Two years ago I wrote an article identifying the 20 Common Patterns of Plot, or “Story Types” found in feature films. Recently, I have expanded on these types with articles analyzing specific films, including the use of the Reconciled Rivals type in two of Sergio Leone’s most popular films, and the Healing Narrative as found in Alexander Payne’s Sideways. This month’s article, and the one to follow, looks at one of the most commonly-used story types, the “Taking on the Mantle.”
Along with “An Innocent Abroad” and “A Small Man/Woman Rises,” the Taking on the Mantle story type is found more often in mainstream cinema than any other, appearing in films in every style or genre, ranging from Schinder’s List to Iron Man. To introduce it briefly, a Taking on the Mantle story begins with a protagonist who is capable of being a hero, yet is unwilling to take on that role due to a collection of selfish or self-destructive traits. For years, the protagonist has used these traits to voluntarily close him or herself off from the physical and emotional needs of other human beings, resulting in a lonely, self-protected little world. The protagonist’s life is then invaded by a problem that forces him or her to step outside of this selfish world and realize the damage his/her negative traits cause him/herself and others. This creates and ethical dilemma. The protagonist can either turn a blind eye to those in need and fall back into his or her old ways, or the protagonist can abandon these traits and become a hero. A “mantle” is the long, flowing cape usually associated with superheroes. So, in this story type, the protagonist must choose to either put on the clothes of a hero, or remain in those of a heel.
Looking closer, the Taking on the Mantle story type can be further divided into two distinct subtypes:
a. Crisis of Character
b. Crisis of Conscience
In Crisis of Character, the protagonist begins the story with a warped, ego-centric consideration of right and wrong. The protagonist acts as if he or she is the center of the universe, and is unwilling to show any regard for the persons around them unless they can benefit from the situation.
In Crisis of Conscience, the protagonist does begin the story with an honest sense of right and wrong. However, the protagonist chooses to ignore it. Instead, the character willingly turns a blind eye towards evil or injustice, even becoming complicit in its execution, based upon justifications the character creates to convince him or herself that it is best to stay quiet and play along with this evil.
Crisis of Character and Crisis of Conscience take different paths to transform their protagonists. Though seen less often, we will investigate the Crisis of Conscience first. (Why? Frankly, I am currently working on a story in this subtype, so at the moment I have put much more work into it.)
The Crisis of Conscience Subtype
We will use three films as models: On the Waterfront (1954), Casablanca (1942), and Michael Clayton (2007).
Please keep in mind as you read on that story types and subtypes provide only generalized patterns of plot and character. They are not hard formulas that must be followed in exacting detail. In all three of our study films, there exists one or two elements that skew slightly to the left or right of the established pattern. These deviations do not invalidate the points made here, but merely show their flexibility. As I have said over and over, the rules of structure must adapt to the needs of the individual story, not the other way around.
The MAJOR PLAYERS
The Protagonist of a Crisis of Conscience begins the story living in a world of self-imposed neutrality. He (or she) may have been optimistic in the past, but an event outside of his control has shattered his dreams and stained his outlook on the world. Though the protagonist may dislike the place fate has put him, the protagonist resigns himself to the notion that it is best to simply carry out the role he has been given. The character no longer has great ambitions. He just wants to survive.
Rick Blaine of Casablanca (Humphrey Bogart) was once an idealist fighting against the fascist cause. That is, until his heart was broken, causing him to become coarse and withdrawn, unwilling to care for anyone but himself. Terry Malloy of On the Waterfront (Marlon Brando) was once a promising prizefighter. That is, until mob creep Johnny Friendly told him to take a dive in his biggest fight. His dream shattered, Terry can see no other role in life than one of Friendly’s two-bit flunkies. The eponymous Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is the self-titled “janitor” of a powerful law firm. Though the job has given him status and money, he has grown sick of bending the law for morally ambiguous clients. At one time he planned to escape this life by opening his own restaurant, only to have his dream fall apart thanks to his drug-addicted brother, leaving him with a six-figure debt.
