Turkey Coma: Five Times Screenwriters Put Characters Conveniently to Sleep
The coma as catalyst is old hat, popping up in such classics as Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, and consequently has made its way, unbeknownst, into many a writer's bag of tricks. More often than not this results in the convenient coma, when a character is put to sleep in order to drive the plot forward, usually with others fighting to wake them up. This is a tried and true plot device of the screenwriter, so much so that it has its own page on the All the Tropes Wiki. Examples include Joey in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, in which his friends go into the dream world to free him from Freddy Krueger, or Sleeping Beauty when only Prince Phillip’s kiss will wake Aurora and the kingdom.
While the Wiki page focuses on how this can be motivation, complicate matters, or a backdoor, what isn’t mentioned is how sometimes writers just don’t know what to do with a character. This can be because the comatose character is too outside the writer’s wheelhouse, they're a wrench in narrative pacing, or they’re just too powerful and could easily resolve any conflict. This is most evident in the medium of film, when there’s only so much plot that can be shoved into 90 to 120 minutes.
With that in mind, five characters demonstrate why writers utilize this clichéd conceit that brushes characters aside, only to have them return with little emotional or physical consequence: Adrian in Rocky II (1979), Lt. Gorman in Aliens (1986), Raphael in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Professor Xavier in X-Men (2000) and Hermione in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). By extrapolating this broad spectrum it can be deduced whether or not this is a valid storytelling tool, or should be quarantined from any writer’s future use.
Every Rocky movie has a second-act motivator to boost the Italian Stallion's morale. In the original it's the acceptance that all he wants is to "go the distance". Rocky III has the loss against Clubber Lang and Mickey's death, resulting in a journey to recapture the "eye of the tiger". Rocky IV is the death of Apollo and Adrian's trepidation, only for his wife to show up at the last minute. Rocky V sees Tommy Gunn strike out on his own, leaving his former mentor feeling obsolete. And finally Rocky Balboa sees his own son reject him out of embarrassment, only for the two to reconcile in time for the perfunctory training montage.
But the ever-escalating one-upmanship started with Rocky II in which Adrian falls into a coma due to pre-term labor. Rocky has been shamed into a rematch with Apollo and Adrian is against it. When her brother Paulie confronts her, Adrian collapses from stress and is rushed to the hospital, sending Rocky into a spiral of self-doubt. When Adrian wakes, however, she promises full support, having changed her mind without any motivation or goading. Rocky, spurred on by this second wind, wins the fight and cements a franchise.
Sylvester Stallone wrote all six Rocky movies proper and directed four of them (he only co-stars in the new Creed spinoff), and as the creative force it's clear that beyond the first movie he didn't know what to do with Adrian or women in general. There are very few female characters in his screenplays, and Adrian’s story is basically over after the first movie’s denouement. She's a milquetoast with an arc of standing up to her brother and self-actualizing. In the sequels, however, she does little more than sanction or forsake Rocky when the plot necessitates.
Aliens is a peculiar case in that Gorman could have been handled in several ways. After being massacred by xenomorphs, the marines retreat and Gorman is knocked unconscious by several crates falling on his head. As it was his orders that got them into that mess, the soldiers lash out at the man, but he's comatose for a good chunk of screentime, effectively knocking him off the playing field.
This serves the purpose of forcing the grunts to fend for themselves without a chain of command, but it's strange how convenient it is to discard Gorman from the plot. He could just as easily have been catatonic, or even better, awake and questioning his actions as he evolves toward repentance. As is he comes to a completely different person: calm and collected, willing to listen to others and take charge when needed. There’s a moment when he and Vasquez share a glance implying unresolved conflict, but it feels like there’s a beat between them missing.
Ultimately he comes through in the end, sending Hicks ahead and going back to save Vasquez, achieving closure in death. It’s easy to decipher how this came about, how a man that could fail so horribly would be seeking redemption, but as is, it’s a simplifying tactic on screenwriter James Cameron’s part. Without Gorman around there are less moving parts, as there are seven other pawns on the chess board. It also leaves the door open for Burke to step in as the true villain. Mostly Gorman just isn’t that important, but is able to bow out with the kind of hero moment Cameron specializes in.
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'
The first and the best, this movie is successful because of its emphasis on character. For the first half Raphael is the audience identification character, appropriately enough because he has a complex personality. He’s fiercely loyal to Splinter and his brothers but is a stark loner. He’s a wisecracker and yet has a wicked temper. And most importantly, his problem with authority and need to prove himself put him in opposition against his boy scout brother Leonardo, the quartet's de facto leader. You might say all these traits can be summed up easily enough as “cool, but rude.”
