This week I thought I’d talked about a movie I recently watched and what caught my attention as a writer. This won’t be a movie review, there are plenty of site for that, rather I’ll be examining the narrative structure, dialogue, and character development of Dunkirk.
First, let’s examine the narrative structure of the movie. While it doesn’t break any ground in structure, I still found it intriguing. Christopher Nolan, who in addition to directing the film also wrote and produced it, utilizes a non-linear approach. He uses flashbacks at appropriate times to develop certain characters but to also show the chain of events which took a dicey situation into a disaster. Nolan makes it easy to keep track of the back and forth which to me is tricky. There are books I’ve read which have done this back and forth is such a sloppy way I couldn’t keep track of where I was in the timeline.
Using a non-linear approach to storytelling is tricky no matter what the medium is. Perhaps it’s easy for a visual medium, perhaps it’s easier for the written word. I truly don’t know. There are some people who simply cannot follow anything straight forward. That’s fine. All our brains are wired differently. The film makes it easy because from the start the audience is given a notation of 1 week or 1 day letting us know what is going on. Nothing more is needed to explain what Nolan is doing.
Next, I’ll examine the dialogue or the rather shockingly lack of dialogue in Dunkirk. Normally, I am someone who loves dialogue and believes it is the best way to show character. But with this movie, I find myself appreciating its sparseness. It simply does not need it except where appropriate. According to the Wikipedia entry for the movie the dialogue for the movie is only 76 pages. A page of dialogue for a script equals 1 minute of spoken dialogue. This gives the impression the movie is only 76 minutes long movie, but it is 1 hour and 45 minutes long.
Nolan’s philosophy toward the movie was to focus solely on the event itself. No need for big speeches from military men or Churchill. No need to show the enemy. In fact, the only interaction the movie deals with the enemy are pieces of paper which floated down upon the French and English soldiers printed by the Germans showing them how they were surrounded on the beach in the opening few minutes. That’s all that is needed; not discussions between characters as to what it means. In a traditional war movie we would get nothing but grandiose speeches by military men and politicians and explanations for just how difficult each decision was.
The lack of dialogue creates an intimate sense each character is operating on instinct. For example, dialogue would have ruined a scene in which two characters pick up the gurney of a wounded soldier left behind on the beach after a German bombing. They realize he is still alive and know their best and only chance to leave is to pick him up and hustle him to the medical boat, the only boat authorized to leave. Through their actions the audience gets what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing. To have them talk about it would quite frankly come across as 1) info dumping purely for the audience’s sake, and 2) make them sound stupid. The reality of it is I doubt many of the people sat around discussing themselves or the war. It simply wasn’t what was on their mind. What mattered was surviving long enough to get off that damn beach and go home.
The most dialogue comes between the interaction of a captain of a small civilian boat enlisted by the navy, his son, his son’s friend, and a stray army officer they pick up along the way. This is effective because it focuses the attention on heroes we aren’t used to seeing on screen. The audience later finds out why so many civilian vessels were enlisted to help near 400,000 men get off a beach.
Finally, I’d like to examine Nolan’s approach to characters. I am someone who lacks stories to be character-driven rather than plot-driven. Characters are how I make, or don’t make, an emotional connection to the overall story. However, Dunkirk is truly plot-driven. That’s not to say it doesn’t have characters the audience doesn’t care about. With a large ensemble cast, a mixture of well-known actors such as such as Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, Nolan instead focuses primarily on young, unknown actors and their story.
From the start Dunkirk is intentionally vague with information about the characters, their backgrounds, and honestly, even their names. No matter what medium, the audience gets information early on about why we should or shouldn’t like a character. We usually get bits of relevant backstory so that the audience clearly understands the stakes for each character. In war movies, the characters are taken one step further in that we also get to know the military men and politicians behind the decisions.
In Dunkirk, we do not get this nor is it really needed. Enough is given so we feel how harrowing each of their stories is. Though it is a historical movie, and it’s easy enough to look up how it ends, I teared up and empathized with the characters. From the army officer pleading with a civilian boat captain to not go to Dunkirk to the young men beaten by the Germans to the air force pilots circling the beach to bring down enemy planes, I had an emotional connection to them.
As a writer, watching a movie like Dunkirk shows how effective storytelling can be when it breaks a few rules. Granted, I think the primary reason why it works is because of top notch acting so the sparse dialogue, non-linear storytelling, and lack of character development works. Though I know there are books which employ one or all of these traits, I think it’s more difficult. The movie certainly challenged me to re-examine my thoughts on plot-driven stories. I don’t know if it has inspired to me to try my hand at a non-traditional story structure; I think that is something very few have a talent for. But like reading outside one’s genre, it’s important to examine how other mediums tell a story.