The Reasons Why Romance Doesn’t Work
Most, and I mean most, of the films that I love do not hinge on a romance. Many might assume this is because I do not like romance at all, and this is what I used to believe when I was younger. But as time has passed, and as I have continued to examine romance in films, I have come to a far different conclusion. Romance, as I see it, isn’t very difficult to portray compared to a platonic relationship, because the audience is so willing to accept a strong romantic bond as opposed to a strong friendship. Instead, I would argue the reason why so many people complain about romance is because it isn’t included for storytelling reasons, it is included for economic reasons. While this isn’t good, it means this isn’t a very difficult problem to fix. If screenwriters were willing to take notes, and pay more attention to the romances they craft, I believe the overall feeling towards romance in film would be very different. But at the same time, I believe that the reason why romance can be so awful in film is because of a group we never want to blame, ourselves, and if we really want to fix it, we will have to show it with our wallets.
The Two Camps of Poor Romance:
I believe the poor romance in film can essentially be broken down into two groups. The first can be found quite often in modern day blockbusters, and while it isn’t as nasty as the second, I still feel it is damaging storytelling.
Captain America: Civil War features a textbook example of this kind of romance. In the film, Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter share a very small romance in the film. It takes up only a few minutes of screen time, and seems pretty harmless overall. But when you take a critical look at it, you’ll find that it makes no sense at all and is actually kind of creepy.
Sharon Carter is the niece of Peggy Carter, who was Steve Rogers’s love interest in the first Captain America film. This means that Sharon is technically hitting on her aunt’s former lover, and the film never addresses this.
I don’t doubt that the screenwriters (Marcus and McFeely) are highly talented. In fact, I wrote an entire article on Why Captain America: Civil War Worked So Well, in which I credit them for the balance of character they managed to achieve in a film with over ten main characters.
It is because Marcus and McFeely wrote this film that I chose its romance as an example of the first camp.
Although they aren’t all completely awful, the first category of poor romances consists of relationships that were completely shoehorned into a film. These are incredibly common in massive blockbusters, and the reason is simple: economics. The more people who may want to see your film, the better, and because of this studios will often to force romances into films to garner interest from people who would have no interest otherwise.
The Hobbit Trilogy had a forced romance between Kili the dwarf and Tauriel the elf. Avengers: Age of Ultron had a forced romance between the Hulk and Black Widow. Even Jurassic World, a film targeted towards people with a vetted interest in seeing dinosaurs in a theme park, contained a forced romance between Clair (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt).
In these films the romance is not integral to the story and could easily be taken out. And it is because of this that the quality of the romance doesn’t tend to drastically affect the film overall. I would still argue that the abundance of lazily written romances in blockbusters needs to end.
But the second camp of poor romances is far more destructive than the first. Because the second category consists of poorly written romances that play a major role in a film.
It isn’t too difficult to understand why the second tends to be worse than the first. If a poor romance plays a minor role in a film, then the film can still be great overall, but if a poor romance plays a major role in a film, the overall quality will suffer severely.
Whereas the first category attempts to include a different demographic, the second category aims directly at the audience members who are interested in romance. Just imagine, if instead of watching the Avengers fight in Civil War we had to watch Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter flirt for twenty minutes. Within those twenty minutes, we would start to realize the dynamic of their relationship, and start to feel uncomfortable. On top of that, it would take up far more of the film, and consequently take up time we could have spent watching cool stuff.
The major difference between the two types of poor romances, is that the while the first is usually crafted by a competent writer, the second is often crafted by a less than optimal counterpart. Because of this, the romance often tends to be far more complicated, involving love triangles and even love squares. What I mean by a love square, is that some films have interlocking romantic interest between four characters. As in, person A likes person B, person B likes person D, person D likes person C, and person C likes person A. And some films involve even more complex shapes.
One of the most popular examples of this is Twilight, and for those who are uninitiated, I will let this teaser trailer speak for itself.
For reasons I will explain later, this category is far more difficult to combat than the first, but something about it seriously confuses me. The second category isn’t limited to romance centered stories. For some odd reason major franchise films, that do not need romance hungry audiences, have placed romances in integral positions.
Take the beloved film: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. What makes the romance in this film so strange is that, even though Star Wars has long been considered a space opera, George Lucas made the romance between Anakin and Padme an essential part of the story.
