posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2006

In his review of Syriana, Ebert calls it a ?hyperlink movie? [warning, some spoilers]:

A recent blog item coined a term like ?hyperlink movie? to describe plots like this. (I would quote the exact term, but irony of ironies, I?ve lost the link.) The term describes movies in which the characters inhabit separate stories, but we gradually discover how those in one story are connected to those in another. ?Syriana? was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for best screenplay adaptation for ?Traffic,? another hyperlink movie. A lot of Altman films like ?Nashville? and ?Short Cuts? use the technique. Also, recently, ?Crash? and ?Nine Lives.?

In a hyperlink movie the motives of one character may have to be reinterpreted after we meet another one. Consider the Matt Damon character. His family is invited to a party at the luxurious Spanish villa of the Gulf oil sheik whose sons are Nasir and Meshal. At the party, Damon?s son dies by accident. The sheik awards Damon?s firm a $100 million contract. ?How much for my other son?? he asks. This is a brutal line of dialogue and creates a moment trembling with tension. Later, Damon?s wife (Amanda Peet) accuses him of trading on the life of his son. Well, he did take the deal. Should he have turned it down because his son died in an accident? What are Damon?s real motives, anyway?

The blog item Ebert is referring to could be Mark Bernstein?s post about Adaptation from January 2003:

Adaptation is strange, curious, improbable little film. It belongs in the all-time hypertext film festival. Interesting double-feature with Wonder Boys. Fascinating double-feature with Mullholland Drive. Ebert, like everyone else, loved it.

Mark also discusses the hypertext film festival in a post about Perfect Blue, which More Like This picks up on. As you can guess, I love hypertext films.

Update: In a review of Cape of Good Hope published subsequent to that of Syriana, Ebert reveals the source of the ?hyperlink movie?:

The movie belongs to a genre that has been named ?hyperlink cinema? by the critic Alissa Quart, in Film Comment. She suggests the structure was invented by Robert Altman, and Altman certainly brought it into modern times and made it particularly useful for showing interlocking stories in a world where lives seem to crash into each other heedlessly. ?Crash,? indeed, is an example of the genre, as are Altman?s ?The Player? and ?Short Cuts,? and such films as ?Traffic,? ?Syriana,? ?City of God,? ?Amores Perros? and ?Nine Lives.?

Quart?s article isn?t online, but here?s a bit of it:

In fact, Happy Endings could serve as proof for the currently fashionable theory that we shouldn?t worry that our web-based, video-game-loving culture is dumbing us down. Watching Happy Endings, you too can conclude, as some of our brightest young pundits have, that multi-task entertainment actually makes us sharper. If this is true, the new genre Happy Endings belongs to?hyperlink cinema?could be the most IQ-enhancing of all. Happy Endings, which Roos also scripted, joins his The Opposite of Sex (98) in the hyperlink canon, alongside the likes of Magnolia, Time Code, and, most recently, Crash (with a special mention for TV?s 24). Of them all, Happy Endings is best in show?The best thing about Happy Endings is that, like hyperlinking itself, it?s irremediably relativist. Information, character and action co-exist without hierarchy. And we are always one click away from a new life, a new story, and new meaning, all equally captivating but no better or worse than what we have just left behind.

Thanks for sending this along, Peter. Also, it occurs to me that Steven Johnson may have written about this at some point, perhaps in Everything Bad is Good for You.

Reader comments

christopherFeb 10, 2006 at 11:03AM

Not that this form of narrative is anything to do with Web, of course.

It’s a narrative style that reminds me a lot more of Russian literature and story telling.

Anna Karenina comes to mind.

(I too, love this style of narrative. I don’t see how it’s very hypertext like. In fact something that would be more hypertext like Linklater’s Slacker, that keeps moving from one story line (website) to another. And the only connection is that they happen exist in the same space and time. Like a hyperlink.)

ChaunceyFeb 10, 2006 at 11:25AM

Pulp Fiction would fit this category, no?

Matt ButterworthFeb 10, 2006 at 11:39AM

I’ve read and discussed in a film class there was another subplot that they apparently cut from the movie, which would have probably made it nearly impossible to follow. Still, I hope this wins the Oscar for writing.

It was a fantastic movie, all confusing plotlines aside.

LarsFeb 10, 2006 at 11:43AM

You think Clooney sold his fingernails for charity??

OverwormFeb 10, 2006 at 12:01PM

I haven’t yet seen Syriana, but I love this type of storytelling. It’s easy to screw it up, especially in the hands of an inept writer. Then again, an inept write can screw up any kind of story.

Another movie that fits this descrition a bit is Heat, although to a lesser level. There are a lot of storylines intertwined around the greater thread of the heist. Heat doesn’t go as far afield as other examples, but think of it a hyperlink lite.

