Follow The Cat

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Mixed signals

Mixed signals

I read The Week – it’s about the only newspaper I read cover to cover – and it frequently has little bits of awesome tucked away under the ‘Boring But Important’ or ‘Article of The Week’ columns. Recently, hiding at the bottom of the film reviews, was the following:

‘It’s hard to know whether to sympathise with Llewyn Davis, the hapless title character from the Coen brothers’ latest movie. On the one hand, he seems to be the unluckiest man in history; on the other, he brings a lot of misfortune on himself. Thankfully, the film-makers provide one big clue: they give him a cat. For it is a well-known rule of thumb in Hollywood that if a character has a “save the cat” moment, the audience is bound to like them.

‘The theory stems from a famous screenwriting guide by Blake Snyder. Published in 2005, Save the Cat! has served as an idiot-proof template for writing: you begin the movie with a strong image, outline the story’s theme by page five, and so on. But it’s the animal element – also known as the “pet the dog” trope – that’s key: if you see a character doing something nice to an animal, they’re one of the good guys. Likewise, someone can steal, cheat, maim, kill anything really – but if you see them kick a cat, chances are they won’t make it to the end credits.

‘Once you know about this phenomenon, you’ll notice it everywhere: from Sigourney Weaver saving the spaceship’s cat in Alien, to Clint Eastwood toying with a kitten in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The cat is out of the bag.’

Is Blake Snyder, and this article, right? Are we as an audience simple enough to base our morality judgement so heavily on the treatment of our pets? I appreciate that how a man treats animals can give an indication of his character, but so can the rest of his actions – murder is pretty telling, for example. Also, why can’t the bad guys like pets too? If they’re decent, fleshed-out bad guys, they think they’re doing the right thing. This highlights the importance of animals – and, I’d suggest, anthropomorphism – to our psyches. It at least raises the question of whether we value them so much that we use them to define the heroes and villains of our stories. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Film is a very different medium but there are a lot of story-telling techniques that transcend media. Is this one of them? Can anyone suggest books in which animals fulfil this role, or indeed subvert it? Timmy from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five comes to my mind, but I was wondering if there was anything a touch more current out there. Opinions please!

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One response »

  1. I think that, in most cases, we are that easily moved. It’s an effective shortcut to characterisation because interacting with animals is an ordinary thing we can all relate to, and so instinctively get the impression of good or bad off a character. Animals are put in the position of innocents in these cases – creatures over which we big bad humans have the power of life and death – making it about us rather than the animals. I know that Save The Cat! has been very influential, some would argue too much so, over the last few years, and I wonder if that might wear the trope thin, but I doubt it.

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