A couple of years ago, I got somewhat fixated on the subgenre I called “romantic fantasy road trip.” That was a story about people on some kind of journey or quest, and along the way they fall in love. I realized this was a thing I liked when I started watching a cheesy fantasy movie on Amazon and paused it to go make popcorn because I could tell from the setup that this was going to be something I wanted to revel in. The gold standard of this would be Stardust (both movie and book, but they have different structures), but you also find it in Disney movies like Tangled. Frozen fits it pretty well, if you look at Anna’s side of the story. It struck me that a story idea I came up with decades ago fits, too, but I couldn’t find any examples pre-dating me coming up with that idea, so I have no idea where it came from. I looked up some things I thought might fit, but it turns out they didn’t really.
I believe I’ve now figured out what I must have been modeling it on: the road trip rom-com. The gold standard of this, and probably the first example, would be It Happened One Night. These movies follow the same sort of structure I identified, just without the magic.
There’s the Bargain — the hero and heroine agree to travel together, with both of them usually getting something out of the deal. In It Happened One Night, he’s a journalist who needs a story to get his job back and she needs to reach her new husband in New York after running away from her father but is clueless about traveling alone and has lost her bag and her money. So, he agrees to help her in exchange for getting the exclusive on her story. It’s not quite a quest or bringing a fallen star to the woman he loves, but it still fits.
They do a lot of Bickering, with a clash of backgrounds and worldviews. Because this is a Depression-era screwball comedy, she’s an heiress and he’s a down-on-his-luck working man.
Then they come under Attack — detectives hired by her father find them, and they work together to throw the detectives off the trail by pretending to be a low-class long-married couple.
Thanks to the effects of the Attack, they Bond, working together from that point on (though still with lots of banter and personality clashes).
Then there’s an interesting two-part braiding of the Departure and Return sequence — he leaves her sleeping (like Stardust) to go to New York to sell the story after she confesses her love for him, planning to be back with the money they need for the rest of the journey before she wakes, but the landlady at the motel notices the car gone before then and throws her out. Thinking she’s been abandoned and hearing that her father has relented on accepting her marriage, she calls her father to come get her. Meanwhile, our hero sees her motorcade leaving just as he returns and he thinks she was kidding him. But he does another Return when he shows up to ask her father to reimburse him for the travel expenses—but refuses to take the reward money. When she learns about this at the wedding ceremony to formalize her unconsummated courthouse wedding, she flees the ceremony and runs to him. So they both Depart and Return, which is fitting because I think they’re fairly equal protagonists. The story mostly seems to be from his perspective, but we see the setup for her story first.
The one part of the pattern that’s missing is that there’s no dancing. In almost all of these stories, there’s some dancing involved in the Bonding sequence, and that’s when the feelings get romantic. In this movie, they do join a singalong on the bus earlier in the movie, and I guess the part where he takes off his shoes, rolls up his trouser legs, and carries her across the creek while she playfully uses his shoes to kick him in the rear might count.
The more modern (and significantly lesser) take on this kind of story, Leap Year, also fits the pattern. I honestly don’t know how that movie got made. With all the scripts that go nowhere, there have to have been dozens better than this. About the only things that make it work are the cast and the scenery, but on paper it had to have been a stinker. The premise—a woman making a desperate trip to and around Ireland so she can propose to her boyfriend on Leap Day, according to an old Irish custom—might have worked in the 30s or maybe even the 50s, but in the 21st century it’s hard to imagine someone going to that kind of desperate effort and expense when there’s nothing stopping her from just asking him to marry her at any time. Then there’s the fact that both of them need each other’s help, but they’re both unnecessarily obnoxious to each other. And then there are all the dumb slapstick and too stupid to live moments. I utterly adore Amy Adams, and she almost salvages her character, but this woman must have been utterly vile in the script without the subtle depth Adams manages to give her.
Still, this movie hits all the road trip romance beats I identified. There’s just no magic. I’m sure there were a ton of romance novels that fit this pattern, as well, especially the historical romances that included adventures and often involved a couple forced to travel together and falling in love along the way.
Interestingly, even though there’s no travel, the Disney Beauty and the Beast also fits, but I’ll discuss this in my next post.
It makes sense that I would have taken a kind of story I liked and added magic to it, given that this is essentially what I did with the Enchanted, Inc. series, which is a rom-com or chick lit with magic added.
In watching my two example movies last weekend, I’ve added something else to my pattern. I realized that a reason for the Departure/Return sequence, in which one character leaves the other (usually to go back to a significant other/would be significant other) only to realize he/she is in love with the traveling companion, is that this shows how the journey has changed them. They have to try to go back to the old life, then realize they’ve changed enough that they no longer want them same things, before they can finalize the relationship with the traveling companion.
This realization has been a big help in the book I’m revising, since it helps me figure out how to work out a fiddly bit near the end.