While the film doesn’t hinge on romance to the extent that Twilight does, since the greater conflict between the Jedi and Sith is far more important, it spends a great amount of time showing cheesy and stupid scenes of Anakin and Padme doing nothing of real importance. On top of that, the film includes lines that I really would have expected from Twilight.
“I don’t like sand. It’s course, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft, and smooth.”
-Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, 2002
I don’t think Attack of the Clones suffers from the same problem as Twilight, at least not at a fundamental level.
Twilight’s fanbase was the problem: they we IIfere eager to see (in my opinion) a poor romance, and studios were willing to turn out the film.
Attack of the Clones’ problem is its writer, given that the fanbase reacted negatively to the romance portrayed in this film, and that there was no outcry for a romance to begin with.
While both camps need to be eradicated in different ways, I think they exist because of two reasons: many writers do not have a firm grasp of how to write romance, and/or they do not care enough to write their romances well.
Captain America: Civil War suffers from the second problem, Attack of the Clones suffers from the first, and I would argue that Twilight suffers from both.
When Romances Do Work:
Making a romance believable isn’t difficult, it’s just done so rarely. There is nothing special about romance when it comes to character development, in fact, it is very similar to characters bonding as friends.
First, they meet, then they get to know each other, and then they become romantically involved. In a friendship, first they meet, then they get to know each other, and then they become friends. Yes, the two types of relationships are portrayed differently, but from a structural standpoint they are practically the same.
Just as with an onscreen friendship, there must be reasons why the two characters are willing to spend time together. Perhaps they have common interests, or perhaps they find each other funny, but there must be something.
On top of the fact that romances are not difficult to craft, because the audience will have an easier time believing them. Think about how many times you have seen a character risk their life for love. Since we have seen this happen so often in film, we have been conditioned to expect characters to save each other for romantic reasons, while we almost never see characters save each other out of friendship.
Good romance usually isn’t complicated either. I do not mean that writers should not add depth to romantic relationships, what I do mean is that writers should not resort to what I call ‘fabricated depth’.
Fabricated depth is when a writer forces several subplots into a relationship, but never attempts to make any of them meaningful. Love triangles are a perfect example of this. When done poorly, we hate one member of the group, and clearly want two of them to end up together. Although this adds a layer of complication to the relationship, it doesn’t add anything meaningful.
The circumstances of the relationship should be kept simple, the relationship itself should be complex.
Imagine if Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were only able to fight to each other on the third Wednesday of every month, if the clouds on Hoth were perfectly white, and if each agreed to only use their left hand. None of these fabricated rules are necessary for their confrontation to be dramatic, and none of them add to the final fight. It is the nature of their relationship, how Darth Vader knows Luke is his son, and how Luke desperately wants to defeat the Sith lord to rescue his friends, that makes the climax so thrilling.
It seems to obvious that adding rules to Luke and Vader’s relationship does nothing for the story overall. And yet, romances often have a web of complex rules surrounding the two characters in love. I believe writers do this to make up for the fact that the relationship itself lacks substance.
In Attack of the Clones, Anakin and Padme cannot fall in love because Jedi are forbidden from marrying. This rule had never been previously established, and clearly serves to cast a shade of angst on the central romance. The problem is that Anakin and Padme (from a character standpoint) show no reasons why they would fall in love. The romance itself is incredibly hollow, so Lucas invented a complex situation around it to elicit a emotional response from the audience. And it didn’t work.
I want to name an example of a well-crafted romance, that is tailored towards fixing the first category.
For this example, I have no choice but to turn towards a video game. I try to stray away from mentioning other mediums while writing here, but the recently released Breath of the Wild solves the first problem so elegantly that I couldn’t avoid discussing it.
For those who are unaware, Breath of the Wild is a recently released Zelda game that has garnered more perfect scores than any other game since the creation of Metacritic, and is currently sitting at 97/100. If you are interested, you can head over to Metacritic and gaze at the long list of perfect scores the game has received. On top of that, it has outsold the Nintendo Switch, meaning that people were willing to buy the game without hardware to play it on.
