Taking God to the Movies (3): Nine Elements of a Hollywood Storyline

Taking God to the Movies (3): Nine Elements of a Hollywood Storyline

Bruce Riley Ashford

This third installment of the “Taking God to the Movies” will include a brief look at the nine elements in nearly every Hollywood movie: theme, hero, hero’s goal, adversary, character flaw, apparent defeat, final confrontation, self-revelation, and resolution. Once the viewer can identify these nine elements, he or she is ready to begin analyzing the movie and responding to its storyline from a confessionally Christian viewpoint.

The first element is a movie’s theme. The theme is the author’s message, the ultimate point he makes. It is what the movie is ultimately about. For example, in the movie Braveheart, the theme is that some things are worth dying for, because in dying we might set others free. In The Incredibles, the main point is that the family must band together to fight the forces that would come against them. From Shrek, we learn that we should not be afraid of others who are different from us (even if they are green and have ears that look like small saucers). In Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 12, the theme, as best I can tell, is “crime is cool.” A movie doesn’t necessarily have one theme; it might have two or three or even more. One question we should ask is, “Is this a theme that resonates with what I believe to be true and good?”

The second element is the movie’s hero. The hero is the main character of the movie. In the Rocky films, the hero is Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). In The Lion King, Simba is the hero. In Christmas Vacation, the hero is Clark Griswold. The hero is the person the screenwriter and director want you to like, and they will use everything at their disposal to help you like the hero (script, lighting, sound, etc). This element of the movie is the rather easy to discern and very important to the movie’s story. One question is whether or not the hero is a character that should be admired. “Does the hero correct his character flaw? Is the virtuous? Does he stand for what is true and good?”

The third element is the hero’s goal. The hero’s goal is a strong desire with which he is obsessed, and which drives the story of the movie. The hero may want to win the love of a woman (Titanic), gain control of his own destiny (The Truman Show), free Scotland from the control of those bad English people (Braveheart), or to win the love of a man (Legally Blond). The screenwriter and directors are able to craft the story in such a way that we usually find ourselves pulling for the hero to achieve his goal. We should ask, “Is the hero’s goal an admirable one? Are there any ways in which it is wrong-headed?”

The fourth element is the adversary. This character is the character in the movie who opposes the hero and tries to keep him from obtaining his goal. The adversary could be a person (Drago in Rocky IV), several persons (Dan Ackroyd, Rob Lowe, and Bo Derek in Tommy Boy), an animal (Ursula in The Little Mermaid), or a force of nature (the storm in The Perfect Storm) or even God (Christof in The Truman Show). The adversary usually is the person who the screenwriter and director want you to dislike. They will use visual effects (the adversary may wear black), audio effects (ominous music), and scripted lines to let you know who the adversary is and why you shouldn’t like him. This is a significant clue for the viewer as to whether or not he agrees with the theme. We should ask, “Is the adversary actually bad? Does the adversary represent someone or something which I would actually want to disagree with or pull against? Is the film calling something evil or bad which is actually evil or bad?”

The fifth element is the character flaw. Whereas the adversary is the external opponent of the hero, the character flaw is the internal opponent. The character flaw might be a wrong way of seeing the world, a wrong way of living, etc. If the character corrects his flaw, the movie is be a drama or a comedy. If the character does not correct his flaw, the movie is a tragedy or a comedy. In Braveheart, William Wallace’s flaw was his gullibility in trusting Robert de Bruce. We should ask, “Is the character’s flaw really a flaw? Does he rely on God’s grace to correct his flaw? Does he refuse to acknowledge the flaw?”

The sixth element is the apparent defeat. This scene usually occurs during the middle of the movie. The hero is being thwarted by his character flaw and adversary. He cannot achieve his goal, and it seems that all is lost. He may have a near-death experience or a time in which his life appears to be worthless. Often viewers are so caught up in the movie, and so committed to pulling for the hero, that they find themselves afraid, or very sad, or caught up in hair-curling suspense. Perhaps the plane is about to crash (Top Gun), the hero gives up because he will never fit in (Elf), the dad will never find his daughter (Taken), or the nerds will never win (Napoleon Dynamite). The apparent defeat is usually connected to the next element, the final confrontation.

The seventh element is the final confrontation. Usually, this comes toward the end of the apparent defeat, and is a scene in which the hero and adversary square off. Usually, the adversary explains his rationale for who he is and why he does what he does, and the hero does the same. This is an exercise in “worldviews in conflict.” The adversary’s rationale is the one that the screenwriter and director do not want us to accept. We should ask, “Is the screenwriter correct that I should oppose this adversary and his rationale?”

The eighth element is the hero’s self-revelation. This is a scene, often at the end of the movie, where the hero has an “aha moment.” In Braveheart, William Wallace is being tortured on the rack when his eyes focus on a crowd of Scots, and a small child in particular, and realizes that his death is for a worthy cause, that of setting the Scots free. We should ask, “Is this self-revelation a good one?”

The ninth element is the resolution. This is the “happily ever after” or “sadly ever after.” It shows the result of the hero’s decisions and actions.