A few days ago I sat down to enjoy one of my favourite films, North by Northwest.
Amidst a backdrop of mistaken identity and Cold War espionage, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint thwart the bad guys, fall madly in love, and manage the whole thing without uttering a single swear word.
Of course, the lack of curse words isn’t why I love the film. I enjoy it because it’s thrilling, exciting and thoroughly entertaining. The fact that nobody drops an F-bomb throughout the whole thing is something that really only came to me later on as a curious afterthought.
I understand too, that North by Northwest was made in a completely different age to the modern era, and that Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t have made his characters call each other muthafudgers even if he’d wanted to.
Still, it made me think about swearing in the world of fiction.
Do characters curse because they’re a reflection on society, or because there’s still this idea, held by the writer and his audience, that swearing is essential to making things edgier, sexier, cooler?
I mean, I get it. When we write a character, we want that character to be as believable as possible. People swear in real life, ergo, people swear in movies and on TV and in books.
And yes, swearing does make sense on occasion. Would Jules Winnfield have been quite as memorable without his penchant for the F-word?
That’s perhaps another argument for another time.
Right now I’m more concerned with those occasions when swearing isn’t as crucial to a fictional story yet crops up anyway, with writers pursuing the creation of realistic characters to the point that their dialogue comes across as forced or otherwise unnatural.
I’ve lost count of the amount of movies I’ve seen where the characters seem to curse simply for a lack of anything better to say, and do it so frequently that, when they do have something interesting to say, it’s lost in a blaze of foul language.
Please don’t take this as the uptight ramblings of some kind of prude. Look, I swear. It’s a bad habit I got into once and haven’t made much of an effort to get out of again.
I swear. Sometimes, when I’m in the kind of company where I don’t have to watch my language and my defences are down, a curse word or two will slip out.
Yet there’s a difference between the odd curse word in the company of close friends in real life, and having a fictional character drop F-bombs every other word.
Creating a character, the writer doesn’t have to settle for whatever ‘slips out.’ They have the time to actually give some thought to what their characters might say in any given situation, to be creative with it, to have it make sense.
If cursing turns out to be the best approach after all then great, go for it. Like I said, people swear in real life, therefore it makes sense that people would, and should, swear in fiction too.
That said, when the swearing excessive, unneccessary and unnatural -as it often is in Hollywood and commercial fiction- I can’t help but imagine that the writer got pretty lazy with his dialogue.
After all, as Hitchcock and his contemporaries proved with films like North by Northwest, you don’t need swearing to have a great movie.