When your main character isn’t a main character

(Note: This whole post contains spoilers for “All the Money in the World)

Last week, I saw “All the Money in the World”.  It’s a movie, based on real events, about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III.  The movie was fine, if forgettable, but it demonstrated a fascinating point of story building that people can sometimes struggle with.

What makes a main character?

I saw this movie with four different people and as soon as the movie was over, I asked them who they thought the protagonist was.  I got four different answers.  No one was quite sure.  I’m going to explore why this is the case and what the movie did wrong.

Here is the movie’s description from IMDB:

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD follows the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) and the desperate attempt by his devoted mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to convince his billionaire grandfather (Christopher Plummer) to pay the ransom. When Getty Sr. refuses, Gail attempts to sway him as her son’s captors become increasingly volatile and brutal. With her son’s life in the balance, Gail and Getty’s advisor (Mark Wahlberg) become unlikely allies in the race against time that ultimately reveals the true and lasting value of love over money.

So, you have four potential candidates for the main character:

  • John Paul Getty III (the kidnapped boy)
  • Gail, his mother, played by Michelle Williams
  • His Grandfather, played by Christopher Plummer
  • Mark Wahlberg, played Marky Mark
marky_mark54
In this, and every movie he’s in, I have felt the vibration

In order for a character to be the protagonist, five things should be true:

  1. The majority of the narrative should be devoted to their journey
  2. They should be introduced early
  3. They need to make a choice that drives the narrative / plot
  4. They need to grow
  5. The conflict needs to be resolved by them (or with them participating)

Not all five things need to be in place, but generally, this is what makes a main character a main character.

Let’s go through each person one by one and you’ll see why it’s so difficult to determine who the main character was in this movie and why it’s such a problematic script as a result.

Candidate 1: John Paul Getty III (the kidnapped boy)

charlie-plummer.jpg
Pretty happy looking, considering

Test 1: The majority of the narrative should be devoted to their journey
Partial pass.  The movie spends a lot of time with him.  There’s a lot of characters to bounce between, so no one single gets the majority of screen time, but it’s a movie about a kidnapping.  Of course we spend time with the kidnap victim.

Test 2: They should be introduced early
Pass.  He is one of the first characters we are introduced to

Test 3: They need to make a choice that drives the narrative
Fail.  He’s a kidnap victim.  He has zero agency in the story (something I’ve talked about before).  He attempts to escape, once, but the circumstances of his release are outside his control.  He exists.  Nothing he does has any impact on his circumstances.

 
Test 4: They need to grow
Fail.  He has no arc whatsoever.  He starts the movie as a scared, kidnapped boy and ends the movie as a scared, recently-kidnapped boy.  He doesn’t experience any personal growth.  There are vague hints about him being strengthened by the experiences, but it’s very remote.
 
Test 5: The conflict needs to be resolved by them (or with them participating)
Fail.  He’s rescued by other people.  He doesn’t do anything.
 
Overall: Not a main character.
Pretty confusing.  On the one hand, we spend a lot of time with JPG III and he’s introduced early.  The movie is kind of “about” him, so he’s kind of the main character.  But he forcefully fails three of the tests.
 

Candidate 2: Marky Mark (the tough negotiator)

marky_mark54
FEEL IT FEEL IT

Test 1: The majority of the narrative should be devoted to their journey
Fail.  Marky Mark is in about 25% of the movie.  While he’s present in many of the scenes, he’s not active in them.  He’s a viewer, not a participant.

Test 2: They should be introduced early
Fail.  It’s about 25 minutes into the run time before we see him.  Far too late for a main character.

Test 3: They need to make a choice that drives the narrative
Fail.  Marky Mark is hired to do a job and then he does that job.  The narrative was driven without any input from him.

Test 4: They need to grow
Pass.  Marky Mark’s character has an arc.  He starts the movie as a “by the books”, no nonsense negotiator and by the end, he is willing to risk his career and livelihood to bring the boy in safe (he does this by yelling at his boss and setting up the resolution of the movie).  He experiences personal growth as a result of the story.

Test 5: The conflict needs to be resolved by them (or with them participating)
Partial pass.  There is a tacked-on scene at the end that involves a chase through an Italian town, and Marky Mark is there.  So from that perspective, sure.  He resolves the conflict.  But the main conflict (the kidnapping) is actually resolved by The Grandfather.

Overall: Not a main character
Again, pretty confusing.  Marky Mark is the biggest name actor in the movie.  His character (and only his character) experiences growth.  But, we don’t spend a ton of time with him, and the movie isn’t really “about” him.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Marky Mark forcefully added some of the scenes near the end to give his character something to do.

