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.
Anyone who has learned what is known as the Lord’s Prayer has run into this theological concept:
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
Temptation. It seems inextricably entangled with that which is perceived to be bad or evil. Here is how Wiki.Answers responds to the question: What is temptation?
Temptation is when something makes you want to do something that you believe or know is wrong.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this goes back to one of the creation stories in Genesis:
1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
3 But of the fruit of the tree which [is] in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
6 And when the woman saw that the tree [was] good for food, and that it [was] pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make [one] wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they [were] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
The Fall of Humanity, all because the first man and first woman could not resist temptation.
It’s easy to devalue the notion of temptation. Back in the 1970s, comedian Flip Wilson generated lots of routines about the wife of a reverend who was constantly being tempted into doing things she knew were wrong, her defense being, “The Devil made me do it.”
But temptation comes in all shapes and sizes, and we need look no further than a movie currently in theaters to see it play out in the grandest and gaudiest ways:
Wrath. Greed. Sloth. Pride. Lust. Envy. Gluttony. Each of the seven deadly sins has its role to play throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, the lure of temptation, wrapped in wads of cash, making an easy mark of Jordan Belfort (Leondardo DiCaprio) and his cohorts… as they in turn exploit their marks with tempting tales of fortune as so much grace.
The film’s director Martin Scorcese is a self-proclaimed “lapsed Catholic” and his movies usually have considerable theological imagery and themes. But what if we look beyond the religious connotations of temptation and explore it from an existential perspective: Temptation as test.
At the core of most movies, there is a character, usually the Protagonist, or characters who go on a psychological, even philosophical journey. At the heart of that journey is a question: Who are you?
To dig down into the core of a character, the storyteller needs to be put them to a test, in fact, multiple tests. Each one represents a moral and/or spiritual fork-in-the-road, critical choices which determine not only how the plot proceeds, but also the ultimate dispensation of that character’s existential being. And almost always as part of that choice, there is a temptation to go against the character’s true nature.
In The Shawshank Redemption, Red (Morgan Freeman) finally gets paroled. But like Brooks (James Whitmore) before him, Red discovers he cannot handle freedom. Brooks was tempted to take his life and, indeed, he made that choice. Red is tempted in a similar fashion: get a gun, rob a bank, and be sent back to prison. The only thing stopping him is a promise he made to Andy (Tim Robbins).
By following Andy’s wishes, Red resists the temptation of Brooks’ dark ‘wisdom’ and embraces the flicker of hope inside him Andy helped keep alive for the 19 years the two shared in Shawshank Prison… which is why the final words of the movie uttered by Red — “I hope” — have such power.
Stripped of specific religious meaning, temptation can even take on a positive function in a character’s test. For example, at the most critical juncture of the Final Struggle in Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, Luke has a choice: Trust in a computer to target the bomb toward the Death Star or, as Obi-Wan, speaking from beyond the grave, tells him, “Go with your feelings.”
Luke responds to that temptation by embracing it, but in a reverse of the Genesis story of The Fall, here the choice turns out for the good. In that decision, Luke take a massive step in his existential journey toward answering the question “who are you”: He is a Jedi knight.
By extracting the notion of temptation from its conventional religious trappings, we open it up for all sorts of uses in our storytelling in relation to the lives of our characters — for bad, good, or in-between. In addition, it is an interesting lens through which to explore tests and tribulations, each one offering a choice with existential ramifications: Does the character respond to the temptation to play it safe, turn away from their journey, and go back to their Old World? Or do they embrace the unknown of the New World and the emergence of their True Nature, defying the odds and charge toward an inevitable Final Struggle?
Almost inevitably, that is the Protagonist’s choice.
For my entire Theology of Screenwriting series, go here.