The Roundtablers make the long climb with Jack the Giant Slayer, the 2013 Action-Adventure CGI extravaganza, written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney, and directed by Bryan Singer. Share your thoughts on our analysis or ask questions in the comments or on Twitter @StoryGridRT.
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Here’s a synopsis of the movie, adapted from Wikipedia.
Jack is a young farm boy fascinated by the legend of Erik, an ancient king who defeated an army of giants with a magical crown. The young Princess Isabelle is fascinated with the same legend. The giants came to the Kingdom by climbing down a beanstalk that had grown from magic beans, and when King Erik died, the remaining magic beans, as well as the crown, were buried with him.
Ten years later, Jack goes into town to sell his horse to support his uncle’s farm. There, he sees Isabelle and becomes enamored with her.
Princess Isabelle’s fiance, Lord Roderick, has raided King Erik’s tomb and stolen the magic beans and crown. A monk has, in turn, stolen the beans from Roderick and gives them to Jack in exchange for his horse.
Isabelle would rather explore the kingdom than marry Roderick, so she sneaks out of the castle and seeks shelter at Jack’s house. One Jack’s beans falls through the floorboards and takes root, growing into a massive beanstalk that carries the house and Isabelle into the sky. Jack joins a massive rescue party that includes Roderick and his sidekick, as well as Elmont, the captain of the king’s guard and his second in command, Crawe.
As they climb the beanstalk, Roderick and his sidekick cut the safety rope, intentionally killing much of the rescue party. At the top, the party discovers the giants’ realm and decide to split into two groups: but not before Roderick forcibly takes the remaining beans from Jack (although Jack manages to save one for himself).
Jack’s group is trapped by a giant, who takes everyone prisoner except Jack. Roderick and his sidekick encounter two other giants, and while the sidekick gets eaten, Roderick saves himself by donning the magical crown.
Jack follows the giants to their stronghold, where the two-headed giant leader, Fallon, has imprisoned Isabelle and Elmont and is preparing to kill them. Roderick walks in and enslaves the giants with the crown. Before they can kill Isabelle and Elmont, Jack rescues them, and the trio escapes.
Jack and Isabelle head down the beanstalk. Elmont stays behind to confront Roderick and kills him but is not able to get the crown. Instead, Fallon takes it and gains control of the giants. Elmont then escapes down the beanstalk.
Fallon finds the magic beans and uses them to create four new beanstalks, and the army of giants descends on the Kingdom. A battle ensues and Jack, who has overthrown Fallon using the remaining magic bean, takes the magic crown, defeats the giants, becomes the hero, and gets the girl.
Jack and Isabelle marry and tell the story of the giants to their children.
The Six Core Questions
1. What’s the Global Genre?
Action > Adventure > Labyrinth
Jack the Giant Slayer’s Global Genre is the external genre: Action > Adventure > Labyrinth. The Global Value is Life/Death. The range of value is Life to Unconsciousness to Death to a Fate Worse than Death.
The Internal Genre is Worldview > Education. The Internal Value is Meaning to Cognitive Dissonance to Meaninglessness to Meaninglessness Disguised as Meaning.
- Jack’s attitude at the outset is inadequate (Jack allows himself to be distracted because nothing is really all that important, nothing really matters) and is then improved because he faces challenges where something real is at stake.
- Source of inadequacy is either disillusioning experiences or a lack of being exposed to other possibilities (I think the former because he’s lost both his parents and is living with an uncle who thinks of him as a burden).
- He is subjected to a series of trials (ruffians in the capitol, saving the princess from giants) that change his thoughts: some things are important and worthy of his focus and attention (the honor and life of the princess and the survival of the kingdom).
- Emotional response: relief, satisfaction, pleasure
- Not a big internal change; internal value shifts paired with Action stories are more shallow than those paired with other genres.
