Brain tumors: the pervasive cancer of the screenplay

If you happened to watch the somewhat divisive Venom last year, you might have enjoyed Tom Hardy’s performance. You might not have enjoyed its feeble screenplay.

Either way, one thing you may not have remembered is when Hardy’s Eddie Brock, shortly after hearing the voice of the parasite, is told in his own voice that he has a brain tumour. What does this comment mean? What implications does this cause to the plot? As we quickly learn, absolutely nothing.

So why mention this particular cancer in the first place? Is it a metaphor for Eddie’s sudden psychosis? Even if this flimsy reason was explained, it adds nothing to the film. As I’ve discussed in a previous article, brain tumours can be used effectively in a plot if they have a greater purpose, such as the revelation in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 when Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) learns that his father (Kurt Russel) planted a brain tumour in his mother (Laura Haddock) to move on from Earth. Her death drives Peter to run outside the hospital with the mixtape, leading to his abduction by Yondu (Michael Rooker), with the two ultimately forming a meaningful father and son relationship.

Is your plot growing stale and redundant? Pop a brain tumour diagnosis in there

Having been diagnosed with a brain tumour over a decade ago, I’ve gradually become aware of the disease’s presence in both television and film. More recently, however, I’ve noticed an almost fashionable use of brain tumours in modern crime dramas. Rather than breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, bowel cancer or any other form of the disease, the brain tumour always seems to pop up the most. Is a character going through a mental trauma? Give ‘em a brain tumour. Is your plot growing stale and redundant? Pop a brain tumour diagnosis in there. Do you need that extra shot of drama to try and instil a sense of pathos in your audience? Shove an ol’ brain tumour into the proceedings.

This view of a TV writer’s mindset might be slightly cynical, and there are certainly examples where the disease is used as an effective plot point such as The Missing, where its sufferer Julien Baptise (Tchéky Karyo) experiences the same symptoms of many brain tumour patients such as myself. By and large, however, brain tumours are employed in many 21st century crime dramas for much more arbitrary purposes.

Take the first season of Hannibal, for example. I was recommended to watch this series by a couple of friends, and I’m not exactly sure why I pushed through all three seasons. The series follows criminal profiler Will Graham and his relationship with the infamous cannibal as a series of grisly murders take place. One of the killers they find has been transforming his victims into angels to protect him while he tries to cure his terminal brain tumour.

Yet the implication is that the brain tumour has created the killer’s madness in the first place, when there is no such link to brain tumours causing these drastic psychological effects. It’s a lazy writing decision that is passed off without any decent context. Man has brain tumour. So this causes him to murder people. Done. It draws on the gory horror tropes of the Saw franchise, where the main villain deals out gratuitously violent punishments to his victims on the basis that he’s dying from a brain tumour. Again, it’s unclear why this specific form of cancer is frequently used rather than other types. And by using it to justify the actions of psychopathic criminals, brain tumours are thereby inaccurately employed to imply that the disease causes madness and murderous inclinations.

The prize for the most empty, inaccurate use of the disease in modern crime drama, however, has to go to Prison Break. The best thing I can say about the first season is that it’s watchable. Not high quality, just entertaining in a good bad-bad kind of way. Everything after that, however, is just pure shit. The plots become more and more inconceivable as the creators continue to ooze every last dollar possible.

This weak plot device serves no purpose other than to keep a dead series running

By the end of the third season, they haven’t got any ideas left. So, what to do now? Give its central character Michael Schofield (Wentworth Miller) a brain tumour. This weak plot device serves no purpose other than to keep a dead series running, and adds no emotional depth to the plot. His brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) mentions at one point that their mother had a similar disease, as if to imply that all brain tumours are inherited, which is true in only 5% of diagnoses. And to top it all off, after supposedly dying of the disease at the end of the fourth season, Michael appears again in the fifth one, because, logic.

Although the brain tumour can be employed in a thoughtful manner in both TV and film, recent crime dramas have used the disease in particularly lazy and manipulative forms.

This article marks Nancy Epton’s 40th contribution to OxStu’s Stage & Screen section, and the editorial team would like to thank her for her excellent work and commitment! 


Image Credit:  Ballance, Charles Alfred, Sir, 1856-1936