3 min read

When The Violence Is Baked In

There seem to be several immutable laws of Westerns. One, that there will be shots of wide desert horizons, sage brush scattered amid the dust. Two, that there will be wide-brimmed hats and horses. Three, that, by God, there will be violence.
News of the World starring Tom Hanks, now streaming on HBO Max
Tom Hanks leads a surprisingly non-violent Western

There seem to be several immutable laws of Westerns. One, that there will be shots of wide desert horizons, sage brush scattered amid the dust. Two, that there will be wide-brimmed hats and horses. Three, that, by God, there will be violence.

This violence is often core to the plot. Take western classics like Unforgiven or The Searchers, much less Clint Eastwood's other vaunted performances as the Man with No Name. In all these films and the stories they're based on physical violence is at the core. Revolvers, shotguns, cocked back fists ready to send a man to the floor are all core to the experience.

News of the World (now streaming on HBO MAX) attempts a partial rebuttal to this idea. There is, of course, one extended shootout scene and another execution by pistol fire. However, as these things go, the body count is rather low. No main character seems interested in inflicting pain on another (despite the story coming about as a result of horrible violence). Even its PG-13 rating stands in defiance to the R's of yore.

Not to mention Tom Hanks at the helm, hardly an edged action hero.

What occurs over the movie's nearly 2 hour run time is, instead, a whistle-stop tour of post-Civil War Texas. We get those dusty towns, bandit enclaves, and wagon trains. We get kind innkeepers, sinister rogues, and hapless do-gooders. We get a lost girl and a past-grown man who find a reason to live in each other.

Take that last sentence and you could be talking about a Pixar movie.

There's a risk in stepping outside genre conventions and News of the World doesn't tread too far, but it's worth considering what it takes to write a genre story like this one and excise the death-dealing.

There's not a single novel I've written that doesn't have action as a core conceit. Some characters, like Sax in The Skyward Saga, are essentially violent as a way of being. Others, like Kaishi in that same series, are pushed to violence by the circumstances of the situation, no matter how much she tries to avoid it (and, at least initially, lacks the skills to be effective in such dire straits).

For me as the author this is partly because I find action fun. It's invigorating to write, and violence between characters is an easy form of conflict to dive into. Writing the back-and-forth verve comes with a kinetic rush that scenic descriptions tend to lack. It's also, with science fiction and fantasy, a chance to show off the things my characters can do that I, for example, can't as I sit in my chair with a cat on my lap.

For another, it's what the stories often expect. Demand, even. I can't very well write a tale about space marines and have it just be a walk in a lovely garden as these hulking heroes debate, say, the meaning of life (though that does sound like a fun experiment). Readers, consumers, expect a certain thing when they pick up or turn on a genre story. Delivering them something too far out of bounds risks alienation, disappointment.

But that doesn't mean we cannot try to strike out a little anyway. Find the kinetic rush in a snappy conversation, in a frantic escape after an experiment gone wrong. Get our blood pumping as two share a glance or deliver world-changing news. When done the right way, like if you can get Tom Hanks to regale a crowd with a story about miners escaping a cave-in, it's just as compelling as a knife fight.

I can't say whether I'll change my habits in future stories, but I can say that it's always worth experimenting. Not every disagreement in a novel needs to end with a body bag, a bruise, or a broken bone. Sometimes, too, your guy's just gonna need to use his gun. Neither option is wrong, both can be enjoyed.

The girl at the movie's heart lost her family to violence. Even so, she herself is rarely violent, choosing instead to run, to explore, to take heart in turns her life has taken. By the end of the movie, she's grown enough to understand her past and to forget it. There is no revenge narrative here, no sense a cruel world is going to continue from one generation to the next.

Instead, News of the World offers hope. Not through the barrel of a righteous gun, but through the care and love of kinder souls.

News of the World isn't going to change your life, but it just might change your perspective.