In my previous article, I began a breakdown of the “Unstoppable Beast” plot type, Type Number 7 on my 20 Common Patterns of Plot. To review, the Unstoppable Beast contains a story in which:
An innocent hero is targeted by some malevolent force, a force that will not stop until the hero is destroyed. Plot develops as each escalated attempt by the protagonist to escape the force is denied. Finally, in the end, the hero chooses to fight back.
As stated in the previous article, the Unstoppable Beast plot type can be further divided into two distinct subtypes: “The Destructive Beast” and “The Covetous Beast.” The key difference is nature of the malevolent force's (aka the Beast's) intentions towards the Protagonist. In a Destructive Beast, the Beast's goal is simple. It must kill or otherwise destroy the Protagonist and will stop at nothing until this is accomplished (as seen in The Terminator, The Bourne Identity, and Punch-Drunk Love, all reviewed in the last article). A Covetous Beast is much different. Instead of destroying the Protagonist, the Beast wishes to possess and control the Protagonist. It does this because, in some twisted from or another, it LOVES the Protagonist and prizes their relationship. However, the Protagonist grows to dislike this relationship and resists. This drives the Beast to actions of increasing severity in order to maintain its hold over the Protagonist, often up to and including violence and murder, demonstrating how easily unhealthy attachments can cross the thin line between love and hate.
As in my previous article, I will break down the Covetous Beast subtype through three study films. The first contains a simple narrative and features a premise which clearly belongs within this subtype. For this we will use the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction.
The second film contains a similar premise, but a far more sophisticated narrative. Here we use Billy Wilder's 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard.
Finally, we include an oddball – a film which on its surface seems to have nothing in common with the other two examples. For this I have chosen the 2001 Academy Award-winner A Beautiful Mind.
Early notes on the discrepancies between these three films:
Plot patterns are not external “formulas” applied consciously by their creators. They are instead consistent patterns these stories naturally developed as their writers searched for the most dramatic and effective ways to executive particular types of stories. That being said, any analysis of plot types must remain flexible to the unique dramatic requirements of the particular story at hand. To compare Fatal Attraction and Sunset Boulevard, Sunset can be seen as a more sophisticated narrative because it gives its Beast character a secondary through-line that remains independent though intertwined with the main narrative (Norma Desmond's ill-fated attempt to return to motion pictures.) To serve this extra line of action, Sunset contains an additional sequence in its Act 2B exclusive to this line, as well as a secondary climax sequence in which this line is resolved after the Protagonist has met his death.
In the case of A Beautiful Mind, the film proves difficult to analyze unless one first realizes that the film actually contains two separate stories told episodically. It opens with a 26-minute prologue story on the Protagonist John Nash's experiences at Harvard. This story is self-contained with its own three-act structure. Once it has finished, the story proper begins – that is, the main narrative on his work, marriage, and the “mission” that consumes his sanity.
For the sake of clarity, we will disregard these discrepancies for the remainder of this article and focus only on the shared pattern amongst these films. There is also the unique consideration of who or what qualifies as the Beast in A Beautiful Mind, but that will be explained below.
THE MAJOR PLAYERS
The Protagonist of a Covetous Beast typically begins the story as a rather isolated person. If not isolated physically, the Protagonist is at least isolated from others spiritually. Sunset Boulevard's Protagonist Joe Gillis begins his story already withdrawn and cynical. He has given the writing game its best shot, but as only grown bitter towards what he has discovered to be a business without pity. For A Beautiful Mind's John Nash, the Protagonist's intelligence and what seems to be a mild case of autism have made him unable to relate to other human beings, turning him into a self-isolated misanthrope. Though the creators of Fatal Attraction went to great lengths to show Protagonist Dan Gallagher as a loving husband and father in order to make him “likeable” and foster audience sympathy, it is safe to claim that Dan at least feels spiritually isolated from his home life. Otherwise, it is impossible to believe he would agree to an extramarital affair with Alex (Glen Close) so quickly. On top of their isolation, these Protagonists have a desire to find something more in life. Joe Gillis is sick of being a cheap hack with no respect. John Nash desires to set himself apart by making a discovery of true genius. Dan Gallagher wants find the risk and excitement he no longer gets from his settled-down domestic situation. It is these two qualities that lead the Protagonists to their first encounter with the Beast.
