Thursday, 9 January 2020

Heroine Fix: Bluffing With Molly Bloom

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature where I look at amazing characters who inspire my own writing or who offer opportunities to improve my writing craft.  Warning: this post will contain spoilers.

I debated long and hard about whether or not to choose this particular character for this month's Heroine Fix because the character is based on an autobiographical book and movie, Molly's Game.  When a character is based on a real person, it can be hard to separate the fictional creation from the actual person, and make no mistake, even in an autobiography, it is a character, a version of reality rather than the objective truth.

However, having recently picked up the book Molly's Game, I was struck by several key differences in how Molly was presented in the biography versus the film.  And I think it provides valuable insight into how small differences in description and emphasis can make a big difference in the impact that a character has.

One of the most important thing in creating a compelling story is to create likeable characters.  The audience has to root for the protagonist, even if they are making bad choices or taking actions the audience finds distasteful.  This is often why movies and novels have idealized versions of people, even when the story is based on true events.

For the most part, the book Molly's Game and the film of the same name follow the same course of events.  Molly Bloom comes to LA and begins working for an obnoxious real estate tycoon who runs an underground poker game.  She takes over managing the game, eventually taking it away from him.  She is making millions of dollars on tips from players and running a successful entertainment business.  However, she runs afoul of a particular celebrity player, who runs her out of the game.  She moves to New York and starts again.  This time, some of the players in her game have ties to the Russian mafia.  She struggles with addiction and the challenge of being the bank of a multi-million dollar game, eventually taking a rake (a percentage of the pot, which is illegal).  She is attacked by the Italian mafia, who want a piece of her game.  The game is raided by the FBI and Molly is indicted as part of a RICO prosecution.  Her money is seized and she is destitute.  Eventually, she pleads guilty.

The story isn't exactly one of triumph, at least not on the surface.  So the question is, how does one transform this tale?

The first and easiest option is the sheer spectacle of it.  There's plenty of glitz and glamour in this story.  It's reinforced by Molly's narration, which often focuses on the cost and exclusivity of the trimmings of her lifestyle: the costs of hotel rooms, customized chips and tables, and designer clothing and shoes.  It's very clear that she enjoys having expensive things and the allure of regular contact with titans of industry, professional athletes, and celebrities.

But it also demonstrates the first clear difference between the Molly in the book and the Molly in the film.  In the film, Molly draws a very clear line in the sand.  She will not, under any circumstances, reveal the names or identities of those who played in her game.  Not even when such a disclosure would grant her a reduced sentence or give her enough money to deal with her financial troubles.  This demonstration of integrity is one of the factors that can bring the audience onto a character's side.  We like someone who sticks to their principles even when those principles cost them.

In the book, Molly names a number of people directly, including the narcissistic Player X of the movie, described as a movie star who personally destroys Molly's LA game out of jealousy.  She also mentions sharing anecdotes from her tables on several social occasions.

Another difference between the book and movie is Molly's determination to be independent.  In the movie, she organizes a coup of the poker game when her obnoxious boss tries to blackmail her into working for free in order to continue to have access to the game.  Molly immediately gives fake numbers to the new assistant hired to replace her and starts her own independent glamorous game.  In the book, she does continue to work for the obnoxious real estate tycoon, without a salary.  Having demonstrated that she could take away the game, she's earns his respect and they continue with a business relationship.

Similarly, in the film, when Player X takes away the game, she immediately folds and moves to New York.  In the book, she confesses that she tried to continue the game for weeks, getting repeatedly blown off by the players.

These small changes make a significant difference in how the audience sees Molly.  Making clean breaks after betrayal is a sign of strength and confidence.  However, it is more realistic that she does take time to flounder and figure out what to do next.  People don't naturally take failure in stride without any hint of hurt or self-doubt.  But it makes a great story when a character can do so.  It gives the audience hope that they might be able to do the same with their own disappointments.

The biggest change is the erasure of Molly's romantic relationships.  In the movie, she is portrayed as fiercely independent, uninterested in entangling herself with any of the powerful and wealthy men at her table.  In the book, she confesses to several relationships.

Although I'm usually a fan of including a good love story, in this case, I can agree with the decision.  It's too easy to define a powerful woman by her love interest and involvement with men.  Romantic stories would have been a distraction from Molly's accomplishments.

All of the narrative changes were to increase Molly's independence.  They made her stronger, and more competitive.  Such as creating a freak accident to end her career as a competitive athlete and escalating the personal conflict between herself and her father.  

We've all had moments where we've been caught flat-footed by an unexpected aggression.  We've all longed to prove ourselves to the people who dismissed our talents and strengths.  We've all wanted to be glamorous and admired.  That's what makes the story powerful, because we can identify with Molly's determination to prove herself.

When writing our own stories, it can be easy to be caught up in what feels realistic.  But it's important to remember that what draws an audience in is a mixture of realism and larger than life actions.  We want our fiction to be better than reality, without making us remember the gap.  It needs to feel as if it could all be possible.

Because that's why we keep reading.  Or gambling.  For the possibilities.

Previous post: Reclaiming My HEA: My reaction to "if I was single, I wouldn't ever want to date again."

Previous Heroine Fix: Samantha/Charlie from The Long Kiss Goodnight

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