If one follows the Nine Character Alignments, Rick, Terry, and Michael all begin as True Neutral in their alignment, and then later transition into Neutral Good. However, a Crisis of Conscience protagonist can also work just as well as a Lawful Neutral who transitions into Lawful Good, or even a Chaotic Neutral who becomes Chaotic Good.
The Force of Darkness
The Outside Relationship Character
In Casablanca, this character is Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who begs Rick to defy Major Strasser so she and her fugitive husband may escape. In Waterfront, this is Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the love interest who compels Terry to atone for his role in the death of her brother. This relationship need not be romantic, however. In Michael Clayton this character is Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the lawyer gone rogue who asks Michael to help him destroy uNorth for the sake of everything good in the world. Father Barry (Karl Malden) exists as a secondary Outside Relationship in Waterfront. Here is one of those little deviations. While a single outside relationship character will usually do the job, Waterfront gives Terry’s conscience a double shot with two characters who compel him with two different angles on the same argument.
The Neutral Facilitator
The fourth and final essential Crisis of Conscience character behaves as what the “Hero’s Journey” archetype would call a shadow character. The Neutral Facilitator usually acts as an intermediary or messenger between the Protagonist and the Force of Darkness. Neither clearly good nor evil, it is often difficult to tell exactly where the Neutral Facilitator’s loyalty lies. Casablanca’s Captain Renault (Claude Rains) is a classic example. Renault is both Rick’s friend and foe. He kowtows to Strasser at one moment, and openly undermines him the next. Renualt “blows with the wind,” and does not reveal his true sentiments until the story’s very end. Michael’s boss Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) fills this role in Clayton. Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) does so in Waterfront.
The function of the Neutral Facilitator is twofold. First, the character acts as a neutral party whom the protagonist can use as a sounding board as he struggles with his moral tug-of-war. Second and more importantly, the Neutral Facilitator brings the protagonist tasks and challenges designed to lead the protagonist deeper into the story situation. Marty orders Michael Clayton to track down and control Arthur. Charley tells Terry to spy on the Father Barry’s meeting, which leads Terry to become further involved with Edie. Renault is a central catalyst in Rick’s ordeal with the stolen letters of transit. Why is this necessary? When a protagonist starts a film as aloof and closed-off as those found in Crisis of Conscience stories, he or she does not feel very motivated to take any kind of action on his or her own. The protagonist would rather ignore the situation than get involved. Therefore, it is necessary for someone or something to push the protagonist into the situation until the time comes when the protagonist’s conscience comes takes hold and the protagonist feels the urge to act on his or her own.
The COURSE of the PLOT
His loyalty established, the protagonist is then presented with a larger, more important mission. Terry is asked to spy on Father Barry’s meeting. Rick is asked to cooperate with Strasser’s efforts to against fugitive Victor Lazlo. Michael is sent to salvage a meltdown that has emerged in their case with uNorth. This mission puts the protagonist into direct contact with the Outside Relationship character. Terry helps Edie escape the violence that follows the meeting. Rick discovers that Lazlo is traveling with Isla. Michael must babysit Arthur Edens after Arthur’s psychotic breakdown.
As the interactions between the Protagonist and Outside Relationship character advance, the Outside Relationship begins to openly challenge the Protagonist’s ethics and behavior. He or she questions the reasons for the Protagonist’s allegiance to the Force of Darkness and then asks the Protagonist for help. However, the Outside Relationship’s request would mean open defiance of the Force of Darkness. Edie asks Terry to come clean about her brother’s murder. Isla begs Rick to help her and Lazlo escape. Arthur asks Michael to help him bring down uNorth.
Though the Protagonist refuses this request, the Outside Relationship succeeds at planting a dilemma in the Protagonist’s mind. The Protagonist is now finds himself at the center of two diametrically opposed lines of conflict: a conflict between the Protagonist and Outside Relationship over what the Outside Relationship wants him to do, versus a conflict between Protagonist and Force of Darkness over what it wants him to do. The “crisis of conscience” has fully formed.