Valerie: I didn’t see much of an internal genre to be honest. Action stories don’t necessarily need them, but in this case, I think it is one of the reasons the story falls flat. With respect to the external genre, I agree that Action > Adventure > Labyrinth is the closest, although it still feels like a bit of a stretch.
Kim: For internal genre, it felt like Status / Sentimental to me.
2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
An Inciting Attack by the Villain
The beanstalk destroys Jack’s house and takes Isabelle to Gantua.
Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action
Unclear: Jack falls and is knocked out, or when threatened by Roderick, Jack hands over the beans and doesn’t warn the others.
Forced to leave ordinary world, the Hero lashes out
Unclear: Isabelle refuses to answer the giant’s questions. Jack kills the cook giant at the midpoint.
Discovering and understanding the antagonist’s MacGuffin (Villain’s object of desire)
Around the midpoint, Roderick enters with the crown and reveals his plan to invade Cloister and surrounding lands.
Hero’s initial strategy against Villain fails
Unclear: Cutting down the beanstalk doesn’t work because giants find the other beans.
Realizing they must change their approach to salvage some form of victory, Hero reaches All Is Lost moment
The Hero at the mercy of the Villain
This is the Core Event in an Action story, what the reader is waiting for. The Hero’s gift is expressed in this scene: General Fallon has Isabelle and Jack in his grips when Jack drops the magic bean he kept hidden down the giant’s throat. The beanstalk grows out of his stomach and dismembers him, dropping the hand with the crown beside them.
The Hero’s sacrifice is rewarded
The king changes the rule that the princess must marry a nobleman and she chooses Jack.
Anne: One of the muddying elements of this movie is that there are too many different villains. Is it the beanstalk, which plays the role of a kind of Jaws monster or force of nature just doing what it does without malice? Is it Roderick? Is it the Giants in general, Fallon in particular? Is the inciting attack by the villain the beanstalk just doing its thing? I found it hard to tell.
Valerie: What a great study of obligatory scenes and conventions. It’s easy to see why including them is so important to Story. This is also a great example of why having clearly defined hero/victim/villain roles are so important. Is Isabelle a victim or not? (see Leslie’s comment about the hero lashing out) Is Jack the hero or not? (see Leslie’s comment about cutting down the beanstalk). While the roles can change (they’re roles, not characters), the audience needs to be able to clearly follow what’s happening. These roles feed into the obligatory scenes and conventions.
Hero, Victim, Villain
Hero: Jack, Victim: Princess Isabelle, Villain: Lord Roderic
The Protagonist must be a Hero
Jack actually volunteers to bring back the Princess. Clearly he is in love with her and wants to be her hero
The Hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim
Jack is dedicated to this goal. He’s in love with the princess, so he will do whatever it takes to save her.
The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large. The villain is far more powerful than the hero.
I mean, they are giants, and Jack is just a man. It’s going to be a challenge for them to fight them.
Speech in praise of the Villain
The giants are so strong that they can never be defeated.
The environment makes it harder for the hero to save the victim
Jack has to climb the beanstalk into the other world
Leslie: I think the beanstalk is part of the labyrinth (similar to Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard), it’s not the villain, but it complicates things. Without the beanstalk, the princess can’t be taken, and the giants can’t invade. Roderick is a shapeshifter and minor villain; the giants are the heavy duty villains. Elmont defeats the minor villain (with the knife that Jack gave him); Jack, the Hero, defeats the major villain, the giants, and particularly General Fallon (the one who wanted to eat Isabella). Through defeating Fallon, he gains the means to defeat the others.
For Action Adventure stories, Shawn has identified additional conventions:
Clear destination: the capital city
Clear path to destination: beanstalk
Sidekicks: Elmont, Crawe, Bald
Set pieces: up the stalk, finding the princess, escaping from giants, defeat of Roderick, getting down the stalk, giants attack
Fantasy convention: an impossible task that the hero must complete
3. What is the Point of View? What is the Narrative Device?
This film has typical cinematic point of view in third person: we jump from place to place, but probably spend more time with Jack than away from him. We get no thoughts, impressions, or feelings other than what’s conveyed by the actors. Lots of exposition comes in by way of the bedtime story about the giants and Erik the [choose your own adjective].
