Back in December I was doing a series of posts on the movie Elf (written by David Berenbaum) when I was rudely interrupted by the end of the year and the need to post my best-written movies of 2012 list. I was not quite done with Elf yet, though, so let me return to it for a post or two.
One of the biggest challenges to screenwriters is dramatization, particularly of the internal journey of the characters. Good screenwriting follows the adage “show, don’t tell.” Bad screenwriting tells – or rather has the characters tell, describing their thoughts and feelings with on-the-nose and expositional dialogue.
Way back in December I talked about how Buddy’s arc in Elf is learning to accept himself as he is. One way to show an arc is to place the character in similar situations at the beginning of the movie and at the end and demonstrate how their reactions are different.
Buddy starts the movie at the North Pole feeling like he doesn't fit in with the other elves. Because of the premise of the story, this was pretty easy for Mr. Berenbaum and the filmmakers to dramatize. What is the difference between a human and an elf? Size, for one. We see Buddy being too big for the elf world – squeezed into a chair in a classroom, hunched over in a tiny shower, etc.
Mr. Berenbaum also came up with the idea that humans can’t make toys at the speed of the other elves. This is shown in a scene where Buddy confesses to his supervisor that he is way behind on his quota of Etch-a-Sketches that he’s making. (The bad version would have been for the elves to sit around and discuss how Buddy doesn’t fit in.)
In the climax of Buddy’s story, he’s given up hope when he encounters Santa who has crash-landed in Central Park. Santa needs Buddy – Buddy’s the only one who can fix Santa’s sleigh. It’s a notable change from Buddy’s failure with the Etch-a-Sketches in the opening. Buddy’s not a burden to the Santa enterprise, he’s a necessity.
We also see how Buddy’s unique place in the world (human raised by elves) saves the day because it turns out the repair isn’t enough. They’re going to need some Christmas spirit to power the sleigh. And that spirit comes from previously cynical people that Buddy has converted with his joy and enthusiasm.
Finally at the end of the film the filmmakers show Buddy and Jovie first singing with his human family, then visiting Papa Elf up in the North Pole with a new little baby. Buddy fits in – and not because he’s changed, but because he’s found his place in both worlds by being himself. In mythology terminology, Buddy is now Master of Both Worlds.
Walter’s internal journey is also well dramatized. Walter rejects Buddy repeatedly before finally accepting him at the end. But this is actually part of a bigger problem – Walter prioritizing work over family. And this is shown through dramatic scenes that force Walter to make choices. Choices are another great way of revealing character’s internal journey.
When Buddy first comes to visit Walter at work and says that he’s Walter’s son, Walter kicks him out. We later see that security has been told not to let Buddy back in. Walter does not even accept that Buddy is his son. Then at home we see Walter take his dinner and eat in his room because he has work to do. He chooses business over family.
Later, after Walter’s been forced to accept the truth, we get another business meeting where he makes a choice – the pitch from Miles Finch, the famed children’s book writer. Buddy and Miles get into a fight over Buddy’s misimpression that Miles is an elf and Miles’s sensitivity about his height. Walter takes a side – Miles’s side, telling Buddy to get out. Walter chooses business over family again.
But then later Walter is in another business meeting when Michael comes to tell him that Buddy has run away. Walter has to make a choice between work and family yet again. And his boss actually demands he choose work. But Walter refuses, leaving the meeting.
You have to lay the groundwork for this change of heart, of course. If a character simply behaves one way in one scene and another scene then they just seem inconsistent. But we believe Walter’s change because we’ve seen him become aware of his failures with his family over the course of the film. When he kicked Buddy out after the meeting with Miles, Walter felt bad. When Michael accuses Walter of only caring about himself, we understand why Walter finally shifts his priorities.
I mentioned in a previous post that Walter has to prove his acceptance of Buddy by singing a Christmas carol at the end of the movie. This is a great demonstration of his change of heart. And in fact singing is a device layered throughout the film to reveal both Walter’s and Jovie’s arcs. Let’s look at how this is done in more detail.
Singing is first planted in the opening scenes of the movie. When Buddy is in elf class, he is taught: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” We also learn that Santa’s sleigh is powered by Christmas spirit (augmented by a jet engine). This is an important plant that will come back later.
We get an additional little reference to singing when Buddy first visits Walter and Walter thinks he’s there to deliver a singing telegram. Mostly this scene just shows Buddy’s willingness to sing. But then he goes to Gimbles and meets Jovie. She’s grumpy so he suggests they sing a carol. Jovie says she doesn’t sing, especially in front of other people – another very important plant.
The singing device pays off when Buddy overhears Jovie singing in the shower and joins in on the duet – and Jovie yells at him. This both reinforces Jovie’s shyness about singing and creates a connection between the two characters through song.
Finally, we reach the climactic scene. Santa’s sleigh is struggling to take off in Central Park because Christmas spirit is at an all time low (and this makes total sense to us because it was planted in the opening.) Jovie hears this and remembers Buddy’s advice: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” (paying off the opening plant). She climbs up above the crowd and begins singing.
We know what this means because we know she’s shy about singing in front of other people. We’ve also seen that she was cynical about Christmas at the start of the movie and that she was charmed by Buddy’s enthusiasm for Christmas trees on their date. So when she sings we know that she’s overcome her cynicism.
But wait! They get even more mileage out of the singing device – because Walter’s there, too. And when the crowd starts singing, Michael notices that Walter is just mouthing the words. Finally Walter joins in – and Santa’s sleigh flies. The ending is powerful and emotional and yet nobody is talking about their feelings. They are taking actions that demonstrate those feelings.
I tracked this out to demonstrate several things. First, it’s important to find devices like singing that can be used to illustrate the characters’ internal feelings. Second, it shows how useful planting and payoff are – everything comes together in the final scene because it’s been carefully set up from the very beginning of the movie. I don’t know, but I’d guess that the opening plants were added after the filmmakers figured out what they needed for the ending. Finally, notice how these plants and payoffs pull us through the story, providing forward momentum and a sense of cohesiveness.