A hybrid film is a genre that blends with another or multiple genres (Comedy-horror; Dark fantasy; Tragicomedy, etc). ‘Hybrid’ is the word I hear more often in the film industry than any other — from writers, directors, producers, you name it. In an age of Netflix and YouTube, people are obsessed with creating something original, and ‘hybrid’ is the most popular method of doing that. Case in point? The recent box office domination of a whole new kind of superhero: Deadpool. Superhero comedy has been done before, but never quite as violent or crude. Kick-Ass came close, but… child’s play compared to the red man himself.
But if people are so excited by cross-genre appeal, how did Cowboys & Aliens or Pride & Prejudice & Zombies fail? Well, speaking as an audience member, the titles tell me that the writer hasn’t thought much further than ‘it’s X meets Y.’ But I do believe there are ways to create original genre mash-ups that aren’t Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
The first Shrek movie has sequences that parody game shows, wrestling matches, theme parks, medieval adventures, and even features a musical number followed by a kung fu fight that spoofs The Matrix. But ignoring all of that, Shrek is a story set in a world of fairytale creatures that everyone knows or recognizes. By setting it in a world entirely populated by characters in fairy tales or fantasy stories, the writers have gifted themselves the ability to tell any story, regardless of how ridiculous. They set up the rules of their world to be fantastical and very broad, giving them infinite genre options (as used in the very musical Shrek 2).
This is why Shrek was able to do so many things and not lose the audience (unlike Hudson Hawk which did everything and lost everyone, not to mention Bruce Willis’ dignity). The story was a very familiar and simple one: ‘To get his home back, an ogre goes on a quest to find and rescue a Princess for the evil ruler of a kingdom.’ A story heard everywhere from storybooks to The Bachelor. But the world was clearly established. Medieval rescues from castles and kung-fu musical fights don’t disturb the suspension of disbelief because it’s a world of characters from fairy tales.
Compare this to a movie franchise like Ice Age, and you’ll see how crucial setting up the world is to genre switching. Ice Age is about a group of animals in the Paleolithic Ice Age — that’s it. You’d think that could go anywhere. Well, the first movie had the characters trying to protect a human. The second saw them trying to survive a melting ice wall. It worked, just about — light comedy adventure set in the arctic with ice-dwelling animals trying to survive.
But then, it all got a bit… out there.
The Ice Age gang went underground and had to deal with tropical dinosaurs; they tried to survive against pirates; and in the most recent incarnation, they had to handle asteroids while one of the characters was in space. The Ice Age franchise is — much like Bruce Willis, post-Hudson Hawk — somehow unsinkable, but the reviews have gotten worse and so has the box office — much like Bruce Willis, post-Hudson Hawk. Why? Because the story world just wasn’t established to handle these extreme genre switches, so it makes no sense to send arctic animals to space.
Establish your world’s rules up-front, and you can go into whatever genre you want.
I’ve spoken before about my admiration for Guillermo Del Toro. Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark fantasy war film. Let me say that again: dark fantasy war film. That’s three genres (Fantasy + Horror + War) that would almost seem incompatible in the same story. It’s a spectacularly written, beautifully made movie that contrasts the beautiful horrors of the underworld with the visceral horrors of war. And that’s exactly how he makes the story work.
Imagine, if you will, a war scene. A real, brutal, limbs-flying-everywhere war scene. And now imagine a little girl wandering through the middle of the bloodshed, holding hands with a goat man. I would think whatever you have imagined is looking mighty ridiculous. And while Del Toro doesn’t create this scene, his story isn’t exactly far off from it. Because, in essence, Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t galaxies away from Cowboys & Aliens in terms of ‘genre’. But whereas the aliens feel shoehorned into the plot of Cowboys & Aliens, Del Toro manages to seamlessly weave the fantasy world into war-torn Spain with grace. And it’s all down to the third genre. Del Toro uses the horror elements to connect the Fantasy and the War, bridging the tonal gap between them. Without the horror elements, I’d be willing to bet that the story would crumble.
The contrasting horrors of the youthful fantasy world and the aggressive real world ground the story in a way that Alice in Wonderland cannot. It uses all of the genres to the strengths of the story and makes everything feel that little bit more real. Without the horror, there’s no connection. And that links to the next movie…
I have to admit that the Cornetto trilogy is a favorite of mine, so I may be biased. But Shaun of the Dead is one of the best examples of genre-bending to ever hit screens. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus agrees: “Shaun of the Dead cleverly balances scares and witty satire, making for a bloody good zombie movie with loads of wit.” The idea, when you boil it down, is a romantic comedy set in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Ultimately, it is an X meets Y plot — which I’m usually very negative about because it rarely works as well as this.
When it comes to ‘genre-busting’, I believe there’s no such thing as ‘too much’. You can use as many genres as you want if your world permits it and you can make it work. By setting a Richard Curtis movie in the midst of a worldwide epidemic, Shaun of the Dead broaches areas on which an ordinary rom-com could NEVER tread — e.g. death. Specifically, having to kill loved ones. But it works here.
This is my third rule for hybrids: push it further. Reviews for Cowboys & Aliens noted that the cowboy plot was more interesting and the aliens were unnecessary; Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter took itself too seriously; Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was repetitive and thinly-scripted. These movies relied on their concept but didn’t push the boundaries or take risks because they couldn’t find a way to bridge their genres and create a uniting tone. Shaun of the Dead is a masterpiece of hybrid because it brings the lightness of romantic comedy down to the level of zombie horror — a HUGE leap. But it’s so audacious that it pays off.
Don’t be afraid to make bold choices. You must cement a need for these genres other than ‘it’d be cool if…’. If you’ve done something just because it’s cool, it’s probably unnecessary.
I’m big on avoiding the X meets Y approach unless you can truly elevate the concept. I know it’s a much-loved approach and seems to be the biggest draw for a writer, but it results in as many terrible ideas as good ones — see: Sharknado (Twister meets Jaws); Avatar (Pocahontas meets anything. Seriously, you’d be surprised.), and Cockneys vs Zombies (Must I?).
I think the concept of your story should complement the genres you use; and it’s worth remembering that you can sample genres just for a scene if you wish.
Many of the greatest movies ever made are incredibly complex genre mash-ups, some of which only appear for a scene or two. Casablanca (a romance set in a war-noir-thriller), Fight Club (a black comedy-psychological mystery-thriller action crime movie with a philosophical bent), even Toy Story (comedy/drama/thriller/adventure — all with the structure of a prison escape movie)!
Like narrative itself, genre mash-ups are not just one thing meeting another for the sake of a cool story; it’s a number of genre elements meeting to say something. A courtroom-set horror movie is original but if your story is about two vengeful brothers trying to get an inheritance, you’re going to need a very good reason to connect the dots.
Set up the rules of your world.
Use the genres to your story’s strengths.
Don’t be afraid to go further.