When I was 12 years old I watched Rocky for the first time and if I'm gonna be brutally honest with you, I hated it. I had just watched this two-hour movie only to find that he loses in the end. I felt betrayed, cheated that I was promised one movie but got another.
What twelve-year-old me didn't understand was that the movie wasn't about whether he wins or loses, it was about something much greater. It would only be 15 years later that I realised one of the fundamentals of great storytelling buried within the core of this film. One that makes Rocky a classic movie script ,and not to mention Best Picture winner.
Let's look at the importance of want versus need in movies. It's a device that allows for a fast-moving plot while also pushing a theme with emotional stakes. The first movies up are The Matrix, Lord of the Rings and Toy Story. The first difference is that want is external while need is internal.
The external want of a character is what drives the plot forward. This is Frodo wanting to destroy the ring. Woody wanting to become Andy's favourite toy again or Neo wanting to save humanity from the grips of our mechanical overlords.
Need, on the other hand, is internal. It is what our characters need to learn about themselves, for them to grow and ultimately fulfil their want. This is Frodo realising he needs Sam to complete his journey. Woody realising the importance of sharing and Neo realising that he must believe in himself, that he truly is the one.
You'll notice I used the word 'realising' here a lot and we'll come back to that later. The obstacles of wants are also external and internal. Wanting to destroy the ring with a huge army in your way. Wanting to be Andy's number one toy, but there's new, cooler toy in the way. Wanting to save humanity from killer machines, but there are a bunch of agents Smiths in the way.
The obstacles for needs are more internal. They usually come from the characters themselves, holding them back in some way from being their best self. A want is known to your character. Frodo, Neo and woody all know what they want, but the need is more complicated. It usually isn't known to them, or if it is, that it's often rejected.
Frodo rejects Sam, leaving him to go on the journey alone. Neo doesn't believe he's the one. Woody's quest to win back Andy only results in him being ostracised by the other toys and pushed further from his goal. He couldn't handle Buzz cutting in on your playtime.
Woody didn't want to face the fact that buzz just might be Andy's new favourite toy. Woody hasn't yet learned that he needs to share if he's truly going to live a fulfilling life. He's in essence a sheriff who doesn't share. Wants drive plot while needs drive the movie theme.
Going to Mordor, travelling into the Matrix, winning back Andy all push the narrative plot of the film's, whereas need is the emotional drive. It is the theme of what the film is trying to say that ultimately gives us that satisfying ending. Whether it be the power of friendship, believing in yourself or the importance of sharing.
Wants are the fun while needs are the heart. Battles, explosions and hijinks are all the results of the characters journeying motivated by their external want. Needs, on the other hand, are the emotional pull, those moments where characters and the audience connect
Wants are unique to the character and needs are universal. Let's compare Lord of the Rings to Rocky. These two worlds couldn't be more different from one another. Rocky's want revolves around a boxing match, while Frodo's is saving all of middle-earth.
Both of those are unique to their character but their needs, on the other hand, are similar. They both need the love, support and friendship of someone else if they are truly going to win the day. There are countless other films which share this theme. It's this Universal theme that endear us to a film.
Now that we've identified five basic differences between want and need, what happens when a movie doesn't have one of them? Transformers, including most of the films in the franchise is an example of a film with a strong clear want but no real need. How do you know that?
As far as transformers is concerned, I'm guessing you didn't come out of any of those films emotionally moved. On the other hand you have a film like Manchester by the Sea. It's filled with emotional scenes and dysfunctional character with a tremendous need, but the plot is lacking a clear want.
We follow Casey Affleck's character around for two hours and nothing much happens. His character is reactive and not proactive in achieving a goal, which a want would have given him. Great films are able to marry these two concepts into one, creating both an emotionally and captivating film.
The need is what the hero must fulfil within himself in order to have a better life. It usually involves overcoming his weakness and changing or growing in some way. In Tootsie, Michael must overcome his weakness of being an arrogant selfish liar towards women in order to become a better person. How does he do this? It's only by becoming a woman that he can realise the error of his ways and change.
In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice's weakness is that she is inexperienced. Suffering from haunting childhood memories, she's a woman in a man's world. Her want is to stop Buffalo Bill but her need is to overcome the ghosts of her past and gain respect as a professional in a man's world.
Want and need, even though they have a lot of differences, shouldn't be distinct from one another. They are one interconnected web of desires and conflict bouncing off one another, in the end coming together as a unified whole creating a satisfying story. The importance of want versus need goes beyond film.
It says something about ourselves, about humanity. It can teach us about our own wants and desires. When watching Rocky when I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to see him win but as I grew older I learned that's not what I really needed.
Stories are more than the good guy winning all the time. They speak universal truths. It's about learning something greater than the story itself, that what we really need might be in front of us but just haven't visualised it.