In part one of this series, I examined the nature of storytelling and mythology in the movies. We saw that movies are a persuasive influence because they meet the holistic need — body, mind, and emotions — for man to find significance and meaning in life. Movies, as stories, incarnate values and worldviews much in the same way that ancient myths did for people in the past. Through drama, they model for us how life ought or ought not be lived and bring meaningful connections to life's experiences. In this article, I want to illustrate one way that this is achieved through the very structure of storytelling itself.
The dominant story structure that most Hollywood movies follow is the three-act structure. These three acts correspond to the Western notion of beginning, middle, and end in a story. Although Aristotle popularized this tripartite division in his Poetics, around 300 B.C., God is actually the origin of this teleological (purpose-driven) concept of story. God wrote through Moses a story of His own that defied the ultimate impersonal chaos of the pagan mythologies all around him with an orderly personal Author of history (Logos). He contradicted the cyclical nature of surrounding heathen histories with a linear narrative toward an ultimate goal. It is Judeo-Christianity that is the ultimate metaphysical foundation of beginning (creation), middle (redemption), and end (heaven).
Christianity alone provides the justification for the very narrative aspect of all storytelling. Author Daniel Taylor comments on the legacy of Western culture's Biblical heritage of living in a narratable world. In order to tell a story with plot and characters that are not in utter chaos, one must already believe that reality is explainable, and:
That belief depends on a number of supporting beliefs: that reality is at least in part knowable; that there are meaningful connections between events; that actions have consequences; that humans do most things by choice, not by irresistible compulsion; that we are therefore responsible; and so on.1
This precondition for the intelligibility of narrative storytelling is, in itself, an apologetic for the truth of Christianity. The fact that movies have plots with morals or themes intended by the filmmakers simply reinforces that the universe has meaning and purpose to it, unlike the ultimate randomness at the heart of atheism or the illusory reality of Eastern metaphysics. If an atheist would want to make a movie that comported with his atheism, he would have to show a series of random events without any true connection or plot, or even a beginning, middle, and end. He would in short, make a movie that no one would want to see because of its absurdity. Even "postmodern" movies like Pulp Fiction and Memento, that use a non-linear narration, only make sense as playing off the traditional linearity.
The Hero's Journey
In part one of this series, I explained the hero's journey as expressed in mythology throughout history. This is another standard paradigm of story structure that most of Hollywood follows in its storytelling. Let's take a brief look at some elements of the hero's journey and illustrate them from the recent Oscar winner, A Beautiful Mind, in order to see how persuasion is accomplished through the storytelling used in movies. Because of space constraints, I'll list just five elements of the hero's journey: 1) The hero's goal, 2) The hero's flaw, 3) The apparent defeat, 4) The self-revelation, and 5) The resolution.
The Hero's Goal
Every movie has a protagonist or hero; the main character whose story is being told. By the end of act one (the first quarter of the movie), we are introduced to the hero's goal. This is something the hero wants and he wants it badly. It could be as simple as stopping a villain in his crime, like most action movies, or more complex, like Frodo's need in Lord of the Rings, to destroy the one Ring in Mount Doom. But the important thing is why the hero wants what he wants. The hero of A Beautiful Mind is mathematician John Nash. Early on in the story he tells his roommate that he wants to find a truly original idea, because that's "the only way he'll ever matter in life." The story shows him obsessively in pursuit of this idea because he wants to find significance in his life, and he thinks he'll find it through recognition for a great achievement. Along the way, he falls in love and marries.
The Hero's Flaw
The hero's flaw is related to why he wants what he wants. The flaw is usually something in the hero's past that haunts him and keeps him from achieving his goal until he addresses this need. He sees the world in a way that is not right, a way that he must eventually change by the end of the movie. This is what is meant by the character arc. The hero changes his view of the world in some way by confronting his flaw and he travels on that arc to a new view. In A Beautiful Mind, Nash is a socially inept nerd. He cannot relate well to people because he is so obsessed with integers. Eventually, we learn that this flaw expresses itself in schizophrenia. He becomes paranoid and delusive, imagining people who are not there, and cannot tell the difference between reality and his delusion.
