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.angry racing gamessmm smo

Taking God to the Movies (2): The Master Storyline

Taking God to the Movies (2): The Master Storyline

Bruce Riley Ashford

In this second installment of “Taking God to the Movies,” I give a concise summary of the Bible’s grand narrative, stretching from Creation and Fall through to Redemption and New Creation. This narrative provides the starting point, trajectory, and framework for analyzing the stories told in Hollywood’s films. Each of the biblical narrative’s plot movements is significant; indeed, if we are to view the world Christianly, we must view it simultaneously through the lens of all four movements.

In the biblical account of Creation, we learn that this world is created by the triune God. This world is a good world that God has filled with men and women made in his image who are uniquely positioned to worship and obey him. God’s world is a world that reflects his glory and points continually to his beauty and goodness. During this first part of the biblical narrative, God’s good world was marked by universal human flourishing (shalom), as man was in harmonious relationship with God, with others, with the created order, and with himself.

In the biblical account of The Fall, however, we learn that this universal flourishing was broken as man and woman rebelled against God and in doing so alienated themselves from God, from others, from the created order, and finally even from themeselves. Man was alienated from God, under condemnation for his rebellious mutiny. He is also alienated from others, as his sinful disposition results in all manner of social and cultural evil (murder, rape, slander, unjust war, etc.). Further, he is alienated from the created order as he no longer lives in perfect mutual interdependence with created nature (hurricanes, tsunamis, polluted waters, etc.). Finally, he is alienated even from himself, no longer living as he was designed to live (existential angst, depression, mental illness, etc.) As a result, God’s good and beautiful creation is marred by the ugliness of sin, sin which has far broader impact that we might typically imagine.

In the third plot movement, Redemption, God immediately promises to send a Savior who will redeem and restore God’s people and his world. The entirety of Christian Scripture speaks of this Savior and his salvation. In the gospels, we learn that this Savior is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Through his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, we are provided with redemption and the reversal of our alienation. We may once again be brought into right relationship with God, with others, with the created order, and even with himself. But this redemption will not be complete until the end times, when the Creator restores his good creation, giving us a New Heavens and Earth, as foretold in the prophets, which will be inhabited by the redeemed of the nations who dwell eternally with their God. We now live in the age of fall and redemption, but await the age of new creation. We find ourselves living between the ages.

From this narrative, we learn not only about redemption, but about God, the world, humanity, knowledge, morality, history, and death. Christian Scripture speaks to every facet of human existence, and about every dimension of human society and culture. In a nutshell, Scripture sets forth a worldview. It gives a particular view about ultimate reality (God is ultimate reality), the world (created by God, essentially good, open to miracles), humanity (created in God’s image, alienated from God), knowledge (knowledge is possible because God enabled us to know and has communicated with us through Scripture and through nature), morality (right and wrong is based on God’s character; certain moral laws are written on the hearts of all humans), human history (it is linear and is moving towards an end), and death (death is not final, heaven and hell).

Christian Scripture, therefore, not only tells the true story of God and his redemption, but gives us a way of thinking about life’s most important questions. We as Christians think, speak, and experience life from within this narrative and worldview. Likewise, Hollywood screenwriters also think, speak, and experience life from within their own worldviews. Their films are mini-narratives that each arise from within a worldview and speak to significant issues such as ultimate reality, the world, humanity, knowledge, morality, history, and death. Screenwriters deal with the same questions, problems, and experiences that are dealt with in Christian Scripture. For this reason, the next installment of this series will discuss how to “read” the narratives set forth in a Hollywood film, so that we can compare these narratives to the one set forth in Scripture.free java mobile games

Taking God to the Movies

Taking God to the Movies (1): Introduction

Bruce Riley Ashford

No offense intended toward seminary professors, publishers, and pastors, but the most influential theologians in the United States of America are screenwriters, producers, lyricists, and musicians. These Hollywood theologians’ convey their messages through movies, televisions shows, and popular music, which become the lingua franca of the various cultures and sub-cultures of the USA: John Mayer, Jay-Z, and Black Eyed Peas have more access to American homes than Piper, Driscoll, and Mahaney. Quentin Tarrantino, Oliver Stone, and M. Night Shyamalan have had more formative influence than Grudem, Frame, and Packer. Avatar and Taken have captivated more people than Mere Christianity or Knowing God.

Without even realizing it, many people allow movies, music, and television to have a formative role in shaping their worldviews. These media have the power to convey messages, make impressions, and rouse emotions unlike most anything else. They create a narrative world in which the viewer or listener perceives life from the narrator’s point of view. Embedded in that narrative world are memorable scenes, one-liners, and lyrics that give “snapshot” or “sound-byte” summaries of the narrator’s worldview.

In light of the pervasive influence of these media, this blog series will encourage Christians to watch movies with wisdom and discernment, viewing them through the lens of Scripture, and using their stories to open up conversations with others to whom we can introduce the Story of the world. In the next installment (2), we will summarize the biblical narrative, the master narrative of the world, which teaches us how to think about God, the world, humanity, knowledge, morality, history, death, and redemption, and in so doing, teaches us how to view the narratives set forth at the cinema. In the remaining installments, we will (3) discuss the nine elements of a movie’s storyline which help us to understand the movie’s message; (4) expose the storylines of two popular movies in order to illustrate those nine elements; (5) delineate six prominent themes in Hollywood movies, listing under each themes one or two movies that illustrate it; and (6) answer two possible objections to this series and give some concluding thoughts.

Allow me a couple of prefatory notes, however. I first became interested in “how to watch a movie” under the influence of a philosophy professor, L. Russ Bush, who taught us to always think critically, whether we were in a conversation, reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie or show. During his Ph. D. seminar on the modern mind, I first discovered theologian John Frame’s Theology at the Movies and screenwriter Brian Godawa’s Hollywood Worldviews. All three men have influenced my thinking in various ways and I want to acknowledge that influence and encourage the readers of this series to consider purchasing Frame’s manual (available only through Westminster Seminary’s campus bookstore) and Godawa’s book. Godawa’s book in particular has helped me to shape this blog series.

Finally, I cheerfully admit that I am not a professional movie critic. I am a Christian theologian and missiologist who seeks to provide a basic starting point, trajectory, and parameters for watching movies with wisdom and discernment. I do so by offering guidelines for understanding a movie’s storyline and for viewing it through the lens of the biblical narrative. I will not spend much time discussing other significant and influential aspects of cinema, such as sound, lighting, and production. I welcome your comments and hope that you enjoy the series and find it helpful in your endeavor to view the world Christianly.