Post by Peyton Austin
“Hallmark movie” has become synonymous with “bad, cheesy romance movie”— and rightfully so — but the general consensus is that they can be forgiven because they spark joy a la Marie Kondo. Or, in my case, they’re fun to make fun of. Or, what’s really true (and less mean): Hallmark movies are a great place to analyze tropes and find out why they work, fail, or are needed. Much in the same way that intentionally symbolic films or books ask you to read into itself, the heavy tropiness of Hallmark movies begs you to do the same.
Over spring break, I had the equal pleasure and misfortune of watching Hallmark’s Once Upon a Prince. The movie follows Susanna, an aspiring gardener, as she falls in love with Nate, who she assumes is a regular, vaguely British-sounding man but surprise! He’s really a foreign prince. Despite the fact that he can’t marry a commoner, much less an American, he continues to court her. How romantic!
The issue throughout the movie, however, is that there is never an issue between the two of them. This is not to say that there is no conflict in the movie at all. Susanna’s father is hospitalized very briefly, and Nate’s mother (the queen) refuses to let Susanna and Nate become a couple. There are some digs at Susanna’s Americanness and class, though Susanna in actuality is very well-off and the prince accommodates her and her sister. But there is never any conflict between Nate and Susanna. From the moment they meet, when Nate helps Susanna fix a flat tire, they are amicable and completely into each other.
This type of plotting, where the couple must fight against an external (rather than internal) problem, is common in Hallmark movies. Just think about how many of the Hallmark Christmas movies must save Christmas! or save the town’s Christmas spirit! The couple just happens to fall in love along the way. This type of plotting, consequently, made me realize why the enemies to friends to lovers trope is so good, and it comes down to a) actual conflict between the couple, which eventually leads to b) mutual understanding and respect.
There are two main problems with these couples that have no internal conflict. The first is that emotional moments, or moments that should be emotional, have no weight. Susanna finds out that Nate is the prince because her sister shows her an online article, but the movie cuts before we see her reaction. She then confronts Nate, but even using “confronts” is too strong a word. He explains everything and it’s laughed off. His major lie has no consequences at all, because the movie refuses to put any conflict between the characters. Moments of emotional weight completely disappear, dissolving major stakes in the relationship.
The second problem is that the relationship becomes boring. The entire movie, Susanna and Nate just do various activities side by side (gardening, walking, eating dinner) without talking about anything meaningful. The edits cut between their gazes, held just long enough so that the audience can understand Susanna and Nate are into each other. The closest thing the audience gets to understanding their intimacy or compatibility is an outside character’s comment on the relationship. It’s all telling and no showing; there are no moments of genuine connection because these characters don’t actually know each other. The movie tells you, “Root for these people to get together!” and you think, Well, why? Even the shown moments of connection are bland.
In an enemies to friends to lovers situation, there is practically nothing but emotional weight. The initial hatred between the two characters is what fuels their relationship, usually pushing the characters into further action out of anger, pettiness, or this hatred. The emotional weight is constant — in fact, the emotional weight is present in every stage of the enemies to friends to lovers relationship. The friendship tempers the previous hatred, also sparking disbelief that the two characters can get along. This disbelief continues in the lovers stage, along with every other emotion that accompanies romance. This development between the characters, especially starting in hatred, never makes the relationship boring.
And in the lovers stage, the question Why this person, after everything? is easily answered because the relationship develops so thoroughly. To get to lovers—to even get to friends—there has to be an understanding of the other person. These people hate each other because of fundamental beliefs or because of personality traits—intrinsic and internal conflict. This hatred can only be amended by various meetings between the people, where they learn new things and attempt to reconcile this news with the person they hate. They have to reach new understanding and knowledge about the other person. They have to conflict! They have to work hard to get to friendship. And from that understanding of each other, love blossoms. The love feels earned because genuine effort was put into these two characters reaching this romantic point. It’s dramatic and exciting! The conflict between them heightens the romance, rather than the other way around.
This is not to say, as I wind this post down, that every couple needs to follow the enemies to friends to lovers trope. But the this trope shows, in possibly the most extreme version, that conflict between couples is a good thing (and let me make it clear, enemies to friends to lovers is different from abuse). It forces a deeper understanding of the other person and creates a more dynamic relationship between the characters. This change occurs in the audience as well as the characters, and there’s no doubt about why these characters are together.
So let the Hallmark movie writers continue to pick plots and characters by throwing a dart at a board. We can learn from their gold mine of tropes, even if — as in my case with Once Upon a Prince — the trope isn’t actually there.