Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 2

By Gordon Rugg

The first article in this short series looked at one reason for movies presenting a distorted version of reality, namely conflict between conventions.

Today’s article looks at a reason for movies presenting a simplified version of reality. It involves reducing cognitive load for the audience, and it was studied in detail by Grice, in his work on the principles of communication. It can be summed up in one short principle: Say all of, but only, what is relevant and necessary.

At first sight, this appears self-evident. There will be obvious problems if you don’t give the other person all of the information they need, or if you throw in irrelevant and unnecessary information.

In reality, though, it’s not always easy to assess whether you’ve followed this principle correctly. A particularly common pitfall is assuming that the other person already knows something, and in consequence not bothering to mention it. Other pitfalls are subtler, and have far-reaching implications for fields as varied as politics, research methods, and setting exams. I’ll start by examining a classic concept from the detective genre, namely the red herring.

five red herrings bannerHerring image by Lupo – Self-made, based on Image:Herring2.jpg by User:Uwe kils, which is licensed {{GFDL}}, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2610685

In detective stories, a red herring is a misleading clue that causes the reader and/or characters in the story to think that the plot is going in one direction, when in reality it’s going in a different direction.

The key feature of the red herring is that it’s unconnected to the core plot. Plots normally have twists and turns, but these are usually woven in to the core plot in some way. One common example is the Necker shift, when the audience realises that there’s a completely different way of interpreting the situation. The genre of comedy of errors is based on this type of re-interpretation; conversely, a key moment in many horror movies is when the protagonists realise that the situation is very different from what they had thought. I’ve blogged about this topic before in this article.

Red herrings, in contrast, don’t contribute to the main plot, or show the audience significant new information about a character; instead, they’re like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that’s designed to be easily misunderstood, adding to the intellectual challenge of the game.

Normal scripts

In normal scripts, every part of the script is intended to be there for a reason. It might be moving the action forward, or it might be giving the audience key information, or it might be showing the audience key features of a character’s personality.

A classic example is the scene in Casablanca where Captain Renault shoots the Nazi Major Strasser, then tells his policemen that Major Strasser has been shot, and instructs them to round up the usual suspects. In a few seconds of screen time, the scriptwriter has shown a major plot event, and given the audience a crucial revelation about where Renault’s sympathies lie, while remaining consistent in its depiction of Renault’s cheerfully corrupt character.

When performed by a skilled scriptwriter, this is an elegant art form that produces memorable one-liners and dialogues. However, this elegance comes at a price.

The price is departure from reality. The real world isn’t an elegant and minimalist environment. Instead, it’s a cluttered, untidy place full of red herrings. That’s one of the reasons that fiction is popular. Fiction tidies up the world, so that we can suspend our disbelief for a while, and enter a world where things make sense, and are consistent with our world view.

That would be fine if there was a clear dividing line between fiction and reality. In practice, though, the situation isn’t that simple.

Fiction makes heavy use of schemata, i.e. mental templates, such as the schema of the comedy of errors, or the schema of the villain being thwarted and punished. Some schemata, however, are much better than others in terms of suitability for fiction.

Here’s an example. A common schema in real world disasters is the normal accident. Many accidents occur because two or more individually minor issues happen to occur together, and interact with each other in a way that leads to disaster. A famous example in aviation is the Gimli Glider, an airliner that ran out of fuel in mid air. This wasn’t caused by catastrophic negligence or by a major malfunction; instead, several small things all went wrong.

This schema is often used in movies to create the lead-in to the main plot. The camera shows the small events that will lead to the major plot challenge, such as the aircraft’s engines failing. From that point on, though, the plot focuses on the immediate challenge, such as getting the aircraft safely to the ground.

Crucially, the plot usually ends once the immediate challenge is over. That’s understandable, from the viewpoint of a film studio wanting to produce a high-suspense movie that will attract large numbers of paying customers. There’s not much likelihood of major box office revenue from a movie about safety researchers in an office systematically producing checklists of best practice so as to reduce the likelihood of disasters happening.

