Cinematic stories give lessons on human thought and behavior.
This is their most basic social purpose. The story places a certain type of person into a certain type of conflict, and then shows how he or she chooses to respond. The “right” choices are eventually rewarded, while the “wrong” choices are punished. By simply observing what actions lead to what outcomes, viewers learn the proper or effective ways to think and behave.
But what of stories where the “bad guys” win? If we accept the notion that victory comes only to characters who make “correct” decisions, do these films not confound the cinema’s supposed ethical duties by promoting “bad” behaviors? No, they do not. The messages found in these films are a bit more complicated. To explain, we must first establish the simpler and more straightforward methods of instruction employed by Hollywood films which adhere to the more traditional paradigm—that is, stories where the “good” must win and the “bad” must lose.
As detailed in my book Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative: Part I, films of this lot fall into two categories. The first, and most common, may be called Celebratory narratives—in that they celebrate certain values, attitudes, or beliefs by showing how these attributes lead characters to reward. The Celebratory pattern is so familiar that it hardly needs explanation. A protagonist is placed in a dramatic situation he or she eventually realizes can only be resolved by abandoning the “negative” personal qualities which impede progress and replacing them with more “virtuous” qualities. This positive transformation allows the protagonist to make wiser or more “heroic” decisions necessary to overcome all obstacles and achieve success.
The second type presents a reversal of this pattern. We may call these Cautionary narratives—in that they warn against certain “harmful” values, attitudes, or beliefs by showing how they lead characters to ruin. Here, protagonists create their own doom by progressively intensifying “negative” personal qualities, transforming them for the “worse.” These actions prove foolish or destructive, eventually leading to punishment and defeat. Martin Scorsese, for example, has made a career of Cautionary narratives with films like Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Other classic examples include Amadeus or Citizen Kane.
Though they appear to be mirror opposites, Celebratory and Cautionary narratives accomplish similar ideological ends. By rewarding what our society considers “good” and punishing what it considers “bad,” these stories remind us of important cultural values and reinforce prevailing systems of belief. Thus, the cinema acts as an “ideology machine” which not only reflects our culture, but actively promotes its rules, norms, and expectations. Viewers are trained to recognize what is “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong,” or “proper” or “improper” by observing what attitudes or behaviors result in punishment or reward.
Yet behind this system lurk two additional forms of Hollywood narrative which seem to flip all this on its head. What about stories with protagonists who choose to act in ways we consider “good” or “heroic,” yet are still (to our surprise) punished with defeat in the end? What also of stories with protagonists who achieve victory through attitudes or behaviors we disapprove of or condemn? Here we find another pair of narrative types: tragic and cynical—stories in which the “bad” guys win.
At first glance, the outcomes of such stories seem upside-down, counter-productive, even dangerous to society. If stories use reward and punishment to teach “good” or “proper” behavior (as the Celebratory and Cautionary types suggest), why would a film punish a character for acting in a supposedly virtuous manner? What is worse, why would a film reward characters for actions we have been taught to consider wrong? These deviant narratives occur too frequently to be chalked up as mere aberrations. In fact, they constitute a significant percentage of the films produced each year. Why then do these films exist? What is the social purpose of stories where the bad guys win?
In truth, conventional Hollywood storytelling serves dual, and at times opposing, ideological purposes. As already stated, a film may use its system of reward and punishment to reinforce existing norms and beliefs. Success is only granted to what society deems “positive.” Yet a film may conversely question or criticize social norms or beliefs through outcomes designed to contradict such expectations. With these subversions, stories challenge prevailing attitudes and suggest the need for social change.
As I explain in Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative: Part I, audiences approach films with certain culturally-based preconceptions about the way their world operates. Along with these preconceptions come inclinations to support some ideas or beliefs and reject others. Yet by punishing what the audience has come to believe should be rewarded, or by rewarding what the audience believes should be punished, Tragic and Cynical narratives challenge viewers’ preconceptions and inclinations. In short, these films imply that the truth of matters is not as we have been taught or would like to believe. Thus, by reversing expectations, Tragic and Cynical narratives can question prevailing ideas, expose false beliefs, or point out how our world has failed to practice what it preaches.
To provide specific examples, Chinatown stands as one of Hollywood’s most celebrated Tragic narratives. Despite his personal flaws, protagonist Jake Gittes is perceived as a champion of the good and right. Acting upon a staunch belief in the value of personal integrity, Gittes takes it upon himself to single-handedly battle forces of social corruption. We, the audience, expect Gittes to win, as previous stories have taught us to believe the evils of society are always kept in check by men of integrity such as he. Yet by reversing the audience’s expectations, Chinatown’s outcome exposes this to be myth. Gittes’ noble efforts not only fail, but allow the forces of corruption to win. This shocking conclusion demands we consider the possibility that society is far more corrupt than we would like to believe. Integrity does not always win. The system far too often rewards the wicked. We are then left with serious questions regarding how or if society can change to better reflect its supposed ideals.
1995’s Braveheart presents a more subtle challenge to social attitudes. At first, William Wallace seems to embody all of our heroic ideals. We love and respect him, not the least for his refusal to compromise in any shape or form. Yet this supposed virtue turns out to be Wallace’s fatal flaw. Wallace exists in a political world where compromise is a frequent necessity. Refusing to see this, Wallace creates divisions amongst his allies, resulting in his betrayal and execution. With the hero’s defeat, Braveheart asks its audience to reevaluate Wallace’s attitudes and question whether a refusal to compromise is indeed a virtue or a vice.
As for Cynical narratives, there are few better than The Godfather. Protagonist Michael Corleone begins the film a moral idealist. Yet he soon finds such ideals mean nothing in the savage world of organized crime. Desperate to protect his family, Michael gradually adopts an attitude which deems any act acceptable, including murder, whenever necessary. Though we can understand Michael’s ultimate actions, we cannot fully condone them. Michael’s dark path to victory thus reveals a deep schism between the morals we are taught and how these morals play out in real life.
Apocalypse Now takes its narrative to even more cynical extremes. The film presents war as a state of insanity overlaid by false illusions of order and meaning. Captain Willard only accomplishes his mission by finally rejecting these illusions and embracing the madness all around him. With savagery the only path to survival, Apocalypse Now causes its audience to question not only what it thinks it knows about war, but human nature itself. Perhaps all our notions of morality and order are false fronts that when truly challenged will crumble to reveal the darkness that continues to lurk in our souls.
In summary, Celebratory and Cautionary narratives encourage us to improve ourselves and our world by reminding us of our most important cultural ideals. These appeals are made personal with the promise of greater happiness or success to those who live by the “positive” values of characters who succeed and shun the “harmful” values of those who fail. Tragic and Cynical narratives also ask that we improve ourselves and our world, but in a very different way. By revealing ugly “truths” contrary to desires or expectations, these stories urge us to reevaluate flawed assumptions so we may avoid the pitfalls of ignorance and/or fix social problems.
To conclude, the Celebratory, Cautionary, Tragic, and Cynical types represent not only Hollywood’s four basic narrative structures, but the four primary methods used to communicate message or meaning. As implied in this article, the narrative types express meaning not in the philosophical abstract, but through the combined developments of plot and character. I will explain the physical mechanics of these processes in my next article. MM
Michael Welles Schock is a script consultant and narrative theorist. He is the author of the books Screenwriting Down to the Atoms and Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative. Photo courtesy of Paramount.