Don’t be fooled by the mediocrity of the later Rocky movies, especially four and five, which in my opinion, whilst they are entertaining movies, lack a certain polish in the writing department.
The first Rocky film earned Sylvester Stallone the Oscar for best original screenplay and in my opinion, this was a well-deserved award for an accomplished script.
I have yet to write a finished screenplay, although I have written a published novella and also graduated from film school – so I do not speak from a position of authority when it comes to the art of screenplay writing. However, I have studied the qualities of many and will try to extract from them the elements which I think are helpful to understanding how a good story is put together for the screen. These elements are obviously applicable to storytelling in general and not exclusively to the art of screenplay writing.
What’s so good about Rocky?
He is an engaging, complex central character with unique qualities.
This applies to literary writing as much as cinema.
Rocky works as a drama because the central character is well-drawn, he has conflicts in all areas of his life and obstacles to overcome which at the beginning of the film, appear to be insurmountable. We first see him fighting at the lower echelons of club land boxing. He fights a poor fight and is not well received by the local crowd. The first thing he does on his way back to the dressing room is ask one of the punters for a cigarette. We immediately identify with his struggles as he negotiates a tide of hostility.
One of the ways that Stallone builds sympathy for his character is by highlighting the harshness of the world that he inhabits. Even though Rocky is a debt-collector for a loan shark, he jeopardizes his job by refusing to break a guy’s thumb who cannot make a payment.
Stallone humanizes his character. He presents him as one thing – a supposedly hard and streetwise debt-collector and then turns the stereotype on its head by presenting an empathetic side to his character that the audience probably was not expecting to see.
This is a critical facet of storytelling – being able to present a character to the audience whom they can relate to through an awareness of his flaws, his compassion, his vulnerabilities. Successful central characters act as a mirror – the audience subconsciously seeks to project their own internal life onto the screen (or the pages of a book). If they can identify with one emotion, in this case compassion (in an unexpected situation), it will reinforce their own sense of self-identity, i.e., the character performs an action that they approve of, and one which they would like to see themselves perform given the opportunity in that same situation.
Establishing audience identification with the character early on is vital in stories such as this, where the central character is the story. You can’t afford to wait too long to get the audience on your side.
How else does Stallone build this identification?
Rocky has to deal with conflict in his environment.
From his first opponent – who head butts him.
From the fight crowd.
From his boss – for not following orders.
From his boss’s driver – who picks fights with him for no reason and goads him into reacting.
From the pet shop owner – Rocky tries to woo Adrian in her workplace and is met with hostility from her boss.
From Mickey at the gym – who dislikes Rocky for his profession outside the ring.
From fighters in the gym, one of whom has been given Ricky’s locker.
Rocky inhabits a world that is generally unsympathetic to him, at times actively hostile to him.
Presenting a character as a victim of misfortune and ill-will is a good tactic to use, as long as he reacts in a way that does not alienate the audience. Rocky comes across as being good-humored and generous, even in moments of conflict. His reactions are real and human. This gets the audience on his side, because he absorbs everything in his world with a certain good grace and fatalistic humor. This makes him three-dimensional. He is not playing up to a stereotype, but rather, he comes across as being unique, and strangely for such a masculine character (a boxer) he is in touch with his emotions. He seems very close to the complexities of real life people, and even though we appreciate that he is a fictional character, the suspension of disbelief allows us for a moment to appreciate him as a living, breathing human being.
It is fiction that is close to reality and ordinary experience, whilst being extraordinary and dramatic, which is why Rocky is such a believable, sympathetic central character.