Kaufman’s Folly: Considering the Viewer’s Perspective
Ernest Garrett explores the issue of Kaufman’s Folly: what is it, and what screenwriters can do to avoid it.
There is a fundamental issue at the heart of many movies, which I like to call “Kaufman’s Folly,” since Charlie Kaufman was among the first to notice this problem.
It’s probably best to show you, in the following video. After which we can explore the concept in more detail, and I’ll offer suggestions as to how you can avoid it in your own screenwriting.
(Having trouble playing this video? Then check it out Here on Youtube.)
By many measures, the movie industry has been on a hot streak. There are multiple comic and fantasy franchises grossing billions of dollars, reviews have been extremely good, and fan engagement on social media is at an all-time high.
But if you dive into the details, you’ll find that almost all of that momentum is being carried by franchises. The Top 10 grossing movies of 2016 were all either adapted properties or children’s animation. And these films all tend to rely on the same plot templates. So while the financial success of these films is indisputable, I think most people would agree that there’s comparatively little happening in terms of creativity.
Given the fact that the comic book and Star Wars licenses are only held by individual studios (mostly Disney), it’s in everyone else’s interest to use these templates for their own films and franchises. But somehow they haven’t succeeded in copying them, let alone injecting them with greater creativity.
I think there’s a reason for that, as well as their lesser financial success, which goes beyond the simple lack of brand recognition. Those successful templates are not as easy to copy as they seem.
We can identify certain formulas, or blueprints, such as “mild-mannered ordinary person with a superhero secret identity,” or the Joseph-Campbell-style “ordinary person travelling to a magical world.” And copying these often tends to make a story work. But it is not sufficient merely to copy these, we should also understand why they work so well. Otherwise we can end up “mixing and matching” them, resulting in combinations that simply don’t work.
And I think one example of that is the mistake we’re calling Kaufman’s Folly, which applies to films at all budget levels.
Until it is pointed out, I think it’s very easy to miss. After all, movies have fantastic worlds and fantastic heroes in all kinds of combinations and configurations. And if you look only at the plot and internal logic of the movies themselves, you probably won’t see how one type of world needs to match up with one type of main character.
After all, people love Superman, and they love Star Wars as a setting. So there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why Superman couldn’t fly to another galaxy and save an alien planet in a setting similar to that of Star Wars. It would be logical given his powers, and it’s already happened in the comics. But it has never caught on in cinema, precisely because it falls victim to Kaufman’s Folly. So let’s try to explain how it works.
First, it is important to look beyond the bounds of a story’s own internal logic. Because a story can make perfect sense, and yet still fail in terms of connecting with an audience. Instead, we have to view things from a different perspective. In this case, the interaction between the story and the mind of the person watching.
Every movie, and every script, is a series of events being described on paper or shown on a screen, which we as writers control. But these events then play out in front of an audience whom we do not directly control, yet whose reactions are of vital importance. And how they will judge and react to what they see on screen, will be based in large part on a comparison of what they see to their own lives: how those things make them feel about themselves and their own world.
In other words, as writers we must consider not only the internal requirements of the story we are telling, but the way in which it will interact with the viewer to create a response. It is famously said that a novel is not just a book, it is the relationship between a book and its reader. And the same thing is true of films.
With that in mind, I believe that either the hero of the story, or the world of the story, can be ‘superior’ to the audience in some way. But there must be a type of balance, where superior elements are matched with inferior ones, so that the audience doesn’t feel marginalized, or inferior to what they see.
If this doesn’t happen – when the world is better than the audience’s world, and the characters are better than the audience – it not only stretches believability, but it actually prevents the audience from accepting what they see. Our self-esteem switch, our self-defences, kick in.
This is why we see the three responses described in the video earlier: harmful self-comparison, taking offense at the comparison, or rejection of the film’s reality. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Harmful Self-Comparison. Young people, who are often more accepting of influences and ideas, end up believing in the unrealistic standards presented to them. They still enjoy the film, but they end up with improper expectations of the world, as Charlie Kaufman describes in the video.
This won’t hurt a film financially, but in the long-run, it’s potentially very harmful to them, and so is something we want to avoid.
Taking Offence. Older audience members may take offence to the comparison implicitly being offered by the film, either on a conscious or unconscious level.
A film should, at its core, be an attempt to do something good for the audience, whether it be to teach us something about the world or ourselves, or to make us laugh, or just have fun. Horror films, whilst ostensibly a negative experience, serve to stimulate our adrenaline. And even tragedies play off of our desire to see bad traits punished, or our need to find comfort through seeing others share the same bad experiences we have endured.
But many films, so far from providing the audience with a positive experience, leave them angered or offended. Sometimes, of course, this is because the film is simply bad: badly written, badly acted, or in bad taste. But often it is due to Kaufman’s Folly. The viewer takes offence at the comparison being offered to them. So we see comments like ones such as “dripping wealth that made me sick,” as one reviewer wrote about Sex in the City the movie.
Rejection of the film’s reality. Finally, older – or more cynical – audience members will simply not connect to the movie at all. They have the ability to separate fiction from fantasy, and do so, failing to become emotionally-involved in the film.
This is a bad thing. When this ego barrier exists, a viewer can only treat the movie half-seriously, laughing off or ignoring the impossibly-perfect aspects of the world or people in front of them, and so failing to connect with the film in a way that the writer intended.
Kaufman’s Folly would not be a problem if it only occurred occasionally. But it is actually hugely prevalent, especially in blockbuster tent-pole films.
For example, consider the argument between Captain America and Iron Man in the 2012 Avengers.
Captain America asks Iron Man what he is without his suit of armor. Iron Man replies: “billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist.” This, while both are standing on a multi-billion dollar jet, getting set to fight alien invaders.
Both the world and the characters are depicted as superior to the audience.
Now these films are still hugely successful, in part because they contain other elements that are enjoyable, and in part because the franchises have a pre-existing fan base. But a lot of newer would-be franchises make these mistakes, and so fail to become established.
Not only that, but even with a popular franchise, the audience may still show up, and may enjoy the spectacle, but without connecting on an emotional level as a result of Kaufman’s Folly, the films have very little long-term impact. The film is quickly forgotten, and the audience moves onto the next big thing.
If we are aware of Kaufman’s Folly, and can avoid it, then we can create worlds that audiences will enter into whole-heartedly. This is important for films of all budgets, from the smallest independent film to the next tent-pole blockbuster. So with that in mind, I would like to offer the following guidelines:
- If you use a fantastic world, it must be visited by an ordinary main character.
- If you use a fantastic main character, the setting of the story must be ordinary or flawed.
- If a character is ostensibly better than other people, they must have an inner weakness or flaw which is evident to the audience.
- If a world is outwardly more enjoyable to live in than our world, it must still have negative aspects.
- If you have a fantastic world anda fantastic character, then that character should be a role-model, someone for a younger audience to healthily aspire to, rather than harmfully compare themselves with.
This subject of role models is something I address in another of my videos. Why not take a look?
Finally, remember that readers, critics, or audiences will often dislike a script or film due to Kaufman’s Folly, but won’t necessarily be able to tell you why they dislike it. This means the real problem is often missed in notes and reviews, and so you must take care to avoid it yourself.