I think George Pelecanos novels also fit in the category of hyperlink lite. Actually, hyperlink lite seems to work better than most hyperlink heavy examples. I guess because the story can be a bit more coherent, although that may actually be saying the authors don’t try to overextend themselves to the point where certain plots become extraneous rather than actually tying into the story as a whole.

queseFeb 10, 2006 at 12:12PM

well i thought there was another, older name for that kind of films. “coral films” i guess…

Jason ColemanFeb 10, 2006 at 12:58PM

I would think “hyperlink films” is appropriate. I imagine a hypertext film would look like that ASCII character version of Star Wars I saw back in 1994, but encoded for the WWW. I dunno. I suppose when you’re making connections like that, being too strict with semantics isn’t appropriate.

Small PaulFeb 10, 2006 at 1:39PM


Last Night?

I’m out.

Stefan JonesFeb 10, 2006 at 1:41PM

Honorable mention hyperlink film:

A Very Long Engagement.

JarrodFeb 10, 2006 at 1:45PM

The most impressive “hyperlink” storytelling I’ve ever seen in a movie comes from JFK. You have to watch it a handful of times to get the real jist of it. I’m not sure if the writers won any awards, but that script is by far the most complex I’ve ever seen. Regardless of it’s accuracy, from a moviemaking standpoint, it’s a three hour tour de force with about 10 different stories/ideas unfolding at once.

paulFeb 10, 2006 at 1:50PM

I don’t know what’s so innovative about this. Novels have used this technique forever, and your typical suspense novel has any number of characters and plots that seem peripheral until you see the story through.

David RogdeFeb 10, 2006 at 2:03PM

“Syriana” is a miss, not a hit. Its rich detail builds anticipation, but in the end the film doesn’t deliver. The hyperlink isn’t there. It’s a nice inditement of our past and present energy and foreign policy, but as a film it’s only vignettes in search of a story, there’s no meat on those bones.

OverwormFeb 10, 2006 at 2:26PM

Rodge, I think that is the most difficult part of such storytelling. It’s easy enough to toss in an assortment of storylines and characters. The craft comes in making it all tie together into a coherent storyline.

It’s for this reason that I’d probably exclude some movies/books from this list. Tales From the City and Short Cuts are really a collection of short stories rather than one story with many subplots. And there’s probably a huge list who books/movies that failed in the attempt.

I also agree that this type of storytelling takes place in many books, and more novels than movies. Movies have the unnatural restriction of about 180 minutes tops, and most have to come in around 135 minutes. In that span, it’s usually difficult enough to adapt a straightforward 300 page novel. It’s probaby near impossible to successfully adapt a 500 “hyperlink” type novel.

The Constant Gardener was a good movie, but it was like a cliff notes version of the novel. The Novel jumped all over the place, giving us a lot of characters and motivations. The movie stuck mostly to the love story, and added in a bit (a bit of a bit, really) of drug company intrigue.

OverwormFeb 10, 2006 at 2:28PM

Mo, I don’t know if Memento qualifies. Its timeline jumped around a lot, but it mostly focused on the main character. (What was his name?)

MattFeb 10, 2006 at 2:30PM

(What was his name?)

You probably knew what it was 15 minutes ago.

susieFeb 10, 2006 at 4:50PM

Aside from storytelling technique used for the film, the actual story is very interesting. I found a worthwhile review of the movie’s plotline in Arab News, the a Middle East daily. The writer laments the “Despicable Self-Loathing Preached” in the movie, which is something to consider…


CurtisFeb 10, 2006 at 9:39PM

The USA Union trilogy of novels by Dos Passos did exactly this.

Polly StarkFeb 11, 2006 at 1:19PM

Surely, aside from Altman’s films that invented the genre, Magnolia should be highlighted as the greatest example of hyperlink cinema.

Jack SheddFeb 12, 2006 at 3:03PM

The technique of blending disparate stories into a single narrative has been a part of long form improvisation since Del Close and Chandra invented The Harold back in the 70s.

cecilleFeb 12, 2006 at 9:49PM

A lot of asian movies could be considered hyperlink movies: seemingly unconnected subplots that blend into a single narrative at the end. I used to think this influenced by asian philosophy: everything is connected and things are not always what they appear to be.

Will LuersFeb 13, 2006 at 1:38AM

“celine and julie go boating” by rivette would be another good addition to the hyperlinked movie list.

mdiskinFeb 13, 2006 at 11:05AM

In my opinion, “hyperlinked” is a term that would fit only if each discrete part/scene of the film worked outside of a timeframe — i.e., if you could view the film’s parts in any order and still have a coherent story.

Speaking of precursors, Dickens was the master of this form of interlinking — even the smallest characters are important and nothing is thrown away. Bleak House is a good example.

peteFeb 13, 2006 at 6:30PM

I think american grafitti , dazed and confused , and slacker are all this sort of movie as well.

will kFeb 13, 2006 at 6:31PM

HEIGHTS. a hyperlink film few people watched last year despite it being rather awesome

anjanFeb 18, 2006 at 1:22AM

Its good to se a hyperlinked movie.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.