-Written with a minimum of spoilers.-
I’m an unrepentant old school die hard Mad Max fan.
I had a long and glorious history with the old Max and no history with Tom Hardy, so I wasn’t in any hurry to meet the new Max.
Turns out I needn’t have worried. Hardy’s Max is pitch perfect. He came in and owned the character, the movie and thereby, the franchise. Truth is, Fury Road is easily my favorite Mad Max movie.
Which is ironic considering that while Max is the title character, he’s not the main character.
Hold on. Before you throw that commemorative die-cast war rig in protest, let me explain.
Remember those old westerns, where a mystery man comes riding into a troubled town, reluctantly ends up getting involved in combating whatever tyranny plagues the area, and soon as the bad guys are six feet under, moves on again?
Mad Max: Fury Road employs this framework in its most distilled form.
Max provides a lens into Immortan Joe’s world but he has no stake in it and wants no claim to it.
Which begs the questions:
- Who is the central protagonist in Fury Road?
- Who is threatening Immortan Joe’s world?
- Who has the most to lose if the threat fails?
Using STAKES As A Discovery Tool
When the central protagonist is not immediately evident, I take a look at the story stakes.
That is, I ask myself who has the most to lose in the story? Who has all their eggs in one basket? Who is taking the biggest risk?
The Key Fury Road Characters
- MAD MAX is a man with nothing to lose, as the opening shot clearly demonstrates, so we can check him off the list.
- IMMORTAN JOE is clearly the antagonist, so we can check him off the list
- NUX is a firm believer that a spectacular death is the greatest tribute he can give to Immortan Joe and the Cult of the V8, so we can check him off the list too.
- IMPERATOR FURIOSA is a late and un-prefaced entry to the first act. But if we take note of a trio of facts, we can be fairly certain we’ve found our Central Protagonist.
1) Her entrance is jubilantly heralded by the entire assembly – privileged and unprivileged alike
2) Her arrival comes at the culmination of the opening sequences, where everything comes together and the story is about to begin
3) Her status is that of Imperator (aka Commander)
Bonus Hint: Her story role is driver in a move about a road
Using STRUCTURE As A Discovery Tool
To determine whether our suspicion about Furiosa is correct, let’s look at Fury Road using the Three Act Structure.
ACT ONE is the setup that introduces us to the story world, protagonist, and characters, life as they know it, and a change to the status quo.
- Furiosa enters the story and is hailed as the champion who will brave the desert to acquire fuel for the Citadel
- YET she promptly deviates from that plan. The moment she turns off the main road, she knowingly becomes locked into battle with Immortan Joe and his relentless unreasonable forces.
- This is the proof we need to settle on her as the Central Protagonist. She is the antagonist’s biggest threat, the lives of the wives are in her hands, and the weight of the story rests squarely on her shoulders.
ACT TWO is a series of scenes – of failures and victories in pursuit of the story goal – designed to refine (or demoralize) the protagonist.
- Furiosa’s goal is to rescue the wives from enslavement at the Citadel and deliver them into the freedom of the Green Place.
- Every battle she engages in is towards that end.
- When she achieves that hard won goal, she’s confronted with an unbearable truth, one that crushes her spirit and permanently preempts her goal.
ACT THREE is the resolution.
- Furiosa cannot give up. The lives of the wives and the lives of her tribe depend on her ability to find a safe haven.
- Faced with a choice between the known and the unknown, she rallies the forces and makes a final stand.
- In the end, the women get their safe haven and Furiosa gets a hero’s welcome.
It’s Max’s name in the title but it’s Furiosa’s life on the line.
In Closing …
Fury Road is a testament to so many cinematic and story feats that the Unexpected Protagonist device likely goes unnoticed by all but the most fervent story structure aficionados. 🙂
Throughout the story, Max acts as Furiosa’s strong right hand and sometime adviser but he makes no claim to her position or power.
Although he comes out on the winning side of the story, he makes no claim to any part of Immortan Joe’s legacy or territory.
And he leaves the story as he began it, fading into the horizon.
As drifter/stranger stories go, Fury Road delivers the goods.
As redemption stories go, it leaves us supremely satisfied.
And as Mad Max stories go, it has me impatient for the next installment!
The Unexpected Protagonist device is unusual but as I mull it over, I think it would be an interesting way to broaden a fiction series and I’ll definitely be looking for ways to incorporate it into my writing.