The Covetous Beast character is defined by two equal, yet somewhat contradictory traits. He or she first has an inflated sense of self-worth. Yet at the same time he or she is extremely insecure. Because of this insecurity, the Beast can only feel its sense of worth through the love and attention it receives from other persons. Alex is the most vibrant woman in the world when Dan gives her attention, but falls apart the moment the attention is taken away. Norma Desmond was once adored by millions, but now surrounds herself with lies because she cannot deal with the thought of this no longer being so.
Though the Beast needs others so badly, it does not care at all about other people's wants, needs, or feelings. This character is a sociopathic parasite. It feeds off others so it may not die of its own insecurity. This is what causes the Beast to eventually turn violently on the Protagonist it supposedly loves. It would rather kill what it loves than endure the thought that it is not loved in return.
Now we come to the question of the identity of the Beast in A Beautiful Mind, and quite possibly the reason this film tends to baffle critical attempts at analysis. Remember that the battle cry of screencraft must be Semper Gumby - “Always Flexible.” John Nash's Beast must be taken in a figurative sense. His Beast is his MADNESS itself. John's madness can be considered a character, appearing throughout the narrative in the forms that turn out to be John's imaginary friends. Like Alex and Norma Desmond, John's madness is a parasite that wishes to consume and control John's life. With the same sense of insecurity, it demands John's attention, because without it the Beast will cease to exist. Just like Alex in Fatal Attraction, whenever John tries to turn away from his madness, it comes back screaming “I will not be ignored!”
However, it should not be assumed that the affection between Protagonist and Beast flows only one way. Though the Protagonist may at times distrust, hate, or even fear the Beast, the Protagonist still feels some sort of attachment, love, or pity for it. The Protagonist recognizes what a pathetic and insecure creature the Beast really is, causing the Protagonist to time and again return to the Beast and give it the attention it desperately craves, an act which only drags the Protagonist deeper and deeper into the unhealthy relationship will threaten the Protagonist's doom.
The Wedge Character
This character is not absolutely essential to the Covetous Beast subtype, and there is a good deal of leeway regarding how much influence the character has over story events. The Wedge Character is a relationship the Protagonist has outside of his relationship with the Beast. It presents the Protagonist with an alternative – a positive, healthy relationship based on mutual support and respect rather than exploitation. In all three of our study films, this character is a Love Interest or Spouse (the young Betty Schaefer in Sunset, John's love interest and then wife Alicia in Mind (Jennifer Connelly), and Dan's wife Beth in Attraction (Anne Archer)). This however is not a requirement. Any type of character can fill this role. This character is referred to as a “Wedge” because he or she becomes the force that slowly pulls the Protagonist away from the Beast and eventually separate them altogether. By the story's end, the Protagonist is forced to make a permanent choice between the healthy, supportive relationship with the Wedge, or an unhealthy destructive life with the Beast.
The plot structure of the Covetous Beast can be most easily understood in terms of a CONTRACT created between Protagonist and Beast. Story conflict arises because the Protagonist assumes the terms of the contract to be trivial and short-lived, while the Beast expects them to be far-reaching and long-term. The entire narrative can then be summarized as one character's attempts to escape the contract countered by the other's ever-escalating actions to keep the partner bound to it.