As Act 2A advances, events cause this dilemma to grows more and more difficult for the Protagonist to handle. Before long, the Force of Darkness takes notice. The Force of Darkness begins to wonder whether the Protagonist remains truly loyal to its side, often giving the Protagonist warnings or threats, either directly or through the Neutral Facilitator.
The scales of this dilemma begin to tip at the Mid-2nd Act Turning Point. The Force of Darkness commits an action so morally reprehensible that the Protagonist feels he can no longer continue looking the other way. Johnny Friendly kills a second innocent dockworker. Major Strasser cracks down on Rick and makes a veiled promise kill Lazlo. Karen Crowder has Arthur murdered with a faked suicide. All it takes now is a little nudge from the Outside Relationship before the Protagonist decides he must turn on the Force of Darkness. At the Midpoint, the Protagonist takes the leap from reactive to proactive, from a slave to duty to a person of ethics, from flunkie to hero.
The protagonist begins Act 2B finally ready to take his first decisive actions against the Force of Darkness. Terry finally talks to the Waterfront Commission. Michael investigates the circumstances of Arthur’s death. Rick launches a plan to bluff his way past Strasser and Renault in order to get Ilsa and Lazlo to safety.
The Force of Darkness realizes what is happening and does not like it. It offers the Protagonist an ultimatum: either back off and get in line or be destroyed. Once again, the Neutral Facilitator character is often the messenger. This occurs in Waterfront in the classic scene between Terry and Charley in the back of the cab. This is the scene in Clayton when Marty tells Michael to forget about the entire situation and let uNorth resolve the situation.
The Protagonist refuses this ultimatum, and thus signs his own death warrant. The Force of Darkness sees no other option than to destroy the Protagonist. Karen Crowder has her goons put a bomb in Michael’s car. Johnny Friendly kills Terry’s brother and then tries to run Terry down. Though the Protagonist survives, he is overcome by a second significant change to his character. This is no longer just an ethical situation. It is a personal one. The Protagonist is convinced that the only remaining solution is to bring the Force of Darkness to its knees, and as Terry puts it, “take it out on their skulls.”
(It should be noted that Casablanca skips the last two plot points. This is because, surprisingly, Casablanca’s Act 2B is only one story sequence long. In fact, the film’s entire structural second half lasts only twenty minutes! Casablanca is an example of a film that succeeds despite having imperfect structure. I plan to write an article on this in the coming months.)
In Act 3, the Protagonist launches a final plan to destroy the Force of Darkness and achieve justice for the Outside Relationship. Terry gets his revenge on Johnny Friendly, first politically by testifying against him in court, and then personally through a face-to-face confrontation. Rick ensures that Lazlo and Ilsa escape Casablanca by turning the tables on Renault and shooting Major Strasser. Michael scams a confession out of Karen Crowder that brings uNorth to its doom.
It is important to notice that in these final moments the Protagonist completes his full and total transformation from absolutely selfish to absolutely self-less. In order to do what it right, the Protagonist willingly sacrifices everything he has valued in the past. Terry gives up all of his privileges and becomes a pariah. Rick abandons his life of wealth and influence to become a wanted criminal of the Third Reich. Michael turns on his business, meaning he will likely lose his job and everything that comes with it. In order to take on the mantle of a hero, the Protagonist must wipe himself clean and start over from scratch. This makes the end bittersweet. However, all is not lost. By giving up his shallow, material comforts, the Protagonist gains something more valuable: the love and respect of those who still have decency in their hearts; whether it be the dockworkers, Renault, Michael’s policeman brother, or anyone else who still believes in goodness and justice.
Okay, you may say, there indeed seems to be a pattern here. But these three films all exist in a similar vein. They are all straight drama combined with elements of romance or thriller. But what about something in another genre? What about something completely different?
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Okay, here is something completely different. On the surface, Disney’s 1988 family comedy/detective noir mash-up seems to have little in common with Waterfront, Casablanca, or Clayton (except perhaps the prevalence of suits and fedoras). However, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is also a Crisis of Conscience that follows the same pattern.
