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Favorite Settings on Film

Friday, May 11, 2007


Thinking and writing about Settings this week has brought to mind both books and movies with settings I love. As I’ve mentioned, a lot of times, it’s easier for movie makers to portray the setting, whereas in print it may be harder.

Anyway, I’m not supposed to be getting into any deep discussion here, but just posting something fun. It’s Fun Friday, after all—the weekend is almost here, and I’m looking forward to the Middle Tennessee Christian Writers monthly meeting tomorrow, where we’ll be discussing “Sagging Middles” (in our writing of course!).

So, here are some of the movies that I love for the settings:

1. Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whether digital, “big-ature” models, or the sweeping landscape of New Zealand, when I watch those movies, I believe in a place called Middle Earth. Though The Chronicles of Narnia was also filmed in New Zealand, I don’t think it did quite as good a job of really using the real settings as LOTR.

2. First three/original Star Wars movies. Each film had a theme for the settings: Star Wars was monochromatic, whether it was the black-and-white of the Imperial sets or the tan-and-white of Tatooine. Empire Strikes Back was lush, but dark, with the swamps of Degoba or the pristine interiors of Cloud City. Return of the Jedi incorporated the browns and greens of California’s giant sequoia forest juxtaposed against the black-and-white of the Empire. Because of the way these films were made, the settings are realistic—not overly processed and digitalized like the later three films (or like the re-releases of the first three).

3. North & South. This BBC miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s early Victorian novel captures the dank, dark streets of an industrial town in the North of England at the genesis of the Industrial Age. From the crowd scenes during the mill workers’ strike to the purple river (from the runoff of fabric dye from one of the factories), the film creates a stark contrast between this part of the country and the more genteel South: London and Hampshire, which are seen as clean and bright and pastoral—thus serving to visually explain one of the the themes of the book: the way where we live affects how we live.

4. The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy. These films, while also being great action films, give a visual tour of Europe unlike any other modern movie I can think of. I especially love the scenes in Moscow in Supremacy. The action sequences (especially the car chases) chew up the scenes, and yet the setting gives them their sense of urgency—from the narrow streets of India to the crowded streets of Berlin. The weather also helps set the mood—as it’s usually either raining, snowy, or cloudy for most of the movie. The three main scenes that are bright and sunny are (a) the end of the first film when he joins Marie at her shop on the beach, (b) the opening of the second film when they’re happy together in India (before the assassin* shows up), and (c) the end of the second film when Bourne calls Landy and she tells him his real name and where he was born—emphasizing the happiness, the optimism of those scenes.

*These movies also top my list of hottest bad guys ever, with Clive Owen and Karl Urban. I can’t wait to see what up-and-comer hottie is the villain in this summer’s The Bourne Ultimatum.

5. Master and Commander and the Hornblower series. While there was some creative license taken with these movies, for the most part, the research was impeccable, and I watched these movies over and over and over when writing my 1814 Royal Navy/Regency romance.

6. Anna and the King. When this remake was released in 1999 with Jodi Foster and Chow Yun Fat, I was enthralled, not just by Chow Yun Fat being able to take the role quintessentially identified with Yul Brynner and make it completely his own, but by the lushness of the settings (including the costumes). While the 1950s film version of The King and I didn’t stray far from its roots as a stage show—which, for a musical, isn’t a bad thing—Anna and the King wasn’t about the music and dancing. It was about the culture shock Anna Leonowens, a Britishwoman, has when she arrives in Siam to teach the king’s many children in Western ways.

7. Serenity and the television show for which it served as the capstone, Firefly. Joss Whedon, the creator, painted a grim-but-hopeful picture of humankind five hundred years in the future. Having outlived Earth’s resources, humans have expanded out into the galaxy. Those living on core planets live in the opulance of settings that look like New York, Tokoyo, or Hong Kong—big, modern, full of technology and artificial light. Those living out on the rim have reverted back to pioneer days—horses, dusty streets, wooden sidewalks, covered wagons—and a few touches of futuristic technology here and there. But the best setting of all is Serenity itself, the ship on which our band of heroes sail between worlds, plying their trade as good-hearted pirates.

8. Persuasion (1995), Sense and Sensibility (1995), (and even though I haven’t seen them yet, I’m sure the new BBC miniseries versions of Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility—both of which have been adapted for the screen by the incomparable Andrew Davies), Pride and Prejudice (1995 and 2005), Bleak House (2005), and Wives and Daughters. What can I say? I love British costume dramas. And these make particularly good use of not just the costumes but the settings.

9. Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Maybe it’s because I’m not a fan of Brad Pitt that I actually noticed the setting in this movie. But even though they end up either blowing up or shooting to smitherines whatever setting they find themselves in, the filmmakers did a clever job of finding seemingly innocuous places for the action scenes to take place: the perfect suburban house, a car chase when our heroes are driving the neighbors’ minivan (and their loving the automatic tailgate that allows them to shoot at the bad guys chasing them in sleek, black Mercedes—or were they BMWs?), and the final showdown in a home-furnishings megastore (especially the lull between shooting scenes when they’re on the elevator listening to the elevator music).

