The Theology of Screenwriting: Temptation

January 8th, 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: Temptation

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.

5 thoughts on “The Theology of Screenwriting: Temptation

  1. […] 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 …read more […]

  2. To borrow from others -

    “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses and avoids.”
    Aristotle

    “Character is what you are in the dark.”
    — Attr. to Dwight L. Moody (American Evangelist, 1837-1899)

  3. Alejandro says:

    Hi Scott. Just curious. Given your academic background on the subject, I was wondering if you could tell us what other people have thought about why put that tree there? why put the temptation? I mean, the serpent is the one that we usually associate with a tempter, but if that tree were not there… no temptation, right? P.S. I hope I don’t offend anyone.

    Screenwriting: I can see how a temptation brings drama to a story. The character tempted to do (or refrain from doing) something that could bring him/her a reward/joy but that also has the potential to bring him/her more problems than it’s worth it. Do you think we could consider Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and James Bond in most (all?) of his movies as characters that in fact, are trying to prevent that temptation from being accomplished? The Nazis tempted to use the power of the Ark for their own good. (Insert Bond villain name here) tempted to (insert Bond villain’s plan) to his advantage. I remember listening the writer’s commentary on the Die Hard DVD and he said he considered Hans Gruber, not John McClane the Protagonist. What do you think about it? Right now I’m writing a screenplay and I really have doubts about who is the protagonist: the villain who comes up with the evil plan or the hero who tries to prevent it from happening. Thanks.

  4. pgronk says:

    Because of the moral baggage that the word “temptation” carries, I prefer to use the term “test” or “trial” when there is not a moral issue at stake.

    So while a lot of lives and the future of the galaxy hanging on how young Luke decides to attack the Death Star on his final approach, it’s not a matter of choosing between right and wrong. It’s a matter of a weak choice (trust the computer) versus a strong choice (trust the Force). In that episode of the franchise, it’s the supreme test where he proves to himself — and everyone else — that he’s got the right stuff to become a Jedi knight.

  5. The Eden story is very interesting and was once explained to me in Buddhist terms (though I’m not a Buddhist). The tree of knowledge does not obviously represent information but represents the awakening of self awareness, therefore knowledge of good and evil, therefore embarrassment at being naked. Awareness of self leads to the cycle of cause and effect. Things “become” personal and we see through the filter of self. Something falls down in the Eden story of temptation though. If there was no self knowledge how can one become tempted? A rule has come down from above “Do not eat the from the tree of knowledge” but as innocents temptation means nothing since the rule is a given and not justified or explained why knowledge is so dangerous. It wouldn’t have mattered to Adam and Eve anyway since they were not aware of themselves in a state of good and bad. Temptation means you know something might be bad for you.

    There are some characters in fiction that also represent this dilemma in some way. For instance Spock from Star Trek is such. He is logical, one might say pathological, in his insistence on logic being the surest divining rod to what must be done to achieve a goal, regardless of morals. In some odd way he exists in that innocent state of “process” rather that emotional (self) judgement. Frankensteins monster, the Jewish myth of the Golem, and many other cultural fictional characters explore this innocent yet dangerous state. The psychopath also has these almost amoral undertones.

    So for me a character is tempted only by those elements within themselves that truly stand for doubt. It’s never a choice between good and evil since the answer to that is easy and inherently not dramatic. It’s the choice of two evils, both of which can excite strong fears/desires within a character.

    Example, an corrupt ambitious politician trying to go straight is caught being corrupt from an incident two years previously . His family, already unstable, will be destroyed by the incident being revealed to the media. Options for escape become narrow and the only way for him to save his family is get deeper inside corruption but he knows it will make him die inside even though it will make him more powerful and keep his family together. The desire is to be straight but the temptation is to use his corrupt self to keep it all together, even though deep down he knows it is wrong. What this also does is force to the surface a reckoning the central character has avoided all along and provides the writer with an ideal situation for a climax. The nature of the temptation becomes a template for the forces at play for final conflict, both internally and externally, for the character.

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