The inciting incident occurs the moment Protagonist and Beast first form this contact. Dan and Alex agree to have an extramarital affair. Norma Desmond hires Joe to help her return to Hollywood glory. John's madness (in the form of the character Parcher (Ed Harris) lures John Nash into what turns out to be a paranoid-schizophrenic “mission.” Contrary to what we may later assume, the Protagonist agrees to this arrangement willingly. Though he may not like or fully trust all the terms of the contract, he agrees because he thinks it will give him a piece of what he really wants in life. Dan gets the passion and adventure he has felt missing in his marriage. Joe Gillis will get enough money to pay off his debts and give him a break from the hack-work he hates. John Nash gets the opportunity to do something he feels is worthwhile and significant. So, hands are shaken and the contract is formed.
In the next sequence, the Protagonist carries out the terms of this contract as he sees them. To emphasize, the Protagonist believes this arrangement to be a short-term. However, the First Act ends with an event that causes the Protagonist to realize there is more to this agreement than originally thought. There are major strings attached. Strings that impact his personal freedom. Alex goes crazy when Dan tries to leave, going so far as to cut her wrists to force him to stay. Joe is forced to spend the night at Norma's mansion, and wakes to find that all of his belongings have been moved in for an indefinite stay. John Nash's madness leads him to understand that his mission has put his life under threat. Because of this turn of events, the Protagonist now regrets the contract and seeks a way out.
In reaction to the previous turning point, the Protagonist spends the first sequence of Act 2A trying complete the remaining duties of his contract as quickly as possible so he may have it over and done with. But once again, the Protagonist has misunderstood the Beast's true intentions. The Beast begins to encroach upon the protagonist's personal life to a greater and greater degree. Norma's interactions with Joe become increasingly uncomfortable and inappropriate. Alex will not leave Dan alone at work or at home. John Nash's madness causes him to grow increasingly paranoid and afraid. Whether the Protagonist realizes it or not, the Beast is tightening a snare around him, causing him to lose not only his personal freedoms, but in some cases his very identity or sense of self.
But the Protagonist has only begun to understand his reasons for regret. At this point, the Protagonist still believes he has some control over the contract and will be able to find a way out. Only then, the act turns with a dramatic event that decisively changes the Protagonist from a willing partner in the contract to the contract's PRISONER. Alex tells Dan she is pregnant and expects him to leave his wife and help her raise the baby. Joe Gillis, now without a car or a home of his own, is told by Norma she plans to “take care of him” as he were now her live-in boyfriend. John Nash's madness becomes so pervasive that he must be institutionalized.
In the sequence that follows, the Protagonist continues to resist, largely because he refuses to believe or accept the powerless situation in which the Beast has put him. Joe puts up a pointless fight as Norma turns him into her private boytoy. Dan changes his telephone number and tries to find a way out of Alex's pregnancy. John Nash insists that he is still in control of his own mind and does not need professional help. But all of this resistance is futile. The Beast has now gained total control over the Protagonist's body, mind, and soul.
Finally, things reach a breaking point. The Beast takes an action that pushes the Protagonist too far and forces him to admit his desperate situation. This causes the Protagonist to declare their contract null and void, turn his back on the Beast, and make a clean escape. This event becomes the story's Mid-Second Act Turning Point. Joe Gillis flees Norma's warped New Year's party, supposedly for good. Dan threatens to kill Alex if she should continue her actions and moves his family to the country. John Nash agrees to medication and shock therapy to make the madness go away.
Act 2B begins as the Protagonist escapes the Beast and attempts to resume something resembling a normal life. The Wedge character plays an important part in this since he/she has a stabilizing and nurturing influence on the Protagonist. By introducing or re-introducing a healthier and more stable path, the Protagonist is given an alternative to the Beast – though it be a more mundane one that may force him to compromise the desire he felt at the beginning of the story.
However, this does not last long. The Beast has too strong a hold on the Protagonist and soon forces the two to reunite. Alex finds Dan's new home and begins a campaign of harassment. Norma attempts to kill herself, causing Joe to rush back to her side. John Nash struggles to live without the Beast and stops taking his medication. This event creates a turning point in the middle of Act 2B.
