The Strange & Unreliable Alchemy of Indiana Jones

“The story of Indiana Jones plays out exactly the same if Indiana hadn’t done anything.”

It’s an observation you’ve probably heard by now. It floated around for a while before Big Bang Theory popularized it. Now everyone knows it and repeats it. Here’s my hot take on the idea.

It’s not true.

I have a more subtle take as well:

It doesn’t matter even if it were true.

I’m not trying to redeem Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film doesn’t need redeeming, and who wants to read a X page blog post about a movie most everyone already loves or at least likes?

I think it’s worth addressing though because it gets to the heart of what makes a story really shine. Spoiler Alert: It’s not a hero saving the day, even in adventure stories.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. No, the story doesn’t play out exactly the same without Jones. At the very least, it could be assumed that Marion would have died when the Nazis came for her amulet, and maybe that’s not saving the world, but it’s still important to Jones and Marion.

Also, while it’s true that the Nazis’ own hubris leads to their destruction by the ark, who knows what would have happened after they were killed. Jones is there to recover the ark after all is said and done, and while it infamously ends up in a warehouse somewhere, that’s certainly better than many other places it could’ve been taken.

Yeah, Indiana Jones does matter to that story.

But so what if he didn’t? Does that make the story not work?

No, because the story isn’t just a tale of adventure. It’s about Jones, who starts as a skeptic and eventually becomes a believer. Yes, he’s tied up when the conclusion happens, but he’s also the only one who understands the ark’s power is not to be trifled with. It might seem odd to say that “close your eyes, Marion!” is the ultimate pay off to his character arc, but there’s a reason the line resonates still. It’s Jones embracing the mystical truth that he’s denied up to now.

The climax of Raiders is all about our protagonist understanding something that the antagonists don’t. It doesn’t matter that he’s tied up or doesn’t throw a single punch. It’s cool watching Nazis melt, but it wouldn’t amount to much if it wasn’t the exact conclusion the movie was building up to. It’s the meeting point of the plot, Jones’s character arc, and theme, all coming together in one moment.

Though watching Nazis melt is fun.

The original Jones trilogy operates on this principle. Temple of Doom is maligned for a lot of good reasons, but it also concludes with Jones calls upon the power of Shiva, a power he’s been denying, to defeat Mola Ram, who has wrongfully usurped that power.

In Last Crusade, Jones begins with a quest to save his father, and he does. And then he is saved by his father. Meanwhile, the villains perish by their own arrogance and greed. Crusade has the same issue Raiders does. If Jones didn’t interfere, the grail would never have left the caves regardless. But it doesn’t matter because the grail is not what the film is about. It’s just the MacGuffin.

Crystal Skull stumbles here. They do try to keep with the formula. Jones is skeptical of the skull’s power, but by the end, he believes it. The villain is destroyed by her own unfettered ambition. It doesn’t work as well. For one, it feels like a movie imitating an Indiana Jones movie, which is almost always inevitable with a long running series. For another, the themes and character arcs just aren’t that strong.

Dial of Destiny struggles even more so in this. In addition to feeling like a copy it also doesn’t meld its MacGuffin and themes together very effectively. The idea of looking back with regret and the dial are meant to fit together, but ultimately, the villain isn’t undone specifically by his hubris. And Jones doesn’t end up going back in time (spoiler) to some place that means something to him, either personally or symbolically. He doesn’t even make the decision to come back home. It’s spectacle, but without the delicate combination that makes spectacle more than just big set pieces and explosions.

There’s a reason why so many people find the Nuking the Fridge moment from Skull ridiculous, and it’s not because Jones would clearly have died in the process. It doesn’t help that it’s so over-the-top that it’s hard to suspend disbelief even in an already over-the-top franchise, but it also just doesn’t “feel” right. It’s spectacle for spectacle’s sake, and it’s not even based on common pulp tropes, which is perhaps the biggest failure.

And, yes, setting an Indiana Jones story in the 50s is probably another mistake for that very reason. But Harrison Ford aged, so you work with what you’ve got.

What I’m getting at here is that stories that last–stories that leave a lasting impression, whether those stories have explosions or not–are about combining elements into an alchemist’s potion of dozens of elements tying together in complimentary fashion.

It’s easy to break a story into digestible plot points. If you’re good at it, you’ll end up with a serviceable story. Maybe even a pretty good one, if you can imbue it with voice and personality. But a story is only great when it understands its ideas and mood and themes and characters and puts them all together.

Once you learn this, you’ll never stop seeing it. You’ll find that the best stories, regardless of form, always combine these elements. Well, not always. But usually. And the ones that stand the test of time tend to do it very well, even if you didn’t realize it upon first or second viewing.

One final note: Not everyone views stories in the same way. For better or worse, some people will always only view a story as a series of plot points, a pre-approved series of steps. You’re probably already familiar with that because an endless stream of online critics have made their bread and butter by missing (often deliberately, but not always) subtext and theme. Instead, they focus on plot holes and story beats and break it down like a story is a logic algorithm, dictated by a list of easily understood practices.

But a story can leap through every logic hoop and be completely functional without ever being satisfying. And a story can break all kinds of rules and still work in a deep and profound way.

Great storytelling isn’t easy. I’ve been doing this for decades, and I’m still figuring it out.

But it’s worth the effort now and then.



3 Replies to “The Strange & Unreliable Alchemy of Indiana Jones”

  1. Right on. Great stories are about interesting characters. If people are watching Raiders for the plot, even though it’s excellent – Lawrence Kasden is a certifiable genius – they miss the basic humanity that makes it the emotional journey the filmmakers built.
    Take Indy out and it’s a National Geographic documentary: Where Is It Now? The Journey of the Lost Ark.

  2. Trying to get into reading more (again). And whenever I do your always the 1st author I look up. Thanks for your short stories and novels over the years.

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