The framing story was not well executed. We open with Isabella and Jack being read to and told stories, by mother and father respectively. In the end, Isabella and Jack are telling the stories to their children, but then the crown is used as device to take us forward to present day London, where someone, perhaps 20-greats grand nephew of Roderick is eyeing the Crown Jewels and then looks at us knowingly.
Valerie: I agree. I didn’t understand the modern day segment. What’s the point? Who are the kids? The last kid who stays behind is called “Roddy” so yes, is that supposed to be a descendent of Roderick, in which case, why wasn’t it set up earlier that he had children? Presumably a previously married man with children would not have been an eligible suitor for the future Queen of Cloister. Or, is this a reincarnation of Roderick? Very confusing and out of the blue.
4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?
Wants: Save Isabella and escape the maze-like edifice, and then save the kingdom
Needs: find meaning by focusing on what’s important
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?
The standard Controlling Idea/Theme for an Action Story that end positively is “LIfe is preserved when the Hero overpowers or outwits their internal and external antagonists.”
We can make this more specific for this story:
Life prevails when heroes outwit and overpower the villains by focusing on what’s most important.
Specific moments where the theme is expressed
Before Jack changes, he allows his attention to wander, which makes him vulnerable to being tricked and influenced by his fear (though not entirely) and people around him possessing a more forceful will. He had no interest in heeding his uncle’s warnings about focusing because he was getting by just fine/ Crawe gave him the advice, and it started to change him. He became highly motivated.
Anne: It’s ironic that the biggest problems we found with this movie involved the script not focusing on what’s most important.
What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
Poor farmer Jack naively brings magic beans home from the city. They grow into the sky, carrying a princess up to the giants’ realm of Gantua. Meanwhile, an adviser to the king is hatching a takeover plot involving marrying the princess and stealing a magical artifact.
- Inciting incident: Jack’s cart is stolen, inciting his need to sell the horse at any price.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: He accepts magic beans in trade, but before he can redeem them for money from the monks, Princess Isabelle turns up looking for shelter. One of the beans sprouts, shooting Jack’s house, with the Princess still in it, up to the sky
- Crisis Question: Does Jack risk his life to try to catch her before she gets too high, even though he’s not keen on heights? Or does he run away for help?
- Climax: He climbs.
- Resolution: He fails. He falls. The princess disappears into the sky.
Middle Build: With a band of heroes and the traitorous adviser, Jack climbs the beanstalk into Gantua to rescue the princess, awakening the wrath of the giants and losing most of their team. When one giant falls to earth, the king must give the order chop the vine down, sacrificing his daughter and his men to prevent giants from coming down into Albion.
- Inciting incident: Jack insists on joining the expedition to rescue the princess, and the party begins to climb, unaware in dramatically ironic fashion that the king’s adviser who joins them is a traitor with plans of his own.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: While the heroes fight to escape the giants, Roderick steps forward as the giants’ new king with a magical crown that controls them. Hero Elmont kills him soon afterwards, and Fallon takes the crown and wears it as a ring. Our two remaining heroes rescue the princess and escape from labyrinthine Gantua. But they cause one giant to fall to earth, proving to the king waiting below that giants really do exist.
- Crisis Question: The king must decide whether to chop the giant vine down and sacrifice his daughter, or wait and risk the giants’ finding their way into Albion.
- Climax: The king orders the giant beanstalk chopped down just as Jack and the princess are on their way down, setting up a race against time and cutting off all access for the giants.
- Resolution The three heroes get down in the nick of time as the last of the beanstalk falls destructively to earth. The land of Albion appears to be safe. False happy ending, because we still haven’t accounted for that magic crown or those beans.
