Monday, December 22, 2008

Yes Virginia, There Is Redemption

Christmas is a wonderful reminder of Christ’s redemption. And a reminder that we (in writer-speak) are a living character arc—meaning, we are flawed. All ye citizens of the world, past and present! A show of hands, please, for those who are not flawed. Okay, Mother Theresa, you’re excused. As for the rest of you, stick around. There is hope. God has already redeemed our flawed natures. And with this in mind, the Christmas story reveals much more than tinsel, presents, and Amy Grant music.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever
believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send
his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through
him. --John 3:16-17

As we create our characters, we must remember to give them flaws, for without flaws we only have a flat piece of paper with words on it. But, along with their flaws, we must help them move forward, nurture them past their flaws. As we work the character through her short-comings, we develop her character arc.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler states:

Interesting flaws humanize a character. We can recognize bits of
ourselves in a Hero who is challenged to overcome inner doubts, errors in thinking, guilt or trauma from the past, or fear of the future. Weaknesses, imperfections, quirks, and vices immediately make a Hero or any character more real and appealing. . .

Flaws also give a character somewhere to go--the so-called “character arc” in which a character develops from condition A to condition Z through a series of steps. Flaws are a starting point of imperfection or incompleteness from which a character can grow. (p. 40)

Christmas movies show the character arc so clearly. Whether a religious piece or not, it seems most movies written this time of year love the redemption story.

A Christmas Carol
The hugest redemption Christmas story (besides the one found in the Book of Luke) is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Remade dozens, if not hundreds of times, this story of the miserly Scrooge touches our hearts down deep where we’d rather not explore.

Scrooge is an extremely flawed character. He makes Bob Cratchit work late on Christmas Eve, and then only gives him pittance for his wages. Then Dickens weaves his arc through a series of visitors so that not only we, but he, can see how he became this way. And as the ghost of Christmas future looms forebodingly over a grave stone, Scrooge can see that he’s wasted his life, and that he’ll die alone.

In the 1951 version of the story, simply titled, Scrooge, he finishes his arc with a nonsensical song and dance. But read carefully, for our defected character finally gets it. “I don't know anything, I never did know anything, and now I know that I don't know, all on a Christmas morning. I must stand on my head, I must stand on my head!”

It’s A Wonderful Life

The next most remade movie, in my opinion, is It’s A Wonderful Life. Okay everyone, collective sigh: “We love this movie!” By the way, we know a story has arrived when it has been remade by the Muppets, a distinction both the first movie above and this one have in common.

George Bailey wants out of Bedford Falls, but fate won’t let him. All the good opportunities pass him by while he tries to keep the old Building and Loan afloat. The final straw comes when he feels a failure and becomes suicidal after Uncle Billy misplaces a large amount of cash. Okay everyone, collective shout: “Uncle Billy, pay attention!”

The arc of the self-sacrificing George starts low as he shouts at Uncle Billy: “Where's that money, you silly stupid old fool? Where's that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison. That's what it means. One of us is going to jail - well, it's not gonna be me.”

Frank Capra directs this movie in such a way that throughout a large chunk we live George’s dreams and we feel his angst. His arc begins to move forward as he sits in the bar and prays: “Dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me.” --He begins crying-- “Show me the way... show me the way.” The prayer is answered when the angel, Clarence, jumps in the river, and we feel he is doing it for us. The lesson in that is: write fully dimensional characters that make your readers care.

In a single, selfless act, George rescues Clarence (showing us that even while dangling by a thread, George always puts others first.) His arc starts to move here as the first part of the movie was simply backstory to get us to this point. The petals from Zuzu’s flower disappear from his pocket, and Clarence shows him what life would be like if he’d never been born. George finally learns that had it not been for him, much would be different. He wouldn’t have saved his brother, Harry, and as a result, Harry would not have been in the right place to save lives during the war. The town Scrooge-like hated rich guy, aka the selfish antithesis of George, would ruin Bedford Falls and many of the lives therein. And poor Mary would become a fearful, lonely spinster. Although how she would have grown those ugly, bushy eyebrows without George, much less become near-sighted, I’m still puzzling through.

George learns his lesson and Zuzu’s petals magically reappear in his pocket. He runs home and kisses his wife and children while the townspeople pitch in to gather the money lost. And it’s George’s brother who puts a cap on the arc: “A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.”

Okay everyone, collective quote: “Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”

Miracle on 34th Street

Young Susan Walker does not believe in Santa Claus. She is cynical, and way too smart for her own good. Yes, that’s flawed for a child. “If you’re really Santa Claus, you can get it for me. And if you can’t, you’re only a nice man with a white beard like mother says.” She says this to Kris Kringle, who moves her through her arc until she declares, “I believe... I believe... It’s silly, but I believe.” And we all cheer for her as makes her mother and her new dad-to-be stop the car. She had asked Kris for a house, and there it is. She has come full circle.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, (sorry purists, the Jim Carrey version,) we are privileged to not only relive the popular tale we all cut our teeth on, but we get to see his backstory. This is an important lesson on how to develop our character’s flaws. Forgive me Dr. Seuss, but it really is great to see how the Grinch became the Grinch. Poor little green guy, ostracized by his peers, losing his love to the more popular, if not downright pudgy, perfect kid.

