Originally Published: February 2001
Because movies must develop a story in two to three hours, what may at first seem insignificant could turn out to be as important as dialogue and action to the development of character, plot, or theme. Therefore, students should be encouraged to pay attention to details. If they are asked to identify specific visual or sound effects—as well as dialogue and actions—to support their conclusions, attentive viewing can become a habit.
While students may be able to draw quick conclusions about a particular character, they may have difficulty identifying how they arrived at their conclusions. Directors realize that we all make unconscious, quick judgments based on appearance, facial expressions, posture, “props,” etc. That’s why students must be attentive to more than just the basics of dialogue and action. To help make them aware of these subtleties, have them describe all they think they know about a minor character, perhaps someone that is only in one or two scenes, and then cite the clues used to draw their conclusions.
For instance, let’s say in a romantic comedy the heroine, while jogging in the park, passes by a young man with two children. The apparent purpose may be to establish the leading lady’s exercise routine and suggest that she is conscientious about her health. We may barely notice the young man with two kids walking by in the background. Even so, if he appears content, we probably unconsciously conclude that he is an attentive father. The children are “props” that are now part of our supporting details. Of course, we can’t be certain he is even related to the children. But, if we find out later that he is single and was spending the afternoon with his nephews, we would merely adjust that conclusion a bit to see him as a potentially good father. If our heroine is looking for Mr. Right, the director could have decided on that scene to give us a positive attitude toward this young man in order to bring him forward later, if only briefly, as a possible suitor.
In plot driven stories time constraints often require the writer and director to resort to stereotypes in order to maintain a suitable pace. We may get to know a few details about one or two characters in order to make them a bit more individual, but there will be plenty of visual clues to help us keep the good guys separated from the bad guys. Frequently the bad guys are “all” bad so that we applaud when they are conquered by our hero. Action adventures generally fall into this category. Here the primary purpose is usually just to entertain, so the theme may be broad: good triumphs over evil.
While discussions about these types of films should include comments about the setting, tone, characters, and theme, the focus in these cases should be on examining the events in the plot. Identify the problem, possible solutions presented, events that complicate the solution, and the resolution from the perspective of plausibility. Encourage students to reason, not just react, to the film, by also looking at alternative solutions not presented.
Character driven stories, on the other hand, use the plot as a reason for change—usually inner growth—in a character or characters. Therefore, the theme is more likely to be an adage to live by: forgiveness heals; have the courage to take a stand for what you believe is right; one person can make a difference, etc.
Discussions here should focus on life before the change, including the motives of the characters behind any actions, causes of any eventual change and their plausibility, and how the lives of the characters can be expected to change (predictions) based, again, on evidence in the film. The theme should be identified and then supported using specific dialogue, actions, and any relevant visual and sound effects.
A Christmas Carol serves as a popular example of a character driven story. A glimpse of Scrooge’s past adds a bit of compassion to our dislike for this stingy man so that we become hopeful of his change and happy when it takes place. The theme is a common one-—money does not bring happiness. Discussions could include the techniques used to contrast Scrooge’s daily life with that of Tiny Tim and his family. How is money made to look unfulfilling and family life appealing despite hardship? How are we encouraged to use money? Students should be able to explain that it is Scrooge’s hoarding of wealth, not wealth itself, that is the problem and the reason for his unhappiness. This understanding is necessary in order to recognize why he is happy in the final scene, and to predict continued happiness for him.
Besides the basic theme that money does not bring happiness, we are given information to help us conclude what will. These further comments about life, which may be referred to as minor themes or as life lessons, should also be identified and discussed. Students should not only point out how they were led to their conclusions, but whether or not they agree. In this case, we have learned that Scrooge’s happiness lies in loving and helping his fellow man. That explains why he is not only generous with his money in the final scene, but also cheerful and friendly to the people he treated cruelly before.
Sometimes, though, main characters may say or do things that we find ourselves accepting within the context of the movie, but would never approve of otherwise. At one time our heroines fought to maintain their chastity. Now we have been so bombarded with heroines who set the boundary at “being in love first”—even if it’s the second date—that sexual promiscuity may simply be part of the background, making little difference to the plot. By routinely asking for the movie’s position on basic moral issues—lying, cheating, stealing, killing, adultery—student’s begin to notice if and when these issues are considered acceptable. They can then discuss whether or not the position is in agreement with scripture. This exercise alerts students to the subtle ways movies can be used to change opinions for good as well as bad.
An example of how Hollywood sought to influence public opinion can be seen in many older movies regarding divorce. When divorces were difficult to get, as well as frowned upon, Hollywood frequently cast appealing stars in roles with unlikable spouses who were little more than stereotypes. We saw our “heroes” as trapped—caged. We yearned for them to be able to divorce their selfish spouses without having to give up everything. Anyone refusing to be friendly to or hire someone divorced appeared narrow-minded.
A story well-told can tug at our emotions and have us agreeing with its point of view. If we train our children to watch movies just as we train them to analyze written stories, they can take a step back and consider why they reacted as they did, and, more importantly, whether that reaction was a good thing. Movies have become a routine part of many of our lives. Let’s use them as an opportunity to share our values with our children as well as to equip them with skills needed to help guard their minds and emotions.