(As we continue our discussion this week of James Cameron's A Crowded Room, this review comes to us from Miriam Paschal. By the way, today is her birthday! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MIRIAM!)
Sybil was the original story of MPD and the drama and interest in that made-for-TV movie lay in the discovery of the disorder itself, as well as its cause. Because it was done so well in Sybil, relying on revealing the disease is no longer enough to sustain a sense of drama, and that is what I feel is the weakness of this story. In Identity the drama is generated by setting up the mind and imagination of the MPD as a hotel where the guests are stranded by the rainstorm. The reveal that all of this has been taking place within the mind of the MPD is done near the end of the second act. In A Crowded Room, I think too much time is spent detailing how Billy becomes an MPD and then how the doctors discover it. The story of how the system let him down gets put on the back burner because of it, yet that is where the real drama lies.
I looked up Lima Hospital (pictured above, now a prison) and found the book about Billy Milligan, so I know this is based on real events. However, some of these events play as too melodramatic to be believable by a modern audience. The guards at the jail, the cops who arrest him, and the doctors who treat him at Lima are too evil and too abusive to be seen as real people. My suggestion is to tone it down for the modern audience. The people will seem more evil and the events more frightening if they are subtly presented. As it is now, they seem to come at the audience like a sledgehammer. Perhaps they really did try to exorcise Billy in Lima, but it comes across as unbelievable.
I read "Sybil" the book after I saw the made-for-TV movie. I also read a book called, "When Rabbit Howls," which was written by "The Troops For Trudy Chase." Trudy Chase no longer exists. During therapy her various personalities (over 50 of them) decided not to integrate, but rather to live in harmony. Through therapy, all of them are awake and aware at all times and work together to present a united front to the world. They make committee decisions about how to use the body in which they exist. I've also read a few medical papers I found online. Most experts agree that MPD occurs when the child is exposed to what can only be described as torture during its very early years, usually before age five. The fact that Billy's mind was more fully formed before the period of torture in his life (eight years old instead of the usual six months to three years), makes his MPD break seem less realistic. Until his mother met Chalmer Milligan, Billy had a more "normal" dysfunctional life, not the kind of life that would create an MPD.
But too much time was spent detailing how he became an MPD, and too much was spent detailing how it affected his life after that. The long section that takes up much of the second act should be compressed into short flashbacks. The bulk of the story should focus on the struggle to place Billy in a facility that will treat him rather than re-expose him to more torture (albeit of a different type).
Billy should be both the main character and protagonist, but he emerges as neither. The story starts with the three victims in a rather clever intercut interview and doesn't get to Billy until he is arrested. You should start with Billy and focus on him. Or, if you want an active protagonist, start with Gary Schweickart and make it his story as he discovers the truth about Billy's secret life and battles to see justice done.
I like the imagery of the spotlight that recalls a happier time in his life, but I think you could make more of that if you use it less frequently. As it is, you use it the same way each time. If you use it less often, and expand on it as a symbol by using it differently (very vague, I know, but it's just a feeling), I think it will have more impact.
In Terminator the dramatic impact was the reveal that one of the men chasing Sarah Connor was a machine. But the drama kept building as details were revealed at key points. He's a machine. He's from the future. In the future machines will destroy humans. Your son sent me. I'm in love with you. And finally we discover, almost along with Sarah, that the son sent his own father, knowing that in order to exist he had to sacrifice this man who would give him life. It's this whole Oedipal thing wrapped up in a time travel twist.
In Titanic the dramatic impact was how Jack saved Rose at the cost of his own life. At the beginning nobody loved life more than him, and nobody hated it more than her. By the end he realizes that in order for her to live her life to the fullest, his must end.
So now you must find the dramatic impact of this story. Will it be a tense courtroom fight between rivals as Gary goes toe to toe with Banks? If so, you'll have to set up a history between the two men. Or will it be the human drama of Gary and Judy discovering the life of Billy Milligan and trying to save him? Whatever it is, most of it must take place within the present of Billy's arrest and trial, not in his past, and most of it must focus on what he is now, not how he got that way.
Chalmer's role could be expanded in the present. I didn't make any notes, but I found his speech to the reporters too easy. Break his presence up into shorter moments, and let his evil nature seep slowly into the story as the conversations with Billy slowly reveal what he did. But always keep him and his history with Billy in the background. The larger story is the current fight for justice.
I hope these notes have been helpful. Your work is among some of my favorite. But I'd trade Jack's impassioned speech to Rose for Virgil smacking Lindsey and yelling, "Come on, you bitch. You've never backed down from a fight in your life." It's those short pieces of dialogue that have more dramatic impact.
Thanks for the opportunity.
Back to James Cameron's A Crowded Room.