So that’s why he lives on top of a peak. To wallow in pity and nurse his lone streak. (Sorry, you just can’t write about Seuss without becoming Seuss.)

Anyway, while listening to the Whoville Christmas music below in the town, he utters, “Blast this Christmas music. It's joyful and triumphant.” Then, Cindy Lou Who, whose heart is as big as her hair, draws him back into society. The Who villagers embrace him and the Grinch, in pain, tells his faithful little dog, “Max. Help me... I'm FEELING.” Finally, his arc is complete when he comes to this revelation:

The Grinch: It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came
without packages, boxes, or bags.
Narrator: Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before.
The Grinch:
Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...
Narrator: He thought
The Grinch: ...means a little bit more.

That, my dear readers, is what Christ came here for. And, now we’ve come full circle.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Our Feature Presentation this month is Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan. It also has the delightful Hungarian comic actor, S.Z. Sakall, who plays Uncle Felix, and the formidable actor Sydney Greenstreet as Stanwyck's over-bearing publisher.

Set in 1945, Stanwyck's character, Elizabeth Lane, plays a food writer, famous for her articles in Smart Housekeeping Magazine. I imagine that equates to Good Housekeeping. She has basically lied to her readers, leading them to believe that she lives on a farm in Connecticut and is as homespun as her apple pie. In reality, she lives in the Big Apple, New York City, NY. She's also lied about being able to cook. Her recipes come from Uncle Felix who owns a top-rated restaurant. And she's lied about having a child and husband. Not only to her readers, but to her editor.

Do you see where this is going?

Dennis Morgan plays a handsome sailor just out of the hospital. The publisher, Alexander Yardley, played by Greenstreet, decides it would be good for business to cook a Christmas dinner for the sailor who has nowhere to spend the holidays. And his top-notch food writer would be just the person to do it. He railroads her into accepting, and of course, he wants it done at her farm.

Miss Lane is pursued by a pompous architect, John Sloan, who has trouble talking about anything but building structure. She puts him off until she gets the request from her boss. John has a farm in Connecticut. Ah, how convenient. She can marry him, sneak Uncle Felix in to do the cooking, and all will be well.

Except for the child she has written about. In a frantic search for a baby, we find out that John's cook babysits for mothers who work in a local factory.

So, there's the set-up. A comedy based on deception. Classic. All the players have relocated to the farm. Uncle Felix has a run-in with the cook on staff, John thinks he's marrying Elizabeth, Publisher Yardley shows up with Jefferson early, and chaos ensues.

The kicker is, if you haven't guessed it, Elizabeth falls for Jefferson. Hard.

As we watched the movie, our group realized we'd never get away with some of the things today. Most of the characters were one-dimensional, almost cartoonish. Elizabeth can't even boil water, her fiance has a one-track mind with his architecture business, and her publisher has a one-track mind with his magazine. The only one with depth is Uncle Felix, who is Elizabeth's confidant/mentor/conscience/encourager. But, then again, I'm partial to Hungarians. I married one.

If I were writing this screenplay today, I'd:
  • Give Elizabeth some backstory so we know why she doesn't like to cook. It's all well and good that she's a hard-nosed New Yorker living in an apartment, but I'd like to hear more of her story. I'd also give her more of a reason to fall in love with Jefferson. Good looks aside, Miss New York City Professional Business Woman probably wouldn't toss her independence and, ultimately, her career so easily.
  • Make her fiance ring more true. He loves her, he's waited all this time for her, yet when they kiss, he talks about the plumbing. In writer world, we're told to flesh-out our characters. John is pretty much a skeleton with no muscle or flesh. And while to woman he's been trying to marry throughout the picture is in her bedroom with another man, all he thinks of is pushing his ideas onto the publisher who has mentioned he's looking for a good architect.
  • There's a running bit with a porceline figurine in John's house that Elizabeth is bound and determined to smash when she's frustrated. I would have given her a reason for hating it, or created a piece of symbolism surrounding it. Maybe when she walks in, she sees it and is afraid that her publisher and fiance are trying to make her into a porceline doll. As it is, this poor innocent figuring is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What I think the writer did correctly by today's standards are:

  • Starting the story with Jefferson. This helps us get to know him better. The story starts with him and his shipmate, adrift in the ocean on a life raft for days. We know he's a nice guy, even when he tries to make his nurse think he loves her so he can get special treatment. Later, we learn that he loves kids because he's an uncle and is better at bathing and changing the baby than Elizabeth.
  • It's okay that her publisher is a money-grubbing, take-no-prisoners, businessman. But his character should be the only one we are distanced from. We don't want to like him, at least, not until the very end.

If you haven't seen the movie, don't let my comments scare you off. It's a delightful. if not somewhat shallow, comedy with excellent actors on the bill. Stanwyck plays humor as intense as she does drama and, as I mentioned before, Uncle Felix is a scream. After he learns what the word catastrophe means, he uses it often. Only in his accent it comes out "Catastroph!"

You can catch it this Christmas season on Friday, December 19 at 10:00 p.m., and Wednesday, December 24 at 7:30 a.m., both on TCM. (Check your local listings to comfirm dates and times.)