This weekend, Daniel, my parents, and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that we are pretty big Mad Max fans. Okay, let me clarify that: my mom enjoys them, Daniel and I really enjoy them, and my dad ranks Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior as the best movie ever (Joe Dirt and Mad Max are #2 and #3, in case you were wondering).
Anyway, the purpose of this article is not to gush about the films. Likewise, I do not intend to review Mad Max: Fury Road (5/5 popcorn bags!), nor will I bestow upon you any major spoilers. Instead, I want to discuss what I appreciated about the film on a storytelling level and share some takeaways for writers like myself.
1. Create the fictional world the “real” world needs
I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not going to hurt my brain trying to describe exactly why society loves the apocalypse so much — especially in the 2010s. Maybe it’s that some of us are feeling the effects of The Great Recession. Maybe it’s the pressures that go along with rising credentialism and changing gender structures. Maybe it’s how overstimulated, over-connected, over-shared social media has made us. Whatever the reason, and whatever the apocalypse — zombie, nuclear, economic, or pandemic — we eat it up.
We need the escape the apocalypse offers. We needed it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I know I love the romanticism of it — the freedom from modern worries, the lack of rules, the return-to-basics survivalism. Mad Max: Fury Road gives us the batshit insane apocalypse we need to release some of that tension and feel just a little bit better about what’s going on in the real world.
2. Include relevant themes
My favorite aspect of Fury Road is that it stayed true to the original trilogy, especially thematically. Several themes from the originals carried over into Fury Road; including, the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots,” putting the good of the community before your own needs, and perseverance for the sake of perseverance (and maybe the hope of something better).
However, Fury Road also introduced a few new themes that are particularly relevant to 2015. First, as many critics have espoused, the film contains a strong, feminist message. On an obvious level, it condemns sexual violence against women and the treatment of women as objects. On a more subtle level, the film showcases women as men’s (mainly Max’s) equals, capable of saving themselves with Max in more of a supporting role than “hero” role. The film’s feminist message is particularly relevant today — throw a virtual rock on Buzzfeed and you’ll hit an article on gender. By tapping into this theme, Fury Road is conveying a necessary, relevant message in its totally wacked-out world and opening itself up to a whole new demographic.
Second, in Fury Road, Max has visions of people he could not save, which ring of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In a time when a war on terror continues and society is growing more aware of and educated about psychological conditions, I think Max’s PTSD is well-placed. Not only does it function as character development, but it incorporates a relevant theme from the real world and helps its audience explore it in a new way.
3. Push boundaries within the world
This tip is short and sweet. Like any other fictional world, the Mad Max apocalypse has rules. It’s in the Australia desert, resources like water, food, and fuel (aka “juice”) are scarce, creativity (in outfit and car design) is crucial, and pretty much everyone is crazy. Just when you think you’ve seen it all with this world, it gives you an electric guitar player strapped to a war machine in the middle of battle. If you have yet to see the movie, trust me, it looks ridiculous — AND YET, it works. And you know what? Fans of the series love it.
The point is: create a world that the “real” world needs, make it relevant, and then push the boundaries to the point that it becomes insane, but epic.
4. Give the audience what it wants
Along these same lines, as a writer, you need to know who your audience is and give it what it wants. Fury Road is full of car chases and crashes, nail-biting fight scenes, and punchy one-liners. There’s more action than speaking, and you barely get a minute to breathe. But that is exactly what the audience wants. Whether you write apocalyptic fiction or romance, the best thing you can do is give your readers what they want (and a little bit of what they need from points 1, 2 and 3).
Honestly, I don’t care whether or not you like any of the Mad Max movies. Regardless of your opinion, there is storytelling wisdom to glean from them. The original trilogy became cult classics, and even three decades later, the world and themes within them are still engrossing viewers. The Mad Max series has created a vibrant world and episodic stories that hook its target audience and keep it coming back for more. If you can do the same in your own writing — delivering your audience, whoever they may be, what they need and what they want — you just may have a hit on your hands.
What themes emerge in your own writing? Why do you think the apocalypse appeals to so many viewers and readers? Share your thoughts below!