Hanna is an exciting, pulsating thriller that tells the story of a young girl seeking revenge for the death of her mother. With compelling performances from its key characters and tense action-packed sequences, this film almost delivers a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling story.
Almost, because it is only half a story.
Constructive Criticism for Once
Criticizing the work of another is much easier than writing something meaningful yourself. Trust me. When you come at a story from the outside looking in, the blind spots with which every Author suffers from stick out like so many sore thumbs. It is easy to pick apart another’s issues.
The hard part comes with actually attempting to offer some constructive criticism as well. That Hanna provides an exciting experience cannot be denied, but to the extent that it argues a particular point-of-view and means something more than flashy cinematography and grating action cues, this thriller fails to deliver.
How can that be said with such confidence?
A Mechanism for Meaning
If you have read the article Writing Complete Stories or are familiar with the Dramatica theory of story you will know that every complete story is really an analogy of the human mind trying to solve a problem. Character, Plot, Theme, Genre—these are all placeholders, symbology for the mental processes that course through everyone’s thick skull.
The closer a film or story approaches an accurate replication of this process, the more meaningful, the more “sound”, the more complete that work of art will feel.
So when it is stated that Hanna is half a film (or rather half a story) it actually is. It is missing two major components of the mind’s problem-solving process. This is not supposition.
But Isn’t All Analysis Simply Subjective Opinion?
Not necessarily. Consider this criticism: the idea that Hanna is the sole survivor of a CIA genetics program to grow super soldiers is a completely cheezy one. It feels like something that was thrown in there to satisfy the “Why now?” question the higher-ups like to throw around in story meetings, rather than something that was an essential part of the story.
Super-soldiers are cheezy. That is a subjective opinion that has nothing to with the structure of the actual story. It is simply storytelling and there is no reason why someone else can’t come up to me and say, “You’re wrong. Telling the story of genetic super soldiers in the year 2011 is a fresh and compelling idea and doesn’t feel like an 80s sci-fi thriller at all.”
They would be wrong, but they could do it and the eventual argument that would follow would have us both running around in circles proclaiming our own opinions with no apparent impact on the other.
Why not allow Hanna’s bad-ass fighting skills to be simply the result of sixteen years of secluded training with her father? Isn’t that what the trailer sold us? Ahh, but I digress…
Subjective opinions. And we all know what opinions are like (and the part of the human anatomy they most resemble). Everyone has one, right?
But what about the film in question and the parts of structure it is so clearly missing.
The Emotional Argument
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is the Main Character of this story. We experience the story through her, our empathy lies with her, and we are privy to her personal issues that no one else really is aware of.
Sheltered for sixteen years mere miles from the Arctic Circle, Hanna knows nothing of fluorescent lights, of TVs, of helicopters, and of tea kettles. Her personal journey is that of someone trying to understand the world around them and trying to maintain control over finely-tuned instincts that say danger lurks around every corner.
To challenge her, the story requires a character who possesses a different worldview, someone who can come along and say, Hey, you’re not seeing things correctly. This challenging viewpoint drags the Main Character out of the morass of their personal justifications (or Backstory) and forces them to face themselves.
At first glance it seems like this character is already there in Hanna. From the very start the young girl on holiday, Sophie (Jessica Barden) the one obsessed with appearances and boys, seems to offer Hanna a different way of seeing things. In fact, she has such an impact on Hanna that the two begin to develop intense feelings for each other, the kind of feelings that end with a stolen kiss in the dead of night.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t allow her character to develop the way she should for the story’s argument to work.
Character Arc and Meaning
It was clear that the Authors of this film wanted to depict Hanna as a young girl who came into her own, who strengthened her resolve as a natural killer. The bookend scenes with the stag at the beginning and Marissa (Cate Blanchett) at the end show the Audience that while this girl has grown, she has returned to the life that was set out for her—that of a hunter and trained assassin.
The cold-hearted way in which she delivers the line “I missed your heart” suggests a Personal Tragedy. This is where the meaning of the film resonates with the repercussions of the character’s arc. Only by maintaining the perspective of a cold-hearted killer was Hanna able to successfully complete her mission of revenge. It may have left her feeling personally unresolved and “down” (the tragedy part), but it resolved the problems in the story at large. By killing Marissa, Hanna closed the book on the CIA’s super-soldier program.
For this kind of story to work meaningfully, the other character with which the Main Character develops a significant relationship with has to fundamentally change their point-of-view. It happened in Chinatown. It happened in Silence of the Lambs. And it happened in Romeo and Juliet. All of these stories, Hanna included, depict a Main Character who ended up down a dark path by holding on to their own personal issues. In return, the character who challenged them—Nancy, Hanibal Lecter, and Juliet—fundamentally changed their personal point-of-view of the world. The other character in the relationship altered their approach.
This didn’t happen with young Sophie.
