The Theology of Screenwriting: Annunciation

January 9th, 2014 by

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 this post here.

Today: Annunciation

In the Christian tradition, there is The Annunciation wherein it is said the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary:

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. [Luke 1:26-31]

The word “annunciation” derives from the Latin verb annūntiāre which in the past perfect means “to make known.” Of course, it is the root of the English words “announce” and “announcement.”

The Bible has numerous other examples where God communicated directly with humans: a burning bush appearing to Moses, Paul being struck down by a “blinding light,” God’s spirit in the form of a dove to John the Baptist to name just a few.

Likewise literature in general is rife with stories of gods intersecting with human beings. Consider Odysseus in “The Odyssey,” numerous occasions where Athena showed up to help by providing information and comfort.

One common theme in these ‘annunciations’ is that if a god or God chooses to insert him/herself in the life of a human, it is an event of true significance, one that almost always causes a shift in the narrative, often persuading or cajoling the person involved to make a critical choice.

Per the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell called a key annunciation event the “Call to Adventure.” If we think of this beat as an expression of Fate — that is where the character’s narrative destiny lie — the first step in that transformation-journey is usually set into effect by this Call.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) functions as the herald who conveys the Call to The Narrator (Edward Norton, Jr.). Since we learn that Durden is an aspect of The Narrator’s own psyche, one way of looking at this moment is The Narrator’s subconscious announcing to his consciousness that it wants out, it wants to breathe – and The Narrator needs to change.

In Inception, Saito (Ken Watanabe) announces an offer to Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) he cannot resist: The possibility of finally being able to return home to his children by pulling off a near impossible caper. Again this is Cobb’s narrative destiny, not only to find a way home, but also to resolve longstanding issues of attachment to his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard).

In Groundhog Day, the annunciation comes in the form of a supernatural construction: Phil (Bill Murray) must relive the previous day over and over and over. Again this is his narrative destiny, to rid himself of bad habits, embrace whatever goodness he has inside, and become a New Man in order to break the pattern of who he has been.

In every story, something happens that causes the Protagonist’s normal life to change. We may enter the story in media res so that the Call to Adventure happened in the past, but more often than not it occurs somewhere in the first act after the Ordinary World has been established, the New World beckoning. This plot point, sometimes called the Inciting Incident, jump starts the metamorphosis process.

A herald shows up like Gandalf as in The Lord of the Rings. Mills and Somerset investigate the first murder in Se7en, instigating their investigation of John Doe. Government officials arrive in Raiders of the Lost Ark, inquiring of Indiana Jones about the Ark of the Covenant and some recent developments.

Something happens. Whereby the Fate of the story, the Protagonist’s narrative destiny announces itself to the character — and thus begins their Hero’s Journey.

For my entire Theology of Screenwriting series, go here.

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