Last Tuesday I watched ABC’s At the Movies with Margaret and David—part of my normal Tuesday evening viewing program. And while I don’t always agree with Margaret and David (Margaret, for example, doesn’t like animated films…), I respect their opinions. However, this week David said something that really jarred with me. During his review of The Fault in Our Stars, he claimed the movie was manipulative and proceeded to give it only 1 star. But don’t all films manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way?
The word manipulative can certainly have negative connotations, but it also means to cleverly influence or control—which is what films and other forms of storytelling aim to achieve. From the outset, filmmakers decide how they want the audience to feel about their characters and story, and all decisions are made to persuade—or manipulate—to keep them on this track. Appropriate music is chosen to set the mood, shots are edited for pacing and impact and audio is constructed to convey the desired effect.
Sure, there are many ways to interpret a film, and certain genres leave more room for interpretation, but most of the time the director sets out to dictate exactly what they want the audience to feel. The beginning of a film is carefully constructed so we care for the characters; the script, performances and music all work together to ensure we will follow the rest of the film with interest. Once the audience is captivated, we are putty in the hands of the filmmakers—allowing them to manipulate us and take us wherever they want us to go.
I recently watched 2012’s The Tall Man, which like many thrillers, is a great example of manipulative storytelling. In the beginning, there is a vital piece of information that is absent, but it’s not until the story unravels that you realise your misconception. The director Pascal Laugier cleverly plays on audience’s expectations in those beginning scenes. He pulls us into this story world and then shatters the genre’s conventions. It’s a masterful act of storytelling manipulation.
Another film genre that relies heavily on viewer manipulation is horror. Everything is manipulated to create tension and generate suspicion and doubt over who the killer/villain is. What is not shown is almost more important than what is shown on screen. Without manipulation, the audience wouldn’t twist and turn in their seats with anticipation and horror, and the film would be deemed a failure.
Similarly, the success of a film with romance as a key element, like The Fault in Our Stars, relies on the audience caring for the characters and believing in their connection. This is achieved through the manipulation of the audience’s emotions; we need to care for Hazel and Augustus for their story to hold resonance. But I don’t believe there are nefarious reasons behind the manipulation at work here.
Perhaps David’s issue with the manipulation in The Fault in Our Stars is due to the characters’ young age and the injustice of their circumstances, but David’s passionate reaction actually shows the film’s success in generating real empathy for these characters and their plight. If he didn't care for Hazel, Augustus and their families—then his reaction would have been tepid and indifferent.