A Better Alternative
Now for the constructive portion as promised earlier…
Taking into account the other parts of the story, the larger story of unfinished CIA business and Hanna’s confused introduction to a world she is not accustomed to dealing with, it only makes sense that this other character be someone manipulative. Someone with a plan. Someone who challenged Hanna with their own concept of the way the world should be.
Someone like Marissa.
Character Clues into the Story’s Problem
Besides the storytelling fact that they have a tremendous actress in place with which to effectively carry the emotional argument, Marissa already comes primed with several key characteristics that fit in perfectly with the story’s structural argument. The meticulous detail with which she organizes her dental implements. The clean lines on her gray skirt. The way she wears her hair and the precision with which she applies her lipstick. These are all signs of a character driven by order, a character who needs things to be neat and tidy for life to be comfortable.
Changing Order into Chaos
If the Authors were to consider Marissa for this important role in the story’s structure, then she would have to end the film driven by chaos. Why? If you have order on one side of a character who needs to alter the way they see things, chaos would naturally sit on the other side.
In other words, Marissa would start out keeping things neat and tidy, and then by virtue of her interaction with Hanna would end up chaotic and disorganized. It sort of is there with her stumbling through the amusement park, but it really isn’t made a point of, it really isn’t the end line of a character’s development. It feels more like a neat place to film the ending of a film rather than a place that supports a character’s natural development, or arc.
Meaningful Reasons for a Characters Actions
Take for instance the idea that Marissa was keeping the Galinka file (the program Hanna was in) in a safe. Why didn’t she destroy it years ago? Why wait now to burn it? Without any structural impetus for Marissa to behave the way she does, her actions seem ludicrous and simply convenient for the story to move forward.
Consider instead that she had this problem with keeping things manageable….Perhaps she could never dispose of a file until she was absolutely certain that all the elements had been cleaned up and disposed of. Perhaps that was the way she always had to have projects work out. Wouldn’t her burning of the file now make more sense?
In fact, instead of simply burning it, it should have been a more chaotic event. Other files, other programs ripped out of the safe so she could reach that one. A mad dash for the lighter—but she can’t find it, so she grabs the box of matches. Rips those open and they spill out all over the counter. She finds one and madly lights it.
Now this moment says something about her character. It says something about her character’s development. No longer concerned with organization and precision, Marissa simply wants the job done, whatever it takes.
Development Leading into the Story’s Conclusion
So Marissa would end the film deranged. Her hair a mess. Her dress torn. Her actions wild and turbulent. And these actions would pour into the rest of the story. Innocent civilians would be hurt. Buildings destroyed. Pandemonium in the streets. In a word…chaos.
This would, of course, lead to her downfall and Hanna’s triumph as Protagonist. The young assassin could still have her line about how she missed Marissa’s heart, but now it would actually mean something. The actions of this steadfast hunter would have driven this calm cool CIA operative stark raving mad.
A Good Place to Start
There is more that could have been done, but this would have put the film on the right course. There would still need to be a relationship developed between Marissa and Hanna. Perhaps it could venture into a surrogate mother/daughter relationship and all the issues that would go along with that. Either way, it would have to be in there in order for the argument to be complete.
True, it would be a bit too easy to have Marissa assume this structural position when taking into account her role as Antagonist. Typically writers separate these two into different characters as the melded option tends to make a story feel “lightweight.” But in this case, when the focus is on running and fighting and more running, the smallness of the argument might actually be beneficial.
Hanna didn’t alter her approach. Neither did Marissa. This is where the structure of the story breaks down. One character needs to change the way they see the world, the way they approach and solve problems. If everyone keeps going down the same path, there is no meaning provided to the audience, no message about effective problem-solving.
This is the reason why a film like Hanna becomes quickly forgettable. There was nothing said beyond the flash and style of the finished product. Sure, we could focus our criticism on cheezy super-solder storylines, but we wouldn’t be addressing the real problems with how the film’s story was constructed.
For a story to become timeless, to sit within the minds of an Audience, it needs to be based on the problem-solving processes within every Audience member.
Anything else is merely conjecture.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
That Marissa was driven by Order and Hanna by Ability seems to be really obvious indicators of Hanna’s storyform. The Overall Story Throughline of an open-ended CIA program fits squarely in Situation. Hanna, as a clear Do-er, and someone struggling with her own concerns of Understanding fits well in Activity.
This leaves the Impact Character Throughline and Relationship Story Throughlines open. Wide open.
Seeing that the Impact Character Problem was Order and sensing that Marissa should have played a bigger role in the story’s structure, the idea that she should have been the Impact Character becomes super obvious. Why create a brand new character if steps were already taken (perhaps subconsciously?) to have her play that role?
If this weren’t a finished film and there was time for more drafts, there could be a focus on the problematic relationship between Hanna and Marissa—a Fixed Attitude between the two centering on a concern of Memory. (Perhaps conflicting memories of how mother died, of how father reacted in the days after, the Truth about who really cared for her more, etc.)
The rest of the storyform:
Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Bad, Situation, The Past, Fate, Order