Action film requires the biggest conflicts

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias recently wrote:

In my culture, most stories are not about work life, and the few stories that are focus on a narrow set of unusual jobs like soldier, detective, politician, artist, doctor, lawyer, or teacher. Why?

One explanation is that work is usually boring. But this seem weak to me. I’m often fascinated to read business-book stories about work teams and firms competing (I’m enjoying The Innovator’s Solution) and Horatio Alger type stories were once more popular in my culture. Furthermore, a recent New Yorker article (quotes below) says similar stories are now very popular in China.

The author of that article seemed displeased by this trend, and what it says about Chinese culture. She talks of “get-rich” “Darwinian” “combat”, “manipulation and deceit”, and a loss of “morals”. And this seems to me a clue about why we don’t tell such stories – they push realism on topics where we’d rather stay idealistic.

Consider that we avoid telling young kids stories about corrupt police and teachers taking advantage of their power, since we are trying to get kids to respect and trust such authorities. Similarly, we avoid telling kids stories about selfishness and betrayal in romantic and sexual relations, as we push idealized accounts of marriage, love, etc. Similarly, we may as adults avoid stories that threaten other ideals.

Stories need conflict. For stories about soldiers, detectives, politicians, artists, doctors, lawyers, and teachers, we know of socially acceptable types of conflict, which do not challenge key ideals. But stories about conflicts in ordinary jobs more easily violate key ideals, and trigger moral outrage.

I enjoy competition stories too. They provide clearer views into people’s lives that we may otherwise never know about.

But our beloved action films, by their definition, require violence by the protagonist to achieve ends, and using violence against anything besides a competing violence that violates our cultural ideals is viewed as morally outrageous. Action films are the last line of defense against the worst characters, who really have to be bad. A greedy antagonist is not enough, but his using greed to kill, torture, or rape allows the filmmaker to turn “greed” into the bad guy and use violence against him.

Action concept developers and filmmakers face a challenge. Action films require us to use violence against an antagonist who breaks our dearest ideals, and their actions need to be big and far-reaching to do this. That requires bigger concepts, and thus more budget. Hence the relative lack of low-budget action films.