Rabbit’s Protagonist is Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), a once happy-go-lucky private eye grown bitter and angry after his brother was murdered by a “toon.” Eddie now sees the world as dirty, ugly, unjust place. He has become self-centered, withdrawn, and most importantly, bigoted against toons.
This seems to make Eddie the perfect pawn for the story’s Force of Darkness, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). Doom is a demented sociopath who wishes to use the law to crush Toontown under an iron claw. Though Eddie recognizes that Doom is a twisted character, Doom represents the law, much like Major Strasser in Casablanca. For a man in Eddie’s position, it is wisest for him to keep his mouth shut and play along.
Eddie’s story begins when he is hired for a minor task by cartoon studio head R.K. Maroon. Working as Doom’s proxy, Maroon asks Eddie to take incriminating photos of millionaire Marvin Acme with the wife of his star actor Roger Rabbit. Eddie does the task, proving his willingness to take part in morally ambiguous behavior. Unfortunately, this photos result in the murder of Marvin Acme, and Roger Rabbit is accused of the crime. Playing off Eddie’s bigotry for toons, Judge Doom requests a bigger task – to assist him in Roger’s capture and punishment.
Only Roger is innocent. He becomes the Outside Relationship character when he approaches Eddie and begs for his help. As typical in this subtype, Eddie wants nothing to do with Roger. However, Eddie is forced to extend the relationship with Roger when the two end up handcuffed together and Eddie must hide Roger from Doom’s flunkies.
Now Eddie faces a dilemma. Put his neck on the line for Roger or play it safe and let the chips fall where they may? Doom senses Eddie’s wavering commitment to the law and tries to intimidate him through various means. Only Doom takes things too far when he tries to execute Roger without trial at the story’s Midpoint. Eddie decides to openly defy the Force of Darkness by saving Roger. With this action, Eddie finally chooses to take willful action to put things right. Eddie begins his own investigation of Acme’s murder so Roger may be saved and justice done.
This leads Doom to conclude he must destroy Eddie. Eddie receives his first warning when Doom shoots at him in an alley. Eddie doesn’t quit, leading Doom to kidnap Eddie at the End of 2nd Act Turning Point, intent on killing him.
Though Who Framed Roger Rabbit has all the earmarks of a Crisis of Conscience subtype, it is not a perfect example of the subtype as are On the Waterfront or Michael Clayton. This is mostly the result of Roger Rabbit’s attempts to fulfill the needs of a family comedy, while at the same time follow the formula of a detective noir, while still using the plot pattern of a Crisis of Conscience. With all these diverse ingredients, some will inevitably be incompatible. First off, Roger Rabbit executes the functions of the Neutral Facilitator in a very clumsy manner. As the film begins, the Neutral Facilitator seems to be R.K. Maroon. However, Maroon almost disappears after the first act. The Neutral Facilitator’s shadow character qualities are denied to Maroon, and instead given to Jessica Rabbit. Jessica does partially fulfill the role of Neutral Facilitator for the remainder of the film, but she is also forced to pull double-duty as a noir femme fatale – two roles that are not necessarily complimentary. Because of this role confusion, Jessica Rabbit’s character is the least developed of the main cast and her scenes tend to inhibit the story rather than push it forward.
The second major flaw comes in the film’s third act. Even as a kid, I felt that the last twenty minutes of Roger Rabbit never lived up to the rest of the film. Now I know why. Rather than stick with the Crisis of Conscience story pattern, Roger Rabbit’s creators chose to end the film with a rather uninspired and unoriginal heroic rescue sequence. I guess the creators felt a family adventure demanded a big action finish leading up to a 100% feel-good resolution, yet it seems the film does not end as well as it should have. As I have observed before on story types, the films that have the most success with their audiences are time and again those that stick the closed to the principles of their story types. Diverge too much from type, or include elements that do not belong, and the end product will be weakened.
Coming Up: Part II, Crisis of Character