Plot driven or Character driven – or something completely different? The genius of ‘Forrest Gump’ (part 2)
“I don’t know if we each have a destiny or we’re all floating around, accidental like, on a breeze. But I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time,”
says Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump as he tries to unpick the eternal conundrum of fate verses free will. His ruminations have a lot in common with a struggle writers have when they start a new story, something that was made clear to me recently when I took a class in writing a one-hour TV pilot: is the story character driven or plot driven? Or is it a bit of both? Most of the students seemed to think their stories were a bit of both. But then we watched the openings of four different UK television dramas and the students easily identified which were character driven stories and which were plot driven – then, when they looked at their own stories again, the ambiguity had gone.
This distinction wouldn’t have been as easy if I’d shown them ‘Forrest Gump’.
A character driven story is defined as a story in which the internal emotional journey of the main character is more important than the external plot. There are many great character driven stories: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘American Beauty’ to name a few - but one that stands out is Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’. While the turf war between five competing Sicilian families is important and the choice whether or not to enter the narcotics trade plays a key role, the story is about Michael Corleone. It is Michael’s transition from patriotic war hero to head of an infamous Mafia family that keeps us watching. What Michael, played by Al Pacino, wants at the beginning of the story is to be unlike his family, he makes this explicit to his girlfriend Kay, Diane Keaton, at his sister’s wedding. What Michael needs is to realise the very characteristics that made him go against his family’s wishes and go to war – his sense of duty, honour and integrity - are the very traits that will make him the perfect Godfather above his hot-tempered older brother, Sonny, and his cowardly middle brother Fredo. Sitting at a table in a restaurant in the middle of the film facing the two men who are trying to kill his father he has a choice: walk away and do what he wants to do and not be like his family or do what he needs to do, which is kill them, and start upon the road that will lead him to be the Godfather. Like any story that ends well, he gives in to his need: he stands and shoots them both dead.
This ability to define a character’s conscious and subconscious desire clearly isn’t possible with ‘Forrest Gump’ because Forrest Gump seems to want and need the same thing: to be with Jenny – but, as discussed in the first part of this blog, he makes no attempt to be with her and soon after she has acquiesced to be with him, she dies.
So is it a plot driven story?
A plot driven story is a story in which external events are more important than the main character’s internal, emotional journey: Indiana Jones is the same person at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ as he is at the beginning; Jack Ryan is the same, noble man in every film he appears in no matter which actor is playing him and Miss Marple incisively tracks down killers across decades in TV and film and never once comes to a moment of profound self-revelation.
The most pristine example of a plot driven story is Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’. In it Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a suave New York advertising exec, whose only weakness is his mother. Sitting in a hotel restaurant Thornhill sticks his hand up to attract a waiter’s attention just as a message is broadcast over the PA system asking for a George Kaplan. Two enemy agents, who have been staking out the hotel, think Roger has identified himself as Kaplan. From that moment until the end of the film Thornhill’s life is in danger as he tries to discover who Kaplan is and why everyone seems to think he is Kaplan. He is almost driven off a mountain road, he has to dodge a crop duster that is ‘dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops’ and in the end he almost slides off Mount Rushmore. But at no point does his conscious and subconscious desires collide and he is the same suave, sophisticated exec at the end pulling Eva Marie Saint into the top bunk as the train they are on penetrates a tunnel, as he was at the beginning.
Whilst Forrest Gump is exactly the same person at the end of the film sitting by the bus stop waiting for his son to return from school as he is in the first flashback where he remembers his first pair of shoes, the film has no mystery that needs to be resolved or any danger that need to be eluded. There is no plot. Forrest meanders from one defining moment in US history to another with absolutely no plan. And the film isn’t building up to a particular climax that has been intricately established and developed over the course of its two hour running time.
So ‘Forrest Gump’ isn’t plot driven nor is it character driven and it doesn’t fall into that liminal zone that most writers seem to think their stories exist where it’s a bit of both – it is a lot of neither. It is essentially a series of vignettes strung together by Forrest’s love for Jenny.
So it shouldn’t work as a story.
But on that October evening back in 1994 when I went to see ‘Forrest Gump’ on its opening weekend I was struck by the reaction of the woman sitting next to me. From the moment the feather appears in the opening credits to when it appears again at the end, she was enraptured. Mostly she sat in silence but there were times when she laughed – on seeing the expression on Jenny’s college room-mate’s face as Forrest and Jenny make out on the bed behind her – and there were other times when she cried – when Forrest returns home because his mother is dying or when Lieutenant Dan finally thanks Forrest for saving his life.
