The Theology of Screenwriting: Purgatory

January 7th, 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: Purgatory

The notion of an afterlife dates back to ancient civilizations. In Egyptian religion, for example, when a person died, their soul would travel to the Kingdom of the Dead. Some strains of ancient Judaism believed that deceased believers would go to a place of purification called Gehenna. But the idea of Purgatory is most closely associated with Catholicism.

According to the Catholic encyclopedia New Advent, purgatory is “a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”

The root is the Latin word “purgare,” literally to make clean, to purify.

This concept of a place or condition wherein a visitor would go through a purification process is often associated with the image of fire.

“And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” — Zechariah 13:9

“So that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor.” — 1 Peter 1:7

And this:

“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.” — Isaiah 48:10

I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. If we look at purgatory metaphorically, a circumstance in which the visitor must suffer in the “furnace of affliction” in order to transition to ‘Heaven,’ doesn’t that sound an awful lot like Act Two of most movies, at least those with a positive outcome?

In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo’s journey consists of one test after another ending with a Final Struggle between he and Gollum against the backdrop of the fiery pits within Mt. Doom:

In Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, Luke Skywalker begins his journey amidst the backdrop of smoke and flames, the deaths of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru:

Perhaps a more apt analogy for screenwriting would be Dante’s Inferno:

The levels of descent suggest the nature of increasing threat and opposition to a Protagonist on their journey. Consider the movie Inception:

Deeper and deeper Cobb and his team go into the subject’s unconsciousness. For Cobb, each stage is another layer in his purgatory experience. After all, the ultimate state is called “limbo”.

It’s really quite logical. If a Protagonist begins a story in a state of Disunity and their end-point is a state of Unity, there is this middle part of tests, trials and tribulations which Deconstructs their Old Self allowing them to Reconstruct into a New Self.

We can think of that as Act Two.
We can also think of it as Purgatory.

For my entire Theology of Screenwriting series, go here.

16 thoughts on “The Theology of Screenwriting: Purgatory

  1. […] The notion of an afterlife dates back to ancient civilizations. In Egyptian religion, for example, when a person died, their soul would travel to the Kingdom of the Dead. Some strains of ancient Judaism believed that deceased believers would go to …read more […]

  2. pgronk says:

    Scott:
    Have you thought about adding The Test to your theology of screenwriting? Haven’t all great religious leaders undergone a Great Test of their convictions and character to see if they’re fully ready to answer the Call, complete their mission, fulfill their destiny?

    Ditto for many great heroes in movies: Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi”, Paul Atreides in “Dune”, Jake Sully in “Avatar” — to name three at random.

    Just a thought.

    1. Scott says:

      I think I’d frame The Test with the concept of Temptation. For example, Jesus going off into the wilderness for 40 days where he is tempted three times by Satan. Judas Iscariot tempted by 40 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Or go all the way back to Genesis where Adam and Eve were tempted to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It seems like in Judeo-Christian lore, The Test is often about a person or people being tempted to do X, and the story is they resist or give in.

      In fact, pgronk, I believe you have given me my post for tomorrow. Thanks!

  3. pgronk says:

    >>>I think I’d frame The Test with the concept of Temptation

    Yes, there seems to me there’s an overlap. Looking forward to your next Hollywood ‘homily’.

    In terms of the purgatory metaphor, “Aliens” comes to mind, the sequence when Ripley must descend into the depths of the atmosphere processor and confront her ultimate nightmare, the Mother Alien/(Satan). And the reversal of the metaphor where she attacks the Mother Alien with fire.

    Could the entire “Shawshank Redemption” be regarded a metaphorical journey through purgatory for the two principals, Andy and Red? What about Captain Willard’s journey into Cambodia in search of Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”?

    1. Scott says:

      pgronk, your observations about Aliens, Shawshank, Apocalypse, those all are very much in the spirit of this series. While likely unintentional for most stories, these themes and dynamics run DEEP in the human psyche. And so when Red warns Andy not to fantasize about going to Mexico, telling him, “Those are just shitty pipe dreams,” and Andy escapes literally through a shitty pipe — PURGATORY! — then emerges into the river — BAPTISM! — and holds up his arms toward the heavens — REBIRTH! — I doubt Stephen King or Frank Darabont had those consciously in mind… but we ALL have them rolling around in our consciousness, subconsciousness, even unconsciousness.

      As writers, it’s exciting to step out of our stories and spot one of these themes at work. At that point, we can then start to see how it can work throughout as a thematic element. But even if we DON’T see it, we should open ourselves to possibilities for this stuff to bubble up through our subconscious state.

      Here’s a great purgatory story: After Hours. My own movie Trojan War is a purgatory story. The current spec script I’m working is another. Go through ‘hell,’ come out the other side.

  4. Alejandro says:

    Speaking of Temptation, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ comes to my mind. It’s a very interesting concept, that the duality of Christ would lead to his human part being tempted by the devil to live a simple kind of life.

    And that leads to the figure of Judas Iscariot. What would have happened if he didn’t betrayed Jesus?

    1. Scott says:

      Alejandro, I just wrapped up writing the next installment in the series, this one on temptation.

      Your question about Judas Iscariot is one that has been debated since the emergence of primitive Christianity.

      On the one hand, he is seen as being a traitor, his suicide a just reward for betraying Jesus.

      On the other hand, per Jesus’ fate, he had to die in order to be resurrected, his impending death something he recognized, at least in the Gospel of John. Therefore Judas plays a key role in that narrative playing out.

