in the movie, and I won’t give it away, but it wasn’t possible even by the movie’s logic. I think I will show this movie whenever I get half way through teaching a Fantasy writing course. Yes, it still manages to string together a bad plot, but getting to the end of your plot is not the end of your quest, Grasshopper.

2 thoughts on “How not to write Fantasy: The Forbidden Kingdom

  1. NK May 12, 2008 / 9:59

    I agree with you that the Forbidden Kingdom has a really bad plot. Too bad. I was hoping for the best, to maybe interest the westerner about our easterner Monkey King. It’s sort of like the Lost Empire movie. They are all the same, sucks. I am beginning to think Monkey King can’t be made into a movie. They can do it as a long series, following the novel itself. No one can write a fantasy these days.

    One point I like to point out..is.. that the staff is very heavy. No mortal can carry it. Monkey King is very strong. It gets on my nerve that the boy Jason can just run around with it.

  2. jstueart May 12, 2008 / 9:59

    I hear you. Yeah, I want to see a better adaption of Monkey King. It’s an Eastern Lord of the Rings, of a sort….except he’s picking up the ring to deliver it…not destroy it.

    Yeah, Jason was such a cipher. And so amazingly clever!

    I think I saw the Lost Empire made for TV movie—again, throw in a Westerner….what is it with that? Why not just have Ang Lee direct?

    Or make it more like Crouching Tiger or Hero!?

    Ah welll…Monkey will be done well someday….he eludes us now.

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