The return to the Beast is an act of giving in, and thus in the following sequence the Protagonist openly admits his helplessness and offers full surrender. Joe fully accepts a place as Norma's lapdog. Dan confesses everything to his wife Beth. John Nash obeys his madness and throws himself back into his paranoid-schizophrenic mission.
However, one character still has some fight in them: the Wedge Character. The Wedge loves and cares about the Protagonist and is willing to take actions that will pull the Protagonist away from the Beast and eventually bring him his salvation. These actions may be intentional (in the cases of Beth and Alicia) or incidental (in the case of Betty Scheafer). This inevitability leads to direct conflict between the Beast and the Wedge Character as both fight for the Protagonist's soul. Norma becomes jealous of the time Joe spends with Betty and wishes to ruin the relationship. Alex and Beth face off on the phone and Beth threatens to kill her. Alicia discovers that John's madness has returned and tries to stop it.
The act ends with the Beast committing a unconscionable act that threatens to destroy the positive, stable relationship the Protagonist has created with the Wedge. Norma “outs” Joe's shameful life to poor innocent Betty. Alex steals away Dan's daughter for an afternoon as an act of intimidation – an event which leads to Beth's hospitalization. John's madness nearly causes him to drown his only child. The act then ends with a DILEMMA for the Protagonist. He cannot go on trying to follow both paths. Which will he finally choose?
Despite what one may assume, this dilemma is no easy decision. How can the Protagonist completely abandon, or in some cases destroy, the someone or something he has previously felt such care, pity, or even love for? Even when an enraged Dan breaks into Alex's apartment and the top of the third act and strangles her in retribution, he cannot bring himself to finish the act. He still pities her.
It is precisely this pity that triggers the decision that turns the course of Act 3. The Protagonist finally recognizes the Beast for what it really is: a sad, wretched, insecure creature with no power of its own except for that which it steals from the Protagonist. Without the Protagonist's attention, the Beast will wither and die. The Protagonist wishes to be free of the Beast, but to do this the Protagonist does not need to kill it. He needs to only turn his back for good. Joe walks out on Norma. Dan does the same with Alex. Rather than hide from his madness with medication, John Nash chooses overcome his madness by ignoring its manifestations like the imaginary nothings they are.
But the Beast will not go away quietly. It comes back, fighting for its survival in the most extreme way. Norma chases after Joe with a pistol. Alex attacks Dan and Beth with a butcher knife. John's delusions verbally and mentally assault him with a fury that threatens to undo his attempts to regain his life.
In each of our study films, this conflict reaches its climax in a different way. In Sunset, Norma kills Joe rather than let him escape. In Attraction, Dan and Beth kill Alex. In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash finds a middle road that manages to balance his madness with his genius in a way that leads him to a happier, healthier life. In any case; win, lose, or draw; the Protagonist is finally free of the Beast and the contract has been ended. Regardless of how the story ends, the resolution suggests that a little piece of the Beast will always be with the Protagonist, haunting him,whether it be in Dan's memory, Joe's posthumous regrets, or in the lingering ghosts John Nash once thought were real.
The Covetous Beast offers a more complicated narrative than the Destructive Beast, and not surprisingly, offers more complicated themes. Identifying these themes requires more investigation than I am able to go into here. However, a simple observation seems to suggest that while the Destructive Beast gives messages on each individual's right to exist and live as they see fit, the Covetous Beast offers stories on each human being's right for self-determination. We should be allowed to find our own paths to happiness, not those forced upon us by the tyranny of others. Yet still, this cannot be the case in full. Stories about personal freedom abound in Hollywood cinema, but the Covetous Beast seems to encourage an exploration of the degree to which happiness can be found by compromising our self-determination for the sake of others. Levels of self-determination range from the isolation seen in the Protagonist at the start of the story, the complete slavery to the Beast in the middle, to the healthy give-and-take between Protagonist and the Wedge Character at the end. As I encounter more stories of this subtype, this matter will undoubtedly become clearer.