Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reflecting Theme Through Character

(SPOILERS: Wedding Crashers, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Up in the Air)

Last post I talked about theme and thesis. One of the best ways to explore your theme in a way that is not didactic is through character.

If theme is the philosophical subject matter of your script and thesis is a particular point of view on that subject matter, you can explore various theses by giving those points of view to your characters. As I mentioned last time, some movies promote one particular thesis while others compare various theses without advocating one over another.

If you want to convey a particular thesis your strongest vehicle will be your main character. There are two basic approaches here:

1) The main character can share the author’s thesis. Often in these cases the antagonist will hold the opposite point of view. For example, in Good Night and Good Luck (written by George Clooney and Grand Heslov), Edward R. Murrow believes that Joseph McCarthy’s fascist tactics are a threat to democracy while McCarthy believes he is protecting the country. The movie obviously sides with Murrow. This is also the approach usually taken in less complex good vs. evil genre stories.

2) The main character can start the movie holding one thesis and through the story convert to the author’s thesis. In this case the conversion is the character arc. For example in The Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Gaber & Bob Fisher) John and Jeremy start the movie wanting to avoid commitment but in the end come to value and desire marriage. In these types of movies there is often a mentor who teaches the main character the author’s thesis.

You can explore multiple aspects of theme by giving different supporting characters different points of view on the topic. This approach is one of the reasons why the screenplay for The 40 Year Old Virgin (written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carrell) was nominated for an award from the WGA.

The theme of The 40 Year Old Virgin is, obviously, sex. Notice how each of Andy’s friends holds a different take on the topic: David is still hung up on an old girlfriend and has an over romanticized view of sex, Jay is in a relationship but cheats because he is afraid of monogamy, and Cal just likes any kind of freaky, no-strings-attached sex. These views interact with Andy's anxieties about sexuality in a way that makes the movie more complex than a simple "losing his virginity" story.

Movies like Crash (story by Paul Haggis, screenplay by Paul Haggis & Robert Moresco), Syriana (written by Stephen Gaghan) and Babel (written by Guillermo Arriaga) use this approach to show how one topic can affect various people in different ways.

Now let’s look at Up in the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner). The theme of the movie is relationship. The main character, Ryan Bingham, believes that relationships weigh you down. He goes through life avoiding any kind of attachment. But over the course of the movie this thesis is challenged by Ryan's experiences and the characters around him.

Natalie, the young woman Ryan is forced to train, longs to be married but has unrealistically high expectations. Alex, a woman Ryan is sleeping with, seems to share Ryan’s point of view but we later learn she’s leading a double life – trying to have it both ways.

We get additional perspectives from Ryan’s siblings when he goes back home for his sister’s marriage. The bride and groom are perfect for each other, and though there lives aren’t fantastic (there’s intimations of considerable financial difficulty), they are happy. Meanwhile we get an even different perspective from Ryan’s other sister who has just separated from her husband.

Each of these characters allows us to view the question of whether relationships are good or bad from a different perspective. And it doesn't shy away from things that reinforce Ryan's original position. This makes the movie far more thematically complex than something, like Wedding Crashers.

The most important thing to keep in mind when assigning theses to your characters is to make sure they are human beings, not bumper stickers. Give them fully fleshed out lives, human desires and foibles, so that we get caught up emotionally in their story.

Not every movie gets its power from thematic depth, of course. In fact, those are probably the exception rather than the rule (and I don't mean that judgmentally). But if you want to tell a story with complex thematic elements, it will be at its most powerful when the ideas are delivered through believable characters in a strong, emotionally involving story.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

Really useful post, cheers Doug.

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