Ending Payoff: The giants find all but one of the remaining beans and ride the resulting giant beanstalks down into Albion, which they nearly destroy, before clever Jack uses the very last bean to destroy Fallon and seize the magical crown to become master of the giants. He sends them back, cuts the last beanstalk down, saves the kingdom and marries the princess … but the spirit of the traitorous adviser lives on through time, never quite defeated.
- Inciting incident: The head giant finds the remaining beans and puts them in the water where they grow instantly into vines all the giants can ride down to Albion, aka their buffet table of human yum yums. Goodness knows what they’ve been eating all these years.
- Progressive Complication/Turning Point: It’s one big battle scene with the shortest speech in praise of the villain ever: the king asks valiant Ewan McGregor, “So what did you find out up there? Do these giants have any weakness?” and he answers, “Not many, no,” as the giants lob whole flaming trees into the castle keep. Jack and the Princess have run to light a signal fire (which never happens), and the turning point comes when Fallon shows up, having survived what should have been a fatal attack. He’s got Jack in one hand and the princess in the other.
- Crisis Question: Will Jack make one last ditch effort or give in and die?
- Climax: Effort, of course. He has the last remaining bean. On his way to being the giant’s dinner, he drops it into the gaping maw.
- Resolution: The last beanstalk kills the giant from the inside. Jack retrieves the crown from his dead hand, the remaining giant army kneels before him, and then they use that last beanstalk to go home, never to return. There’s a happily-ever-after epilogue that bookends the prologue, and a dark twist at the end.
7. Additional Story-Related Observations
Anne: How either society, human or giant, survives in the complete absence of females is a mystery. Mothers are dead, there are no giant women as far as we can see, and the one female character is a genuine damsel in distress who screams for help from a cage and wears armor for no discernible purpose. I’d have bought that in 1995, but it’s hard to believe they got away with it in 2013. It’s not specifically a Story Grid problem, but it does go to the concept of innovating. If your first idea in retelling the Jack and Beanstalk story is to populate it entirely with white men and one weak woman, assume that’s a cliché and keep digging.
Boy does this movie borrow heavily from Lord of the Rings. The giants are like orcs. The One Ring becomes the One Crown (which actually becomes a ring on the giant’s fingers). The mission to light the signal fire at the end—though that’s utterly unrealized. It was a bit of a mishmash.
Leslie: The story is definitely a mishmash, but I think this is homage, like Hot Fuzz, but not as well executed or acted (Aragorn using a weed to heal Frodo, Faramir’s narrow escape to Gondor, lots of little glimpses of LotR, a line from Phantom Menace that Elmont/Ewan McGregor delivers). I think they couldn’t decide if they wanted it to be completely camp or be a serious drama, and as a result, it wasn’t executed well. It works as an Action story, but a clearer Style Genre and innovation would have helped a lot. (For what it’s worth, I think the beacon doesn’t matter when the danger becomes more immediate because General Fallon catches up to them. Gaining possession of the crown makes the other help unnecessary.)
Valerie: This is a great example of what happens when the genre is not clearly defined. It doesn’t satisfy. The film was a box office failure (although iTunes reviews were favourable). Moviegoers were mostly men over the age of 25, but filmmakers were trying to market this as a family movie (then why the F-bomb?).
This is also a great example of why it’s so important to innovate. Jack the Giant Slayer is filled with cliché, which means that it’s entirely predictable.
It’s also a great example of why a solid story is so important. We have some great actors in this film, but even they can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy and Ewan McGregor. Whereas with The Bridges of Madison County, Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood performed tricky two-person scenes brilliantly, they were working with a solid script. Here, the actors were dealing with a script that had Story challenges.
Kim: This film has several failed setups and payoffs:
Princess Isabelle: Act 1 setup vs. ending payoff
Jack: Act 1 vs. ending payoff (internal genre, passive hero, random part in the middle where he just walks)
Two alternate endings: Jack could give Isabelle the crown or setup Jack’s self worth more and have Isabelle give him the crown?
Weird epilogue: Faberge egg, harp, kid at the end in the present day. What was that about?
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