Moral Messages in Motion Pictures

moral-premise-stanley-d-williams_mediumLast week, we discussed how movies, at their core, are the creative responses of creatures made in the image of God. While that’s what a movie is, people are usually more interested in what a movie means. There are at least two ways to answer this question at the general level. I’d like to talk about both, and so first, let’s look at the moral messages in motion pictures.

In A Matrix of Meanings, Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor draw a comparison between our pop culture and the Old Testament wisdom literature (11). A more apt comparison is probably between the collected wisdom of our pop culture and the wisdom literature of the Israel’s neighbors. Just as in the ancient Near East the wisdom literature of the surrounding cultures shed light on the beliefs and native religion of Israel’s neighbors, contemporary film does much the same for us.

For many in our popular culture, movies appear to be the “modern arena of ideas.” (Godawa, 254) These ideas, rather than being presented in a paper, or are being presented in story form. As Robert McKee notes, “Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence” (12). Stories in our films today retain much of the function that ancient mythology did for Israel’s neighbors in the Old and New Testaments. As Brian Godawa observes, “Since the beginning of time, humankind has used story to convey the meaning and purpose of life,” which means that, “In essence, story incarnates the myths and values of a culture with the intent of perpetuating them” (61). In this way, the stories in film can provide a window into what our cultures believes and how it thinks we should live in light of that. The focal point here will be on the moral dimension of film and seeing that as an expression of people’s religion.

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley Williams observes that “a cursory examination will affirm that psychological moral dilemmas are at the heart of every successful story” (17). He goes on to say that “Good stories tell us something that rings true about our experience as human beings” (49). From this perspective, “the goal of the storyteller is to take the audience through an emotional and psychological journey that reveals a poignant truth about the human experience” (35). What this journey reveals about how we should then live is the film’s moral premise. It is essentially the practical lesson of a particular story (19). It has been recognized to some degree by other film critics before Williams, but he is the first to do systematic research to validate the connection between a film’s moral premise and its box office success. He argues is that if a film refuses to integrate a sound moral premise into its plotline, it will not do well at the box office. A similar note could be said about movies with non-redemptive plot lines.

Other writers have expressed the idea differently, for instance Robert McKee says “the story’s ultimate meaning expressed through the action and aesthetic emotion of the last act’s climax” (115). For McKee this is called the “controlling idea.” Elsewhere, McKee has said “Storytelling is the creative demonstration of truth. A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action. A story’s structure is the means by which you first express, then prove your idea…without explanation” (113). In Christopher Vogler’s analysis, the equivalent of a moral premise is the Elixir that the Hero brings back to the Ordinary World. The Elixir can be a physical object as well, and those objects would then be considered metaphorical for a lesson learned, which is what Williams argues the moral premise is. As Williams sees it, the moral premise is a kind of natural law of storytelling, and it reflects the natural laws about morality that are wired into the universe.

Typically the moral premise “is comprised of four parts: a virtue, a vice, desirable consequences (success), and undesirable consequences (defeat).” As Williams concludes, “these four parts can be used to create a statement that describes precisely what a movie is really about, on both physical and psychological levels” (61). In this structure, a comedy is where the protagonist is confronted with the virtue in a “moment of grace” and embraces it to find the success he has been seeking. A tragedy is where the protagonist is similarly confronted with the virtue in a moment of grace, but embraces the vice instead, leading to defeat. These elements can be brought out by taking note of the story’s spine, which connects the physical quest with the psychological quest of a particular story. In a way, the visible story is a metaphor for the invisible story; or the psychological goal of the protagonist is revealed by the physical goal; or again, “the protagonist’s inner journey is shown to us in the protagonist’s outer journey” (68). In this way, the journey to redemption as noted in the last chapter contains a practical application for the here and now. Since “The redemption in a particular worldview or belief system is its proposal for how to fix what is wrong with us,” (Godawa, 24) it necessarily implies some kind of action on part of the audience. That action, or the moral premise of the film, sheds light on how our culture believes we should live in our world.

Because man is by nature an image bearer of God and because he knows certain things to be right and wrong (Rom. 1:32), the moral premise of most films, if it is to achieve the natural law status that Williams sees as necessary, will actually be in accord with the teachings of Scripture. Many films can usually be applauded as upholding biblical virtues, albeit from a non-Christian standpoint. There will usually be a tension given the worldview that informs the moral premise. While the moral premise may be exemplary and even fit well into a Christian worldview, it may often contradict the philosophical vantage point of the actual film. The fact that many people will still find the moral premise compelling, given the worldview of the film, suggests further confirmation of Scripture’s teaching in Romans 1 and 2. When God has been jettisoned from the picture, there is no inherent reason why anyone should have to follow an exemplary virtue, other than the desirable results offered. But people still want to live the good life (for the most part) and look to film either explicitly or implicitly for guidance on how to make sense of living in the world. What they see on the screen is the embodied morals of the surrounding culture.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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