I thought then, and I still think now, that a story that can sweep someone up so completely that it can make them laugh and cry is quite some story indeed - whether it adheres to a template of what a good story should be or it doesn’t.
“But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
says Frodo at the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
“How do you pick up the pieces of an old life?”
ponders Elija Wood as Frodo as he wanders around Bag End listlessly at the end of Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’.
Frodo’s musings work perfectly within the context of ‘The Lord of the Rings’: forced to leave the innocence and comfort of Hobbiton to travel across a world into the scorching hell of Mordor; after having witnessed unimaginable suffering and having suffered himself; over the course of almost a 1000 pages in the book and over 10hrs of screen time in the films (the cinematic versions not the extended DVD editions), we empathise with Frodo’s struggle to fit back in when he returns to the quiet routine of his home.
But the passages have a deeper resonance for those who know because it is impossible to read/hear either of them and not think about what inspired them: Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War and the disconnect the soldiers who survived felt when they returned home.
There are many allusions to WWI in ‘The Lord of the Rings’: the rising threat of danger and destruction amassing in the East as Sauron assembles his armies mirrors the rise of Germany; the decimation of natural forests to build factories to service the war effort around Isengard was what Tolkien witnessed happen to the countryside around Birmingham; the alliance of many people from different countries speaking different languages coming together to fight a common foe in Sauron equates to the alliance of Russia, France and the UK against the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary ; the talk of how the War of the Rings will be the great war to end all wars echoes what most thought about WWI when 70 million troops where mobiles and 16 million people died.
Much has been written about ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and its use of metaphor, specifically allegory. Tolkien himself had this to say in the forward to the second edition of ‘The Lord of the Rings’:
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
So Tolkien never explicitly set out to write about the war in an allegorical way, as Orwell set out to write about a totalitarian state in ‘Animal Farm’, but he accepts that as readers we might look at Frodo’s journey through that lens: the truthful rendering of an experience many found indescribable: having to abandon their homes to travel to faraway places to fight a remorseless enemy and witness unimaginable scenes of horror and destruction.
Whereas Tolkien seems reluctant to accept his use of metaphor, others embrace it: Paul Verhoeven has described how his 1987 film ‘Robocop’ is a retelling of Christ’s story, Steven Spielberg has talked about how E.T in his 1982 film is really a father figure who steps in when Elliot’s real father has left (in one scene E.T. even dresses up in a man’s clothes and gets drunk whilst watching TV) and Neill Blomkamp accepts that it was apartheid blighted Johannesburg that inspired ‘District 9’. One of my favourite uses of metaphor is in James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’.
“The national psyche was still full of Vietnam so I think that, because Jim was going to do it all with colonial police kind of thing, there should be a subliminal Vietnam look.”
says the inspirational Ron Cobb who worked as the conceptual artist on the film. Once you know that ‘Aliens’ is a metaphor for the Vietnam War you see the similarities everywhere: the insidious corporation that sends a group of highly trained, gung-ho marines into battle against a less equipped but determined enemy. How the marines’ initial optimism quickly turns to despair as their numbers are decimated. How they become resentful and disillusioned when they realise they were sent to war not for a noble purpose but to service the corporation. And how, in the end, the only survivors are the ones that knew the war was wrong and unwinnable from the beginning: Hicks, the cynic, Newt, the innocent victim, and Ripley, who tried to warn everyone from the start.
Once you start looking for it you can find metaphors, intentional or unintentional, everywhere: in the adventures of Harry Potter; in the dark corners of any good horror story; in the battles between superheroes and super-villains.
C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s friend, once wrote:
“The function of allegory is not to hide but to reveal, and it is properly used only for that which cannot be said, or so well said, in literal speech. The inner life, and specially the life of love, religion, and spiritual adventure, has therefore always been the field of true allegory; for here there are intangibles which only allegory can fix and reticences which only allegory can overcome” (Lewis, Love 166).
Maybe that is why sci-fi and fantasy tackle the big issues of war, despair and political intrigue. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are seen as a reimaging of the Christian myth – which is, as Joseph Campbell revealed, just a reimagining of an ancient universal myth. Which brings us back to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ because it is also a retelling of the mono-myth.
So even though he was set against it, Tolkien layered metaphor upon metaphor as he expressed his pain and the pain of many thousands of others in one of the greatest feats of imaginative storytelling.
He wrote about what he knew but didn’t constrain his imagination to what he’d seen.
And a good metaphor, used intelligently, is what great storytellers always use to allow their imaginations to soar.