Triperspectivalism and the Movies (D)

April 7, 2011 — 1 Comment

[This post is part of the Perspectives on Triperspectivalism series]

I almost forget we hadn’t finished this mini-series (within a series). This is the last post though, picking up from where the one before left off, which was a brief discussion of “story” as it relates to movies.

Here we go…


Worldviews are, to perhaps over simplify, really just what they sound like: ways to view the world. One’s worldview is the predominate set of lens through which you look at everything. James Sire in his classic text on the topic defines a worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions which we hold about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”[1] One’s worldview, like a pair of glasses, influences how one sees reality. Through the worldview, there are typically seven questions that are answered: (1) What is really real? (2) What is the nature of external reality, the world around us? (3) What is a human being? (4) What happens to a person after death? (5) Why is it possible to know anything at all? (6) How do we know what is right and wrong? (7) What is the meaning of human history?[2] A given movie may not answer each of the questions, but it definitely highlights one or more of them for exploration. The answers it offers are the result of the overriding worldview it espouses.

Another way of defining worldviews is that they are “a network of presuppositions (which are not verified by the procedures of natural science) regarding reality (metaphysics), knowing (epistemology), and conduct (ethics) in terms of which every element of human experience is related and interpreted.”[3] From this definition one can see how a worldview is a kind of philosophy of life. So, to ask what a movie’s worldview is, is to ask what kind of philosophy it espouses. As Grant Horner notes, “the study of film is important for Christians because it is the modern day equivalent of philosophy.”[4] While it is perhaps an overstatement to equate the two, it is certainly evident that movie theaters may be generating more philosophical discussion in mainstream culture than the works of academic philosophers.[5] In a similar way, it is films that are raising theological and at times answering theological questions in the broader culture (e.g. the recent release, The Adjustment Bureau). To enter into a coherent dialogue requires that one be able to analyze the film philosophically/theologically from within, but that is only one perspective of a thorough analysis.


Turning now more explicitly to ethics and practical applications, “a cursory examination will affirm that psychological moral dilemmas are at the heart of every successful story.”[6] In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley Williams observes that “Good stories tell us something that rings true about our experience as human beings.”[7] He states further that, “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.”[8] In other words, from a triperspectival analysis, a good story inherently has existential import. The analysis from the existential perspective will deal with what Williams has termed a film’s moral premise.[9]

Essentially, the moral premise is the practical lesson of a particular story.[10] It has been noticed 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.[11] Other writers have expressed the idea differently, for instance as Robert McKee does in Story: “the story’s ultimate meaning expressed through the action and aesthetic emotion of the last act’s climax.”[12] 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.”[13] In Vogler’s analysis, shown above, the equivalent of a moral premise is the Elixir that the hero brings back to the Ordinary World.[14] 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.[15]

The question arises how to determine a particular film’s moral premise. Typically, “it is comprised of four parts: a virtue, a vice, desirable consequences (success), and undesirable consequences (defeat).”[16] 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.”[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] 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.”[20] Having reflected thoroughly on the physical plot of the Story already, one would be prepared at this point in the method to identify the underlying psychological plot, which can then be used to formulate the moral premise of the particular film.


Having analyzed the story, teased out the worldview, and identified the moral premise, we have now explored, albeit briefly, what a triperspectival analysis would look like within a cinematic perspective on film. For most of us, a general triperspectival Christian perspective has already been constructed, respective to our tradition. Given your theological vantage point, after constructing the cinematic perspective, you can then proceed to look at the film from the comparative perspective. Space does not permit details of how that would proceed, but it should be noted that many times the moral premise of the story will find typically find affinities in the wisdom literature. In that case, many films, whose content we may not find acceptable, may nevertheless be teaching a moral lesson we can, as Christians, applaud.

From this brief exposition, it has hopefully been shown the value of using John Frame’s triperspectival method for film analysis. There is no shortage of Christian film approaches available, but many they rarely tend to be comprehensive in their approach, looking at the topic from all perspectives. Even this analysis is unfortunately truncated. As stated earlier, the focus here is almost exclusively on the ideological content of the film. To increase the depth of the analysis, one would only have to create further triads within triads. Eventually though you risk falling off into limbo. Hopefully we have stopped just short of being washed ashore there.

[1] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 4th ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 17. Parenthetically in that definition Sire notes that the presuppositions may are “assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false” and they may be held “consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistenly.”

[2] Ibid. 20

[3] Gary DeMar, ed., Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methdology of Greg L. Bahnsen (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007), 42-43

[5] This is not to disparage the works of academic philosophers, but more or less to observe that if they want their writings read, they must be clothed in non-academic garb. More people in modern culture probably understand Nietzsche’s ubermensch because of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker than they do because of a well thought out academic essay on the same topic.

[6] Stanley D. Williams, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice For Box Office Success (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006), 17.

[7] Ibid. 49.

[8] Ibid. 35.

[9] William’s moral premise is equivalent to the phrase “ethical imperative” that has been used here previously.

[11] This was essentially his Ph.D dissertation and a brief summary of the research formula is included in Ibid. 163-64. What 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 film with non-redemptive plot lines.

[12] Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 115

[13] Ibid. 113. As Williams notes, McKee is “trying to tell us…that storytelling is basically a philosophical pursuit wherein we explore what is true and false, and how to live our lives better and happier.” Williams, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice For Box Office Success, 98.

[16] Ibid. 61.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. 74.

[19] Ibid. 68. In the particular analysis pursued here, the physical quest is detailed more explicitly under the Story heading, while here under Ethics we are dealing with the psychological quest.

[20] Ibid.



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