10. Steel Magnolias. Aside from this being the most quotable movie EVER, you always know exactly where you are when watching this movie: Louisiana. Filmed on location in Natchitoches (NA-kih-dish–first syllable is a short “a” like in “apple”) they made the most of the picturesque Victorian architecture of the town, the riverfront park, the Christmas Festival of Lights, and in showing the difference in status between where Dolly Parton’s character lived/worked, and where Sally Field’s character lived—showing just by their homes their place in the town’s social stratus. As I’ve mentioned many times before, Natchitoches is one of the many places which has inspired my fictional city of Bonneterre.

What are some of your favorite setting movies?

  1. Austin Field permalink
    Friday, May 11, 2007 11:54 am

    I’m right there with you on the Bourne movies. I love those. they’re what inspired me to go ahead and write the action suspense stories that had always been running through my head.

    I like Hitchcock’s films, too. The setting almost always had something to do with the story and adding to the suspense.


  2. Austin Field permalink
    Friday, May 11, 2007 11:55 am

    BTW, I haven’t been commenting on the Setting series posts…but that’s ‘cuz I’m too busy trying to apply all the lessons to my novel.

    Thanks for all your hard work on these. I’m really learning a ton.


  3. Friday, May 11, 2007 2:09 pm

    Now I need to re-watch the Bourne movies! I think I was too caught up inthe action the first time. I totally agree about the Star Wars (1st three.) Great settings. The last three were too computerized. Totally took the realism out of the movies for me.


  4. Friday, May 11, 2007 4:42 pm

    The new–this century– Peter Pan (that, interestingly enough, seems to follow the story closer than the earlier ones) and Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, in all it’s various houses and spaces.

    Watch either of those for their settings. I think they’re brilliant.


  5. Saturday, May 12, 2007 4:19 pm

    Gee, I don’t think I get out of the house enough! I saw parts of “Lord of the Rings” and the “Star Wars” movies, but I’ve never seen any of the others. I loved the sweep of settings in “Gone with the Wind,” although I’m not sure they were filmed on location. Were they? The one scene where Scarlett goes to the depot and those thousands of soldiers are lying there–WELL–it gives me shivers everytime.

    “Jeremiah Johnson” was excellent. It made me cold seeing all that snow!

    The Hitchcock films—yes! “Casablanca,” even though it’s in black and white (and Sam’s piano was a bright YELLOW–I know, I saw it in person), it evokes a mood you can’t get with colored film.

    Maybe I need to watch more movies.


  6. Saturday, May 12, 2007 11:21 pm

    Hi Kaye!
    Don’t know if you saw, but I posted on the “tag” you emailed me about on my blog.
    Anyways…great post. Completely agree with you about your comments on setting in North & South. Several of my favorite film settings are already on your list (shocking surprise, no? LOL)…but I have to add The Painted Veil, Casino Royale, and the third and fourth Harry Potter films to that list.
    Speaking of Harry, I finally saw the preview to the fifth film (I know, I’m behind the times!). If the preview is any indictation, the settings are going to top anything previously seen in the series!


  7. Sunday, May 13, 2007 2:13 pm

    Finding Neverland! A gorgous, gorgous movie to watch. And not just because Johnny Depp is in it, lol.

    The Queen was a beautiful movie too. Very well done in all respects.

    Donna, the only scenes in GWTW that were filmed on location is the opening credits. The water mill is in Little Rock, AR. The scene in Atlanta with all the soldiers laying on the road, that was the studio backlot. They dressed up every single male on the lot to get that sweeping effect of mass destruction. The 4-disc DVD set is worth the price just for the extras.


  8. Monday, May 14, 2007 7:33 pm

    The Bumblebee Flies Anyway – the story is sad (with underlying happiness) but the setting reflects the mood of the entire movie. I absolutely love the movie. Character, setting, plot, moral issues…


  9. Caleb Abel permalink
    Saturday, June 16, 2007 6:37 am

    Great, great list. There are a lot of choices up there I couldn’t agree more on.

    How about Pirates of the Caribbean? Whether it’s a deserted island, Tortuga, or one of the more respectable cities, the set design/locations for those are amazing. Even the bottom of the ocean is wonderfully adventurous.

    The Vacation movies also always make me feel like I should get off my tail and do something. Watching Chevy Chase and the family wrap their comedy around roadtrips across America, Europe, Vegas, or even just a snowy Chicago, I feel I’m watching places I’d much rather be than my apartment.

    Speaking of Vegas, Ocean’s 11 (the newer one) gets an honorable mention from me.



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