It’s an understandable choice, but it has unfortunate side-effects. When films focus on protagonists wrestling with the immediate problem, they reinforce the stereotype of problems being solved by heroic individual action (usually involving skill in driving, shooting, and unarmed combat).

This can easily reinforce simplistic world views that reduce the world to bad things caused by bad people, and good things caused by good people, with easy and swift fixes for problems.

The world, however, isn’t that simple. Many bad things arise from the way that physical or organisational systems are structured. Often, those bad things are accidental side-effects of the system, or even the opposite of what the system was intended to produce. Fixing such problems is usually complicated, and slow, because of the complexity of the system. This is a major issue in politics, which we’ll examine below.

Implications for education and research

Movies aren’t the only environment affected by the communication principle of saying all of, and only, what is relevant and necessary.

This principle is a significant problem for anyone trying to compose exam questions that involve scenarios or case studies. The candidates will often assume that everything mentioned in the scenario/case study is there for a deeply significant reason. This makes it difficult to include extraneous information in the scenario/case study, which in turn means that students will tend to encounter scenarios and case studies which are unrealistically clean and simple, and therefore poor preparation for the messy complications of reality.

There are similar implications for experimental design if human participants are involved. Participants are likely to look for deeper significance in the wording of the experimental instructions than were intended by the researcher.

This is why it’s a good idea to gather in-depth feedback from pilot studies before firming up the materials for the main study, using methods such as laddering, think-aloud, and projective approaches that are good at eliciting the various types of semi-tacit knowledge that are likely to be involved.

For both these fields, there is also the issue of what isn’t being mentioned, which can be heavily politically charged; we’ll discuss this in more detail below.

Wider implications

The bias towards simple explanations without cluttering detail has implications for history and for politics that are well recognised by professionals familiar with the research in those fields.

Historians, for instance, have long recognised the “great man” model of history, in which key events are brought about by the actions of a few (usually male) individuals. This tends to produce a more exciting view of history than models that focus on technological developments or social movements, but more exciting isn’t necessarily the same as accurate.

This issue is also well recognised in politics, where demagogues can do very well for themselves by claiming that there are simple solutions to complex problems. Those claims often produce memorable one-liners that make effective campaign slogans, but usually those one-liners are memorable precisely because they’re detached from reality.

So, film-makers are pulled in one direction by the need to tell a clean, clear story, and are pulled in the opposite direction by social responsibility. Where does the balance lie? There’s no easy answer. Film-makers sometimes set out to make a deliberate political point. A classic example is High Noon, which was made as a critique of right-wing American political witch hunts.

More often, though, the political stance of a movie comes from the genre and tropes within which it is located. This is well understood in media studies, and is a regular topic in criticisms of the movie, TV and games industries. For instance, the widely-used trope from thrillers that protagonists can extract key information from villains by using torture has come in for considerable critical attention recently, with critics pointing out that the factual, legal and moral problems associated with it.

Similarly, and more subtly, movies can take a political stance via significant absences in what they show. A classic example is the movie of Gone with the Wind. It’s a huge, sweeping, story of a beautiful heroine in love and war. It has some brilliant dialogue, and stunning special effects. And it somehow doesn’t get round to mentioning slavery, or what life would have been like for the slaves on the O’Hara plantation, or how they would have felt about gaining their freedom. Instead, we are shown a tragic portrayal of the heroine having to do her own washing and cooking because she has lost her main source of income as a result of war and emancipation.

In summary, then, there’s no easy answer. However, that doesn’t mean that the media can wash their hands of social or political responsibility for the messages that they are explicitly or implicitly conveying in their story lines and dialogue.

In future articles in this series, we’ll look at other reasons for movies presenting inaccurate versions of reality; we will then suggest some ways forward.

Notes and links

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese


You might also find our website useful:


Overviews of the articles on this blog:








2 thoughts on “Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 2

  1. Pingback: Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 3 | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 4 | hyde and rugg

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