Every script, like a figure skating routine, has a degree of difficulty to it. The closer you stay to basic dramatic structure, the lower the degree of difficulty is. So the most basic dramatic story, the easiest degree of difficulty, is the standard: Character wants something badly and he tries to get it. “Taken” is the ideal example. Liam Neeson wants to save his daughter. Or if you want to go classic, Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark of The Covenant. Rocky wants to fight Apollo Creed. Simple, but still powerful.
Each element you add or variable you change increases the degree of difficulty and requires the requisite amount of skill to pull off. If a character does not have a clear cut goal, such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, that increases the degree of difficulty. If there are three protagonists instead of one, such as in L.A. Confidential, that increases the degree of difficulty. If you’re telling a story in reverse such as Memento or jumping backwards and forwards in time such as in Slumdog Millionaire, these things increase the degree of difficulty.
The movies/scripts I’m reviewing this week all have high degrees of difficulty. I’m going to break down how these stories deviate from the basic formula yet still manage to work. Monday, Roger reviewed Kick-Ass. Tuesday, I reviewed Star Wars. Wednesday, I reviewed The Shawshank Redemption. Today, like is like a box of chocolates.
Logline: A simple man looks back at his extraordinary life.
About: Forrest Gump is the 23rd most successful film in domestic box office history, grossing 624 million dollars if you adjust for inflation. It stole the Oscar for Best Picture away from The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction (for those keeping track, the other two movies in the race were Four Weddings and A Funeral and……….Quiz Show???). Gump also won Tom Hanks a best actor Oscar.
Writer: Eric Roth (based on the novel by Winston Groom)
Degree of Difficulty – 5 (out of 5)
Yes! I love talking about Forrest Gump. It’s one of those divisive movies that always gets the opinions flowing. People either love it or hate it. I think it’s a great movie, but I understand where the non-likers are coming from. Let’s face it. It’s a smarmy feel good star vehicle that wants you to love it a little too much. But here’s the difference between Forrest Gump and all the other also-rans jockeying for that blatant heartstring tug-a-thon (like “The Blind Side” for instance). Forrest Gump is DIFFERENT. It’s unlike any movie you’ve ever seen and unlike any movie you’re ever going to see. This isn’t some by-the-numbers bullshit. It’s genuinely original. For that reason alone, it’s worthy of discussion.
Let’s start off with the span of time the movie takes place in. Movies are really good at dealing with contained time periods. Why? Because contained time periods provide immediacy to the story. Characters are forced to face their issues and achieve their goals right away and that makes the story move. This is why a lot of films take place within a few days or a few weeks. Once you start spanning months and years and decades, you lose that inherent momentum, and you’re forced to figure out ways to replace it (which isn’t easy!). Forrest Gump takes place over something like 40 years. Not looking good.
But that isn’t the biggest problem for Gump by a long shot. What truly makes the success of this movie baffling is that its main character is the single most passive mainstream protagonist in the history of film. Forrest Gump doesn’t initiate ANY-thing in this movie. He literally stumbles around from amazing situation to amazing situation like a member of the Jersey Shore cast. All of Forrest Gump’s decisions are orchestrated by someone else. People tell Forrest to jump and he says “how high?”. A main character who doesn’t drive the story? You’ve written yourself into Trouble Town. Next train leads to Screwedville in five minutes.
Another issue is, just like The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump has as much plot as an episode of Dora The Explorer (note: I’ve never actually seen Dora The Explorer but I’m guessing there’s not a lot of plot in it). There’s no overarching goal for the protagonist. There’s no drive. No first act, second act, or third act (although I’ve seen people try to break this into acts – it’s never been convincing). Instead, the film plays out like a series of vignettes – or better yet, a sitcom episode. Tom Hanks is thrown into a crazy situation. Something funny happens. Repeat. It’s a very compartmentalized approach to the story. Why these disconnected misadventures worked was a mystery to me for a long time. But I think I finally figured it out.
Why it works:
It came to me like a flash of light. I hadn’t seen Forrest Gump in forever but there the answer to my question was. Forrest Gump wasn’t a movie. It was a documentary. Documentaries don’t have first act breaks and mid-points and character arcs. They simply follow a person’s life and whatever happens to that person happens. All the documentary has to do is capture it. Now as all documentarians know, documentaries are made or broken by their subject. Without a compelling subject, you don’t have a documentary. And that’s why this film worked. Forrest Gump is one of the most fascinating characters we’ve ever seen. He’s “retarded,” yet doesn’t wallow in it. He does extraordinary things, yet is humble about it. His childlike enthusiasm appeals to the kid in all of us. His situation is ironic (he’s extremely successful yet has the intelligence of a 6th grader). This man has a ton going on underneath the hood.
But the characteristic that most ensures the character's success is that Forrest Gump is the ultimate UNDERDOG. I cannot make this clear enough. EVERYBODY LOVES AN UNDERDOG. When someone is picked on, looked down upon, is a longshot, we love to root for them. And Forrest Gump is the biggest underdog of them all. He’s physically handicapped (as a child). He’s mentally handicapped (as a child and an adult). Yet he achieves things the rest of us could only dream of. It’s entertaining as hell to watch, and it’s impossible not to feel good for the guy when it happens.
Another key component here is the detail given to the supporting characters, particularly Lieutenant Dan. Remember, some protagonists don’t arc. The story just isn’t conducive to them transforming. That happens here in Gump. But if that’s the case, you should probably have one of your supporting characters fill that role, because the audience wants to see somebody learn something by the end of the film (or become a better person in some capacity). Roth recognized that, which is why he has the eternally cynical character of Lieutenant Dan learn the gift of life over the course of the story.
Speaking of supporting characters, Roth also needed some kind of thread to hold the story together. The plot was so wacky, so disconnected, that had he not added a connective thread, it would’ve come off as a series of comedy skits. He needed a constant. And that’s where Jenny came in.
What’s so cool about the Jenny relationship is that everything goes so well for Forrest…except his relationship with her. I said up above that there's no goal for Forrest and that’s technically correct (Forrest doesn’t actively pursue anything). But he does keep bumping into Jenny. And he does want her. So because there’s an element of pursuit going on, we become engaged. We want to know, will he get her or not?
Remember, movies are essentially characters trying to overcome obstacles. That's it. And the greater the obstacle, the more involved we get, the more rewarding it is when our character overcomes said obstacle. What’s a greater obstacle than being in love with someone who will never love you back? It’s the ultimate underdog scenario. And our desire to see if he Forrest can pull off the impossible is what gives this movie purpose. Quite simply, we want to see if Forrest gets the girl. And that’s enough to keep us satisfied for 150 minutes.
I’d be interested to hear why you guys believed this movie worked (or didn’t). When I’m in a bad mood, I hate how cute it can be. But otherwise, I get a kick out of how weird and different it is. It fascinates me every time I watch it.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: If a character has a weakness, don’t allow him to wallow in it. Nobody likes the “woe is me” guy/girl in real life, so why the hell would we like them onscreen? Forrest has a serious disability but he doesn’t let it affect him. He pushes on with a positive attitude. It’s hard not to like someone like that.