This week I continue to explore theological themes in relation to screenwriting, considering them metaphorically because in my view, we see these themes in movies all the time. By understanding them, we can use these theological themes to enhance the meaning and depth of our stories.
For background on the general subject, you may read my introductory comments in Part 1 here.
Today in Part 18: Righteousness.
If we think of a righteous person, we are likely to conjure up the idea of someone who is morally upright, an individual who leads a virtuous life. While this is certainly a valid understanding of the concept, the idea of righteousness as being solely about an person’s ethical code misses a significant dynamic present in theological terms.
The word righteousness or righteous is present throughout the Old Testament and that right there tips off another component of the concept. God and the Jews had a covenant, binding them together, and it is only in light of that sacred relationship we can fully understand the theological idea of righteousness. For it is an expression of God’s steadfast commitment to his chosen people, through good times and bad.
If we take this concept and consider it in a secular manner, we see it is a common theme in movies: whenever one or more characters does the right thing as a result of their relationship to something other than themselves.
Metaphorically we may define this theological take on righteousness as ‘doing right by someone.’
In the 2011 movie Drive [screenplay by Hossein Amini, book by James Sallis], the Protagonist [Driver] is a loner, an expert getaway driver who lives by a specific code. Then he develops a relationship with a young mother [Irene] and her son [Benicio]:
Irene’s husband [Standard] returns home, released from prison:
When Standard’s past comes back to haunt him, posing a threat to Irene and Benicio, Driver goes against his strict code of professional behavior and offers to help Standard pull off one last job. This leads to a downward spiral of events and ever increasing violence, but Driver — because of his relationship with Irene and Benicio — is steadfast in his efforts on their behalf, even to the point of putting his own life in danger.
In other words, Driver does right by Irene and Benicio. Even in a morally complicated world in which Driver has to resort to acts of physical brutality, he can be seen to be a righteous man in that he acts on behalf of a greater good: a young mother and her child.
How many movies have we seen a similar dynamic of righteousness at work? The Shawshank Redemption, High Noon, The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Matrix, Unforgiven, Gran Tourino, and on and on and on.
If you want to conjure up a compelling Protagonist, regardless of genre, tone or moral landscape, this is definitely a thematic lens through which you can look: the idea of righteousness.