The Apparent Defeat
The middle of the movie consists of the hero trying to achieve his goal and facing obstacles that arise from the villain (antagonist) as well as his own internal flaw. The key word here is obstacles. As the hero overcomes each obstacle, eventually near the end of the movie it will appear that he will never achieve his goal. He's tried all possible ways to win, but it looks like he will never achieve his goal. This is the apparent defeat. In A Beautiful Mind, this is the point where Nash realizes that the drugs he takes to repress his schizophrenic symptoms also repress his mathematical genius. He cannot achieve his dream of the original idea if he takes drugs, and he will be institutionalized with delusional psychosis if he doesn't take his drugs.
Closely related to the apparent defeat is the hero's self-revelation. This is when he realizes that what he has wanted all along, the "why" of his goal, is not what he really needs. He has sought the wrong thing and must make a choice, gain new strength, and finally confront his own inner flaw. In A Beautiful Mind, Nash finally realizes that he can tell the difference between reality and delusion because one of his imaginary people that he sees never gets old. He explains this to his wife and asks for her help.
The resolution is the finale of the story. It is when the hero either reaps the benefits of his character arc or not, depending on whether he made the right choice. If he makes the wrong choice, then it is a tragedy. If he makes the right choice, then it is a happy ending. In A Beautiful Mind, Nash asks his wife to help him and support him without drugs and he will just ignore those hallucinatory people in order to keep doing his work. Because of her support, he is able to do so and continues to work on his math in later years. Nash ends up receiving the Nobel Prize for a truly original idea of his from his youth. He achieves the recognition he wanted to make a difference, but only with the love of his wife.
The purpose of the hero's journey is the theme. The theme is the moral that the hero learns by going through his journey. As we see him make right or wrong choices and receive the resultant consequences, we see what the filmmakers are telling us is the moral we are to learn. In A Beautiful Mind, when Nash receives his Nobel, he gives the credit to his wife in the audience and concludes, "It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic is to be found." The theme of A Beautiful Mind is that reality and redemption are knowable ultimately in the heart, not in the mind. He searched for recognition to achieve his significance, but ultimately found real significance in love.
Story Structure and Redemption
The story structure of the hero's journey follows the same basic structure as a personal testimony of salvation in the Christian's life. Acts 26:2-9 shows the Apostle Paul giving his testimony to King Agrippa. Paul describes how he wanted to attain the hope of the promise made by God to the forefathers (goal) by persecuting Christians in self-righteousness (flaw). The Christian church grew faster than he could keep up with (obstacles), until Paul came down the Damascus road, where God blinded him to stop him (apparent defeat). Paul sees his self-righteousness (self-revelation), and changes (character arc), and ends up on trial for the very thing he once fought against (resolution). He may be in physical chains, but he is spiritually free from sin (theme).
Just as a Christian testimony is a means of persuading others by telling the story of redemption in one's life, so a movie proposes redemption through its own story of the hero's journey. Of course, not all alleged redemption is Christian redemption. Many movies promise redemption through self-enlightenment, self-actualization, or self-righteousness. But as we watch movies, we should realize that storytelling is not merely entertainment, but a medium through which worldviews are persuasively communicated. Rather than running from Hollywood, more Christians should try to be salt and light by making movies that incarnate the Christian worldview. We serve the God Who created story itself and our storytelling reflects His glory through such aspects as beginnings, middles, and ends, linear narrative, the hero's journey, and redemption.
1. Daniel Taylor, The Healing Power of Stories: Creating Yourself Through the Stories of Your Life (Dublin, Ireland: Gill and Macmillan, 1996), p. 140.
- Brian Godawa
Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars (www.toendallwarsmovie.com). Most recently, he has been hired to adapt best-selling author Frank Peretti’s supernatural thriller, The Visitation, for producer Ralph Winter. Mr. Godawa’s articles on movies and philosophy have been published in magazines around the world. His scripts have won multiple awards in screenplay competitions. He travels around the United States teaching on movies and culture to colleges, churches and community groups. His book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) is in its 7th printing. His website, www.godawa.com, contains more of his cinematic, theological and philosophical musings.