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Betty Breaks Out

"the damsel in distress cracks the case"

Inspired by her great-grandfather's outline for a thriller novel, Liz Hobart's new play releases a leading lady from the destiny written for her.

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Breaking Out Betty

Date: 30 Aug 2019

Meantime switch over to Betty. Details of her abduction. Chloroformed and taken to his cottage. Details of her unpleasant time.

(The Second Nick, by Maurice G. Kiddy)

In the spare pages of a World War I diary, belonging to a 1920s British author, is the synopsis of a to-be-written novel. He wrote a number of “thrillers”, back when reviewers put that genre in quotation marks, published by Hutchinson & Co., who first published authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and HG Wells.

But the story in the diary, if it was ever finished, was never published to my knowledge. The author was Maurice G. Kiddy, my great-grandfather.

Adapting my great-grandfather’s work has been something I planned on since I was a teenager, but when I finally sat down with this particular story – I realised that if I wanted to adapt it, I would have to change it at its core.

The Second Nick is a traditional detective story of its era – the whodunit – that has since become such a familiar mode of storytelling. We are now so desensitised towards murder that we have a board game about it. In a murder mystery, a genre of disposable supporting characters, who do we actually care about as an audience?

One character stuck out to me in The Second Nick, and that was Betty.

Then I realised why. Not only is she the leading lady, she is the only lady. The only lady apart from the murder victim. The other female character is killed off in the prologue, so that leaves Betty to play the damsel in distress.

As the direct link holding the story together, she is both the love interest and the murder target. She holds all the clues. Yet somehow, she is disposable. And that becomes apparent when she is kidnapped.

Holding the damsel hostage allows the author to put her away to the side, while the chase between the hero and villain can carry on around her – in pursuit of her. All she needed to do was sit there and wait. Just like the princesses have taught us. But as a credit to her author, she does not just sit idle. Despite knowing that a hero would come to save her – she tries to escape.

Somehow, Betty breaks out.

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The original telling of this story follows an ambitious first-time detective as he endeavours to solve the ‘unsolvable case’ of a railway murder. This version follows Betty.

A theatrical adaptation of an undercooked segment – the overnight abduction of a 21-year-old actress along with the leading man of the film company she works for, and how the damsel in distress cracks the case.

In Betty Breaks Out, the leading lady is not the typical heroine and the leading man is not the typical hero. Betty and Fred are supporting characters in a bigger plot, who could each be doomed to their pre-written fate … and they’re starting to work it out.

So, do they matter to us? Who do we really care about?

The way we treat our characters on film is a mirror to how we treat characters in real life, and vice versa.

Although we may have a range of opinions as to who are the heroes and who are the villains, we continue to use these binaries to process the characters in our larger world.

In adapting character tropes from 100 years ago – the passive damsel in distress and the charming saviour – it is clear that they have not come far enough, only morphed into versions that remind us more of ourselves. That we can relate to.

We continue to adapt and remake old plays and films because they are still relatable, because they are still relevant, because they are still familiar. But that proves how little we have changed since then.

With the highest grossing films this year being adaptations, remakes and sequels – there are several that attempt to shift the clichés that they originally created. Even so, our mainstream screens are still populated with nostalgic remakes and sequels about superheroes and super-villains, princes and princesses, and even classic Hollywood stars. We need to be aware of when these remain two-dimensional.

We have to make sure they reflect us in how we compare to 100 years ago. Then in 100 years, we won’t be still watching remakes of the remakes we are watching now – as if all the diverse stories of our own time never existed.

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