The Napoleon Complex
I'm sure you've heard of the Napoleon Complex. Also known as Short Man syndrome, the Napoleon Complex consists of the idea that short men are driven by their diminutive height to overcompensate in other aspects of their lives.
It's an interesting theory, and there have been psychological studies with evidence on both sides of the issue.
However, there is a fundamental problem with the Napoleon Complex...
Napoleon wasn't short.
For years Napoleon was thought to be 5 feet 2 inches, due to a controversy in the measurement of his remains at his autopsy. He was reported to be 5 feet 2 inches, but the problem is that there were two units of measurement for “inches”. The French system had an inch (pouce) at 2.71 cm and the English system had an inch at 2.54 cm.
Most current thinking pegs Napoleon at the 1.7 meters (5 ft 7 inches) tall. By today's standards, that is a little below average. By the height standards of the 18th century, he was at or above average height for a French man.
So for centuries people have been attributing the colonial and aggressive activities of Napoleon Bonaparte to a questionable psychological theory based on a misunderstanding of his height.
How can Napoleon Bonaparte have a Napoleon complex if he wasn't short? How can a Napoleon Complex be about the psychological impact of height if the person it was named after wasn't even short?
Now you might be thinking “why is a film producer talking about the height of Napoleon on his blog?” The obvious answer is because I find it interesting. But on top of that, I actually think there is an important lesson here for filmmakers.
Stories that have underlying truths have great power, even if the surface facts are all wrong.
Napoleon might not have been a short man. But it's a good story. Short man is driven by his diminutive stature to try to take over the world. That sounds right. It's interesting. Even if it's not true for Napoleon, it feels like it could be true for a Napoleon-like character.
I read so many screenplays that feel right on the surface. They're formatted correctly. The story makes sense. The characters feel real. The dialog isn't tone deaf. But they are hollow at their core. There is no truth to them, and they aren't really about anything.
I'd rather read a script that is sloppy on the surface, but has real substance, truth, and insight. The surface stuff is much easier to fix and improve through the various phases of development, production, and post-production. A lack of core truth is a cancer that will destroy your film.
So fudge the details if you have to. Even though Napoleon wasn't short, people will still view him as a tiny man driven to take over the world because of his self-named complex.
[This post was originally published on September 17, 2009 on my old blog at keithcalder.com.]