I love the game myself, and while I would not argue that the overall story is what makes the game great, it handles its romance in a way that major blockbusters could learn from. (Spoilers follow)
The two main characters, Link and Zelda, are not together for most of the game. Most of their interactions take place through flashbacks, so although their relationship is the most important one in the story, it isn’t the most important element in the game. This is why I see it as such a great example: the relationship is complex and layered, but it doesn’t take too much time away from more important areas of the finished product. In total, there is only about forty minutes of onscreen interaction between the two leads, in a game that usually takes around forty hours to beat. And yet, I could discuss their dynamic for hours.
Unlike Sharon Carter and Steve Rogers, who are given few reasons to like each other, Link and Zelda bond over their shared burdens. Zelda has been attempting to awaken her sealing power, which would prevent the return of the main villain, for over ten years with no results to show for it, while Link has completely shut himself off from the outside world after being selected to wield an incredibly powerful weapon.
As the story progresses, the two connect over the heavy weight placed on both of their shoulders. However, Zelda is still unable to awaken her sealing power, and so when the main villain eventually returns Link fails to defeat him.
With Link already at death’s door, and an army of monsters ready to kill him, Zelda jumps in front of him out of instinct. Although this does nothing logical at first, Zelda’s love for Link quickly awakens her sealing power, which she then uses to destroy the army of monsters in front of her. After realizing that Link is still alive, Zelda sends him to a place of resurrection so that he can recover, and then heads to face the main villain alone.
Zelda fights the main villain for over a century, and the game opens with Link waking up, unable to remember anything. The game’s plot is the player finding these memories, slowly learning what happened between Link and Zelda one hundred years ago, and eventually joining her in Hyrule Castle to fight the main boss.
You spend most of your time in the game wandering around in a vast world, but this is where the real meat of the story is.
What I love so much about the romance (although you must talk to a bird person to confirm that it’s a thing, rather than learning about it in a cutscene) is that it serves as a back drop for the setting. But rather than harm the overall quality, it enhances it. Their relationship gives you a reason to be invested in the world, instead of serving as something to draw in a larger audience.
The two characters have similar struggles, and because of this, they form a believable bond. Every interaction they have serves to build their relationship, so although they aren’t onscreen very often, you become invested in them.
If screenwriters observed this romance (or other romances like it) for about twenty minutes, they would have a far better understanding of how to include romantic elements in their stories. The reason I say this, is because many writers who shoehorn in romances are often very talented, and I don’t believe it would be difficult for them to improve the love stories they cram into their films.
The second camp, however, is a far thornier problem.
I do not have enough time to mention every example of a romance that solves this problem. Throughout the history of film, there have always been movies that are able to portray a well fleshed out love story. I do not need to tell writers how to write romances, because it has been done for centuries.
The reason why the second category exists isn’t because writers have forgotten how to write romances, it is that we have stopped caring. The final Twilight film grossed over 829 million dollars, so we can criticize it all we want, but there is a definite audience for these films.
The reality is that this problem will never be solved unless audience members are willing to evade these films. You do have the occasional Attack of the Clones, in which the romance hurt the quality, and consequently, the box office. But films like Twilight have been able to profit off a desire for poor cheesy romance. And while I despise these films, there isn’t much that can be done to stop them.
However, this is one area of film that I would argue is improving. Yes Twilight was a box office behemoth, but Stephenie Meyer’s (the author of Twilight) other novel The Host was also translated into film, but it grossed only 63 million dollars.
The Divergent Series (a close cousin of Twilight’s) was also translated into film, but it saw an even greater loss. The first film grossed 288 million dollars, the second grossed 297 million dollars, but the third grossed only 179 million dollars.
These numbers are a far cry from the heights of Twilight, and we have only ourselves to thank for it. Ultimately, what will fix romances is very similar to what I argued would fix the problem of sequels: we have to tell Hollywood what we want to see with our wallets.
The first problem can be solved very easily through audience communication with screenwriters. If you follow a screenwriter on Twitter or Facebook, leave them a comment on how they could improve their romances. Write a blog post, make a video, or do something else, but make sure that screenwriters know shoehorned romances aren’t appreciated.
But the second demands that we make sure poorly written films perform poorly at the box office.
At the same time, if you enjoy the Twilights and the Divergents of the world, it is your responsible to see them and ensure that they find box office success. We might be at a crossroads when it comes to romance right now. It is up to us which direction Hollywood takes.