The granddaddy of all plot books, the original 36 Dramatic Situations was written in the 1850s by Georges Polti (in French), boiling down all drama as being one of 36 situations as defined by the author. Director Mike Figgis, best known for Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs, was leafing through this seminal work while cleaning bookshelves, and recognizing Polti’s work as a powerful tool to help writers define and sharpen their work, went about updating it with modern film references, as opposed to the now-obscure European theater works that Polti originally discussed.
Figgis writes in a clean style, slightly (but not disrespectfully) revising certain situations to better reflect modern cinema’s conventions, and bringing up various 20th and 21st century film examples to exemplify these situations in action. So Dramatic Situation #20, “Self-Sacrifice for Idealism” is defined and discussed, with examples such as On the Waterfront, The Insider and even last year’s Silence brought into the the discussion; clearly Figgis followed through on his premise and has updated the work with classic and current Hollywood examples alongside international and independent works -- in no way does the book suggest that Polti's situations are only useful in making boilerplate Hollywood claptrap -- Figgis clearly respects Polti's formalism and how it can be applied to It's a Wonderful Life, Inception, or the work of Wong-Kar-Wai (or his own work, which comes up regularly). The book culminates in a “chart” (more an extended list, really) of various films referenced in the book and which “dramatic situations” they employ. So Blade Runner, say, is shown to utilize 3,5,8.9,11,23,24,28,30, and 31. Figgis then supplies a chart in which you can enter the films you watch and lay out which dramatic situations they are trading in.
I think Figgis does solid work here; Polti’s book is one that sits on many writer’s shelves, but isn’t often referenced, I think, because the now-obscure examples Polti supplies simply don’t resonate. Figgis corrects this outdated aspect of the original aspect while clearly respecting Polti’s intellectual work. If the book is lacking anything, it’s Figgis’ lively personality. I would have liked more lively discussion of how the cinema he introduces fail or succeed at using these devices, and a slightly more conversational tone might make the book more welcoming.
But the book is really a technical reference book, a writer's tool, and perhaps personality would only be distracting. Figgis reports that as a pilot he created using the situations as a guideline was recently accepted by a television network. Many writers have ample ideas but lack understanding of dramatic structure, and the archetypal situations that most human behavior falls into; Polti/Figgis’ work helps us connect our work as writers to a larger universe of drama and will help authors define what it is they’re trying to accomplish in their works. It won’t, of course, write the screenplay for you. But as a helpful tool or as something to read on the subway or in the bathroom, this is a welcome addition to any narrative writer’s bookshelf.