Same goal, Different approach: A Study of Conflict in “How To Train Your Dragon”

Blogger’s note: Earlier, I wrote a beautiful, amazingly articulated, earth-shattering analysis of “How to Train Your Dragon,” but then WordPress accidentally deleted it. Perhaps not accidentally. Perhaps WordPress just thought the world wasn’t ready for the mind-blowing revelation that my post was about to unleash. Either way, it’s gone, and now you’re stuck with the post below, my feeble attempt to recreate the majesty of what could have been the greatest blog entry in the world. Now I know how Tenacious D feels.

dragon2

Consider this exchange:

Dave: We need to make this scene funnier.

Dane: I agree. We need to make this scene funnier.

Dave: Good. I’m glad we agree. How about we make the guy slip on a banana peel?

Dane: That’s so cliché. Let’s have him slip on a dead mouse! No one will see it coming!

Dave: Ewww! A dead mouse? That’s gross. Trust me, the banana peel will work.

Dane: It will not. People will see it coming a mile away.

Dave: I hate you.

Dane: I hate you more.

Boom. Conflict. What’s at stake? A funny scene. Both characters want it, and they want it pretty badly. Unfortunately, they just can’t agree on the METHOD.

Often, the most intense and difficult conflicts in our lives come not with our enemies, but our friends, family, and loved ones. They are the result of differing views regarding how to achieve whatever it is we want to achieve, be it happiness, wealth, success, safety, or maybe just where to go for dinner. Whatever it is, if we get passionate about our opinions, we assert ourselves, tensions blow up, and conflict ensues.

Cute dragon, but watch out for the flammable snot when you pet him.

You can find a great example of this in the delightful animated romp – “How To Train Your Dragon.” If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and take a gander. The movie’s not just a good way to spend some family-friendly time, but also a fine example in forming a central story and conflict around various characters who all pretty much want the same thing, but develop completely opposing methods towards achieving it.

The tale opens on a Viking village that’s plagued by fire-breathing dragons. The people hold their own against the flying reptiles, but there’s a clear class divide between those who can fight and kill the dragons, and those who can’t. Our hero, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the son of the tribe’s chieftan and top dragon-killer, Stoick the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler) wants desperately to be accepted among the ranks of the rough n’ tough warrior class. But since he’s a bit of a runt, his father tries to keep him out of trouble by sticking him in a blacksmith apprenticeship with Gobber, the village blacksmith.

Ok, enough synopsis. If you haven’t seen the film already, check it out or just read up about it on Wikipedia. Then come right back! Seriously. I mean it.

Ready? Ok, first, let’s examine the four main speaking characters (which means I’m not including Toothless, the titular dragon to be trained):

Hiccup

Limited to the meager skill-set of a blacksmith, Hiccup sets out to prove his worth by using his brains and building a catapault-like contraption to catch a dragon. When he finally captures a Night Fury, one of the baddest monsters to ever to grace the skies, he discovers he doesn’t have the heart to kill the wounded beast. After he releases the dragon, he discovers the Night Fury ain’t so bad after all. He gives the dragon the name Toothless, and sets out to befriend, and eventually train the dragon.

Ultimate Goal: Protect the village from dragons.
Method: Study and eventually train a dragon.

Stoick

Hardened after years of battle, Stoick is irretrievably hostile to the dragons. His primary concern (other than keeping Hiccup out of trouble) is to one day find the Dragon’s Nest (the legendary place where all the dragons can hang and be groovy) and slaughter every dragon there, or die trying.

Ultimate Goal: Protect the village from dragons.
Method: Kill every single dragon that exists.

Gobber

This guy’s seen his fair share of battle, and he’s got a missing hand and leg to prove it. In addition to being the blacksmith, he also trains the village’s young fledgling warriors in the art of killing dragons. Gobber’s got a soft spot for Hiccup, and believes the boy has the courage to learn to kill dragons.

Ultimate Goal: Protect the village from dragons.
Method: Teach the teenage rookies (including Hiccup) how to kill dragons.

Astrid

A warrior princess-in-training and the object of Hiccup’s affection. In class, Astrid shows contempt for Hiccup’s puny attempts to become a dragon-killer. However, when Hiccup displays a sudden ability to manipulate and tame the captive sparring dragons that the students train with, she grows suspicious (not to mention a little jealous) and becomes determined to find out his secret.

Ultimate Goal: Protect the village from dragons.
Method: Become the best at killing dragons and figure out how Hiccup is cheating.

OK, now that we’ve got all that covered, we realize that every character essentially wants the same OUTCOME – which is keeping the village safe from dragons. The stakes are obvious here. If we don’t protect our village from flying monsters that breathe fire, we die. Pretty simple.

Yet even given a fleeting glance, it’s easy to see how the methods illustrated here immediately spell out conflict. In the midst of their shared  goal, all the characters have unique PERSONAL goals and experiences that predispose them to preferring one method over another. It is these personal goals that help define what methods the characters believe are appropriate towards fulfilling their ultimate goals.

Consider how personal experiences come into play in the following battles:

1. Hiccup vs. Stoick (Round One)

Hiccup — being the young, unproven lad that he is — naturally wants to impress his father and earn his respect. Meanwhile, Stoick – who has likely seen the horrors of what a single dragon claw can do to a human’s intestines – wants his son to be safe, and so sticks him in a blacksmith apprenticeship while hopping off on frequent quests to hunt out and kill every dragon he can find.

2. Stoick vs. Gobber

After having it out with Hiccup over this decision, Stoick has a conversation with Gobber. These two old friends have seen the worst of battle together, and know firsthand the perils of dragon-fighting. Still, Gobber believes in giving every young Viking a chance to learn to confront dragons, while Stoick is stubbornly protective of his son. Gobber only manages to convince Stoick when he reminds him that he won’t always be around to kill all the dragons, and that the best way to protect his son is to let him learn how to fend for himself.

3. Hiccup vs. Stoick (Round Two!)

When Stoick finally agrees to let Hiccup train to be a dragon killer, the tides have changed. Hiccup has discovered he doesn’t have the heart to kill, especially not after bonding with Toothless, his secretly captured dragon. Though both father and son want to protect the village, Hiccup’s strategy involves befriending dragons – a revelation that Stoick – who believes dragons are purely evil beings born from the very depths of hell – will certainly not take lightly.

4. Hiccup vs. Astrid

As Hiccup learns how to tame dragons, he becomes the star pupil in his training sessions. Astrid – being the competitive, bossy girl that she is – senses that Hiccup’s strategy breaks the rules of proper dragon engagement, and she immediately suspects that he’s up to something bad and potentially dangerous to the village. She sets out to figure out his secret.

Whew! All that conflict, and I haven’t even touched the actual training of Toothless, the vicious Night Fury. But that relationship is interesting enough to deserve a blog post of its own, so perhaps another day…

If you have the time, check out this movie if only as a terrific study in the power of conflict amongst people who share the same goal, but not the same method toward achieving it. We all know that conflict means drama, and the greatest, most intriguing conflicts come when the opposing characters believe they’re fighting for the same thing. It also forces characters to assert their points of views and TAKE ACTION, which we all know makes for far better stories.

(For another great example of this, see also: Magneto and Professor X in X-Men, which to this day remains one of the greatest professional rivalries to ever dignify the world of comics.)

Check out X-Men: First Class. Damn fine movie.

For more analysis on How to Train Your Dragon, check out this five-point plot breakdown from The Script Lab. It’s pretty cool if you’re into that sort of thing.

That’s all for now.

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