      That duality just underscores Judas’ role as a Trickster. Similarly Gollum in LOTR. He is a scoundrel, yet he helps Frodo and Sam reach Mordor, then eventually in plunging to his death with the ring in his clutches, causes Sauron’s empire to collapse.

  5. I see a Purgatorial existence in many protagonists who die at the end of films. Maximum in “Gladiator” is sort of a dead man already. The quest for revenge for the slaughter of his family postpones his joining them in the afterlife.

    “The Last Samurai” — a film in which the happy ending effect saves Tom Cruise — features a scene where his character, when asked why he doesn’t fear death, responds, “I should have died so many times before.” But he didn’t, perhaps spared until he could fall into the hands of the samurai and be changed by their cause.

    Or maybe the point of Purgatory, as in the case of “Groundhog Day,” is to see the protag learn a crucial lesson, whether or not that individual lives beyond its comprehension.

    IDK, just thought I’d wax for a minute.

    1. Scott says:

      Groundhog Day is ABSOLUTELY a great example of a purgatory story. Phil has to get his shit together through a process of reliving this one day over and over.

      Your observation about Gladiator is also apt. Anytime you have a Protagonist who has lost a loved one and that is at the root of their transformation-journey, they are in a purgatory type of dynamic. See: Gravity!

      These P’s are tethered by their grief to the past and therefore unable to move into the future or even a full sense of the present.

      In this regard, Purgatory = Stuck. The Call To Adventure comes to pull them out of their psychological funk.

      In one way, we can look at Gravity in this respect: The entire point of the story is to compel Stone to confront her grief and be ‘reborn’ into a New Life [remember the ending where she goes deep underwater, then emerges, walking across the shoreline like some sort of Eve figure heading off to the Garden of Eden.

      It’s amazing to me how these themes and dynamics extend to so many movies…

      1. “Gravity” is such a brilliant film. I’ll forever remember the experience. A packed house in a commercial theater (not the Alamo Drafthouse, for sure), and no one made a sound — the entire time. No cell phones, no crying babies, no hack-coughing old people — just the film. It’s like we were all there with her.

        Funny thing about audience expectations. *SPOILER ALERT* I think we were all certain that somehow, someway, Kowalski was going to return. And Cuaron used that against us almost, staging a dream/near-death experience where he returns like Obi Wan to deliver a final push… out of hell and into light.

  6. pgronk says:

    A journey to hell and back is an important motif in heroic myths.

    It is no coincidence that Dante’s tour guide through the Inferno is Virgil, the great Roman poet, author of “The Aeneid”. The hero of that epic, Aeneas, makes his own journey to the underworld before going on to fulfill his great destiny, to be a founding father of the Romans. Aeneas’ journey mimic’s an earlier hero’s journey into the underworld — Ulysses, on his voyage home from the Trojan war.

    In these visits to the underworld, ancient hero’s communed with their ancestors and reckoned with ghosts of the past. I guess the analogous situation in modern secular movies would be characters having to confront ghosts in their past — unresolved problems, traumatic memories, bad family relationships — before they can do battle in the present.

    1. Scott says:

      pgronk, quite true. And here again we can extract the general from the specifics and see how it’s applicable to a vast majority of stories. The idea of going through ‘hell’ – in general enduring trials and tribulations regardless of setting, scope, breadth, even genre – is almost like a natural part of the Old World to New World experience.

      It stands to reason. First, the Heroine goes through a Stranger In A Strange Land experience and are naturally on the defensive, at least at first.

      Second, I would argue that the nature of those trials and tribulations should be tied intimately to the nature of the Protagonist’s psyche state. That is, their defenses NEED to be mangled and bashed about. They have been living an INAUTHENTIC LIFE [you can use whatever language you want for this type of thing] and the only way they can “become who they are,” that is discover and embrace their CORE ESSENCE [again whatever language system you prefer] is to have their OLD WAY rattled and upset, which in turn allows their TRUE SELF to emerge.

      This goes back to the idea from the OP of a “refiner’s fire.” We can think of Act Two – in most stories – as the burning away of the old and the emergence of the new.

      Act Three then becomes about an increasingly stressful and challenging set of tests, leading to a Final Struggle wherein the Hero either succeeds or fails. If they former, it proves they have learned the lessons they needed, brought them into their New Way of being, and moved toward a Unity state.

      For better or worse, this is the general arc of most mainstream commercial movies, and frankly even indie films. Gravity is a perfect example of this. I mean it is PARADIGMATIC in this regard.

      So purgatory can be a helpful theme to work with, either specific in terms of a more hellish experience, or generic in terms of the natural process of Deconstruction-Reconstruction that occurs most often in the middle of a story.

      This is Aristotle meets Joseph Campbell meets Carl Jung meets the Whammo Theory. Toss in five primary character archetypes and you’ve got the basis of my own language system for screenwriting theory.

  7. Alejandro says:

    Could we consider Robocop (well, Murphy) goes through a purgatory? specially in the scenes where he remembers his past life.

    I remember Verhoeven said he imagined Robocop as the “American Jesus” because of the resurection. There are even a couple of images related to it. Robocop walks over water in the final scene. And when the gas station blows up the “S” in “Shell” is turned off so it clealry reads “Hell”

  8. Alejandro says:

    And I guess in “Seven” the Brad Pitt character goes through all circles of hell in his Purgatory…

    1. Scott says:

      Alejandro, please see my response to pgronk above wherein we discuss how purgatory can be more closely linked to convention or more generic as Deconstruction-Reconstruction process. But yes, Robocop, Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, Wizard of Oz, so many movies can be seen to have a sort of purgatory nature to them.

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