From Suspense to Dread

Florin Court LondonI was idly watching the end of an old TV episode of Poirot the other day wherein the world’s third most famous Belgian had, as always, gathered the eight or so suspects together in the drawing room and began pointing the finger of suspicion at each of them in turn. It seemed to me that there were two types of suspense on offer here: the identity of the murderer, and what, if any, small changes would occur in this strictly adhered to formula of going through each suspect one by one. (No, not the sweet old lady!) As long as the audience knows all the possibilities, then quite small variations can generate suspense as we try to outguess the detective. In other words, complete familiarity offers a way out of complete boredom: as long as everyone knows the rules in detail, even small variations will generate suspense. It’s almost impossible by now to create a major surprise in this particular setup, mostly because Christie herself pretty much mined them out (they all did it in Murder on the Orient Express). This almost equal knowledge between reader (or watcher) and writer is what creates suspense but also limits it (unless the adapter, gone mad after years of writing minor variations on the same ending, has Poirot or Miss Marple being revealed as the murderer). Suspense has, I think, its limitations when it comes to engaging the emotions of the audience — it’s the emotion of a game.

Consider Seven as an alternative. The setup is grislier than a Christie and the setting, a corrupt city, as far away as you can get. But it’s still about a series of carefully planned murders by someone unknown and cool and ruthless in his execution of the crime. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker, Seven takes us on certainly an original journey with a brilliant concept at its heart — a moralizing murderer sardonically reenacting the seven deadly sins. But what is alleged to have happened before Fincher took over as director is revealing. It’s said that the studio insisted that while they were prepared to finance the film, they would only do so if the writer changed the last quarter of the film, when the script completely departs from the murder thriller and creates something utterly new. It stops being a game of suspense for the insider/viewer by abandoning the game altogether. The identity of the murderer, blasphemously, is revealed not by the detached intelligence of the detectives but by the murderer himself. By rejecting the fundamental desire to get away with it, the killer takes command just at the point where we are waiting for the forces of good to squeeze him into a place of abject failure by revealing the fundamental things he does not want revealed, his motives and his guilt. Apparently the studio forced Walker to undo all this and rewrite the ending so that Christie reigns supreme.

In the rewritten version the police, realizing the overall plan of the villain and his murderous intentions regarding the wife of one of the pursuing detectives, track him down in a suspenseful chase and save the day. Fortunately, Fincher and Pitt apparently insisted on reinstating the original, and the result is one of Hollywood’s most brilliant films of the last thirty years. The key word here (aside from “stupidity”) is suspenseful. What Andrew Kevin Walker achieved in the script was to use, in a brilliantly original way, the laws of suspense and then break them and replace suspense with dread. I’m not aware that anyone else has done this. I can still remember watching the near-final sequence in the cinema where Spacey, handcuffed and behind a heavy screen, now has total control of both the policemen and the audience’s expectations. From a film rooted in rules and the pleasures of minor or even major variations on those rules, we are now in a position where we know nothing. Dread, not suspense, is now dominant — and the notion of pleasure becomes debatable as the audience becomes more victim than applauding viewer. I can’t think of another experience in the cinema like it (it’s interesting that its imitators concentrate on the madmen with grisly metaphysical ambitions — that stuff is easy to copy). Perhaps the studio isn’t entirely to be blamed: films are thrill rides, sensation without risk. Who would pay to go on a rollercoaster where they know one of the carriages has been designed to fly off at the top? It’s sometimes claimed in England that Agatha Christie is not given her due as a novelist because of literary snobbery. In that hoary but still vital debate about art and entertainment, a reading of Murder on the Orient Express put back-to-back with a viewing of Seven will tell you why one is entertainment but the other is both.

For ten years Paul Hoffman worked for the British equivalent of the MPAA before being fired for insubordination, along with ten colleagues, after a failed mutiny. This was the subject of his second novel, The Golden Age of Censorship, a black comedy. Part of his first novel, The Wisdom of Crocodiles, was made into a film starring Jude Law, and he was cowriter of two subsequent films. Each one of these was worse than the last, and he decided to stop writing screenplays. His third novel, The Left Hand of God, recently published in the US, has been translated into twenty-eight languages.