Candidate 3: The Grandfather (Christopher Plumber)

Christopher Plummer
My middle name is Spacey

Test 1: The majority of the narrative should be devoted to their journey
Pass.  Christopher Plummer gets a ton of screen time, equal only to Michelle Williams.  He’s at least 30-40% of the movie.

Test 2: They should be introduced early
Pass.  He’s one of the first characters we’re introduced to.

Test 3: They need to make a choice that drives the narrative
Pass.  He absolutely does this.  His choice to not pay the kidnappers is what drives the whole plot of the movie, and is the “inciting event”.  However, the problem with this choice is it doesn’t force him out of his comfort zone.  It’s the exact choice we’d expect him to make.

Test 4: They need to grow
Fail.  He starts the movie as a character obsessed with money, who values things over people.  At the end of the movie, he dies alone, cradling his possessions, never having learned that lesson.  So.  No, he doesn’t really grow.  If anything, he’s the primary antagonist.

Test 5: The conflict needs to be resolved by them (or with them participating)
Partial pass.  Ultimately, it’s his decision to pay a very reduced ransom that allows his grandson to be released.  But, he’s a small part in the overall negotiation.  He doesn’t have ownership of the resolution.

Overall: M… Maybe?
So, Christopher Plummer is kind of the main character?  I guess?  From the script standpoint, he’s more of the antagonist.  He is an obstacle that needs to be overcome.  Gang, it’s really confusing!

Candidate 4: Gail (Michelle Williams – the Mother)

Michelle Williams.jpg
Where is Dawson when you need him?

Test 1: The majority of the narrative should be devoted to their journey
Pass.  To the extent that the run time is devoted to one single character, it is Michelle Williams.  By all accounts, she should be the main character.

Test 2: They should be introduced early
Pass.  She is introduced right at the beginning.

Test 3: They need to make a choice that drives the narrative
Fail.   The narrative is driven without her consent or participation.  She is reacting to events.  Listen, choice is really difficult to pull off in a kidnap movie.  It puts Michelle Williams in the confusing spot of both being (sort of) a main character, but having very little agency over the direction of the movie.  You see this a lot in “man vs. nature” films, but then the choice becomes to fight or die.  It’s not really a choice, so to make movie interesting, you really need to lean into the character journey aspect.

Near the end of the movie, she does make a very difficult choice – she gives up custody of her children to get the grandfather to agree to pay a smaller ransom.  It’s a very impactful decision, but it’s not one that bumps up against her core values.  Of course that’s the decision she’d make.  And really, she had no choice.  There’s no other decision she could have reasonably made.

Test 4: They need to grow
Fail.  Michelle Williams starts as a devoted mother willing to do anything to get back her kids and she ends the movie as a devoted mother willing to do anything to get back her kids.  She experiences absolutely no growth as a character, and why would she?

Test 5: The conflict needs to be resolved by them (or with them participating)
Partial pass.  The conflict is resolved by Christopher Plummer and Marky Mark.  She’s a secondary participant in the process, but the movie is her trying to influence events outside her control.  The argument could made that had she not continued to badger Christopher Plummer, he never would have paid, but, the truth is Marky Mark was the catalyst for that, not Michelle Williams.

Overall:  Weird
I’m convinced that the intention was to have Michelle Williams as the main character, just it didn’t quite land.


So who is the main character in this movie?

As near as I can tell, it’s a combination of Christopher Plummer (his choice drives the story – he’s at least the antagonist), Marky Mark (he experiences character growth and drives the resolution) and Michelle Williams (we spend the most time with her).  Because the “role” of the main character is split across three people, the story never really lands.  The viewers are being pulled in too many directions and none of it is particularly satisfying.

Could they have fixed this?

Yes.

If you find yourself in this spot in your books, the fix is the same, 100% of the time, regardless of circumstances. Combine your Characters.   The answer is always to combine your characters.  If you’ve split a single characters journey across two people you need to get them back together.  This movie would have worked better if they:

    • Get rid of Michelle Williams and made Marky Mark the main character.  He could have picked up all the work she did, plus experienced character growth.  It actually would have worked really well.
    • Get rid of Marky Mark.  If you give his roles to Michelle Williams, she gets to have more participation in the resolution of the narrative.  It doesn’t solve the character growth issue, but it lands more meat on her plate and at least lands her a solid pass in four of five categories.  It makes her a boring main character.

 

 

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