When confronted by the Foot, a band of youths trained as ninjas by the Shredder, Raphael puts up a good fight but is subsequently beaten into submission. After being dropped through a skylight into April O’Neil’s apartment he’s out for the count for the next 20 minutes or so. The turtles retreat to O’Neil’s family farm upstate, where Raphael is nursed back to health in...a bath tub. Ultimately he stirs, heartened by his brothers’ concern and with a renewed bond, leading to their combined retaliation against the Foot.
Raph dominates the plot initially, so it’s a nice reversal on the part of screenwriters Todd W. Lagen and Bobby Herbeck. He’s been the center, so his injuries give the movie a sense of danger. It also forces the stubborn Leo to let down his guard and realize what’s important in life, not unlike Rocky in relation to Adrian. The difference is that Adrian wakes up with no setup for her drastic decision, whereas Raphael has been building toward a lesson in humility. When he and Leo reconcile it’s mutual and character-driven, not a plot contrivance. It does, however, suffer from the same question as Gorman, that if a person (or humanoid turtle) is concussed enough to knock them into a coma, wouldn’t they risk permanent brain damage?
Professor X is a perfect example of a character that, in both the comic books and movies, writers struggle with in terms of power level. In X-Men 2 he’s kidnapped and brainwashed, in X-Men 3 he flatout dies, and in Days of Future Past he suppresses his power with a drug that enables him to walk. In the first movie, however, Magneto dispatches Mystique to poison Cerebro, Xavier's machine that amplifies his abilities and helps him locate mutants, KOing him for the third act.
This serves a few purposes. First of all, it takes away the mentor character from the students, forcing them to fend for themselves. Never mind that they’re all 30-something adults and teachers themselves, they have relied on this man’s guidance. Secondly, it evades the logistics of dramatizing an elderly handicapped man fighting enemies with his mind. Finally, and most importantly, it’s demonstrates early on that even with Magneto’s helmet keeping Xavier’s thoughts out, his allies can be turned against him. It's a Machiavellian move on the Master of Magnetism's part.
It makes sense from a story perspective, but it’s also executed in a way that feels like David Hayter (or one of the dozens of uncredited screenwriters) crossing Xavier’s name off a list. There’s no attempt by Jean Grey to venture into his mind and find their leader’s consciousness and there’s no mad scramble to retrieve a cure from Magneto. When the mission is done Xavier wakes up without any ill effects, ready to get back to professoring. In a 104-minute movie, this is the easiest way to deus ex machina a difficult plot point.
'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'
The second book in the series, Chamber of Secrets is clever in how it follows the formula J.K. Rowling established with Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone while subverting expectations. This is reflected in a movie that is fairly faithful to its source material: there’s Harry’s escape from the Dursleys, his visit to Diagon Alley, the train departure from King’s Cross Station Platform 9 3/4, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, mysterious happenings at Hogwarts and so on and so forth. One of these stalwarts is the formidable capability of Hermione Granger in both cunning and tenacity, so it’s understandable that Rowling has her petrified by the Basilisk.
Hermione’s vast knowledge of magical lore and spells means she’s on hand with answers in almost every circumstance in Stone and this continues in Secrets, such as her ability to create Polyjuice Potion. At the time of the attack she has already discovered the monster's identity, so checking her name off the active participants list makes sense. Harry and Ron are average students at best, making up for their lack of knowledge with bravery and a moral center, so withholding Hermione’s abilities is a surefire way to challenge them.
Rowling, and screenwriter Steve Kloves who adapted seven of the eight movies, are astute enough to know Hermione can’t always be around as the go-to resource. She’s woven more fluidly into the action in subsequent entries to the series, participating directly with Harry in the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban. There is always the understanding, however, that in the end she is a supporting player, and Harry is always the one to save the day.
One can appreciate this fallback for the frustrated screenwriter. Sometimes you’re painted into a corner and it’s just easier to not have to worry about a character. The alternative would be to have them loitering in the background not contributing, but that stands out even more. At least comas make for drama as they come with built-in tension and result in miraculous and heartfelt awakenings. If you do have to resort to this, however, try and make it something for the protagonist to work against rather than a parallel struggle. When the comatose character wakes up, have it be an earned moment.
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