The Cultural Foundations of Screenwriting: Abrahamism, Part 1

Dimitri Vorontzov dives into cultural fascination with the anti-hero and answers the question, "How do we know right from wrong?"
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Screenwriting Ethics

I enjoy movies with antihero protagonists: tough, disillusioned characters who break the norms of society, but never without a reason. I’m fascinated with their rejection of the conventional value system, and reliance on their own strict, hard-earned personal moral code.

I may disapprove of their actions, I may find their sense of virtue warped, but I admire the intensity with which these guys enforce their unique, often questionable principles.

Some of the greatest movies ever made—John Ford’s The Searchers, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Asphalt Jungle, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Brian De Palma’s Scarface, almost all Martin Scorcese movies, and virtually anything written and directed by our good old friend Quentin Tarantino—all feature that character type. Even such a soppy tale as Michael Curtiz’s ever-popular romantic drama Casablanca revolves around a protagonist who, let’s face it, is an embittered, self-centered alcoholic virtually incapable of acting like a gentleman.

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Antiheroes are always fascinating to watch on a screen. But what makes us recognize these characters as morally flawed?

Put another way, how do we know right from wrong?

These are not idle questions for a screenwriter! We’re supposed to make it clear for our audience who the good and bad guys are in our stories. Apart from portraying the good guys as upbeat, neatly dressed, friendly, and good-looking, and the bad guys as ugly, filthy, angry, and cursing profusely—how do we establish their moral difference?

Stories are ethical arguments, disguised to resemble real life—so, based on what criteria do we take sides?

There's increasing scientific evidence supporting the concept of innate morality. A team of psychologists working in Yale’s Infant Cognition Center recently ran a series of experiments proving that children a few months old, who cannot even speak or walk, are capable of altruistic behavior, and have the ability to distinguish between good and bad characters in a simple morality play they watched!

However, being a parent, I receive a lot of daily empirical evidence indicating that my both kids would be antiheroes in the making if I didn’t step in and teach them some social rules of conduct: They fight all the time and wreck the furniture, formulating their own moral code on the go, and it’s my job as a dad is to make sure their notions of right and wrong don’t get too weird.

[HERO WORSHIP: The Ever-Evolving Protagonist]

I have to teach my kids the basic ethics—and it will be the lessons they receive from me that will form the foundation of their future moral code!

Whether we have innate morality or not, we do absorb the socially approved moral judgment and rules of behavior in the course of our upbringing—from our parents, guardians, teachers, friends, and role models.

People we learned our morals from acquired them in the same way we did. Every day, we’re surrounded with “ambient ethics”—the notions of good and evil, friend and foe, “boo” and “yay”.

But where do these notions come from?

We acquire them from several sources. These sources appeared in the world in succession, historically, separated sometimes by hundreds of years—but they all remain active today.

Religious institutions—even though they may not be as prominently present today as our main source of ethical knowledge as only three or four generations ago—are still powerful enough setters of ethical norms to be counted. Religious ethics usually reach us through stories.

Education and academia—kindergartens, schools, colleges, universities—a lot of this is rooted in religious or philosophical ethical thought, and we are exposed to ethics through stories, too.

Books our parents read to us when we barely learned to understand human language had the innate ethical lessons in them (and these lessons were passed to their authors, through their parents and grandparents, and likely have originated from the religious institutions or books they read).

Books we read ourselves, as young children or adults, were all ethical lessons presented through entertainment or direct philosophical arguments.

A lot of our ethical knowledge comes from movies!

[SCRIPT NOTES: Can the Protagonist Be the Antagonist?]

In all cases, storytelling is how we acquire our moral perspective, and what we do as storytellers is communicate our moral perspective to the new generations of readers or movie watchers.

Since all stories are moral arguments disguised to resemble real-life—whether we want it or not, we communicate ethical lessons to our readers or audience, and those lessons are rooted in our ethical sources. We might as well be conscious about those sources and about the moral principles behind our storytelling.

There are essentially only a few things we can do with the ideas found in our ethical sources.

We can:

  • Confirm these ideas
  • Transform them
  • Question them without the final judgment, letting the audience come to their own conclusions
  • Refute them

In the Western storytelling tradition, the most important ethical source of storytelling had been, for millennia, the ethics of Abrahamism.

The second most important source was the classical ethics (Greek and Roman philosophy)—but it only reached us thanks to later Abrahamic religious philosophers who preserved it for us. So, it’s only fitting that we begin our exploration of the cultural sources of mainstream screenwriting with this all-important school of thought.

Abrahamism

When in the introductory article of this series we discussed James Cameron’s Avatar, we were looking at a movie project by a filmmaker at the pinnacle of his career, one of the reigning princes of Hollywood whose name alone commands huge budget and box office powers.

But it may be more valuable to us for practical purposes to take a closer look at the film that early in James Cameron’s career defined what he was to become as the auteur director of the ultra-profitable mainstream cinema.

The Terminator was James Cameron’s second feature film as a director (following the dreadful Piranha II), and it suddenly proved to the world that he was a force to be reckoned with. Produced for $6.4 million, it made $78.3 million at the box office.

Even though this now-famous film wasn’t even in the top ten highest-grossing movies of that year, it launched one of the most successful writer-director careers in film history.

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The promise was already there: The Terminator was competently written, directed with panache, and it delivered memorable performances by a group of actors who instantly rose to stardom, thanks to that film.

However, besides all those factors, there was something else—something about the concept at the core of The Terminator—that drew people to the theaters to see it, and a few years later, made them wait in line around the block to see the sequel.

In The Terminator, an innocent young woman is visited by a messenger-guardian, who informs her that she’s destined to give birth to the future savior of mankind, the only hope of all humans after the inevitable future Armageddon. Miraculously, it’s the savior himself who sent the messenger, to protect his mother from an evil human-like robot that painstakingly kills every woman listed in the phone book who may be the future mother of the yet-unborn hero. In the culmination of the story, the guardian sacrifices himself to save the woman—and she, unmarried but pregnant, flees to another country where she will protect her son and give him a heroic upbringing.

(The initials of her future child will be J.C.)

You don’t have to be a Christian theologian to recognize the life of the Virgin, mother of Jesus, as the thematic and structural foundation of The Terminator.

In the film, Kyle Reese stands in for the heavenly messenger-guardian Gabriel who brings the Virgin the news of her being chosen by the Lord. The name of the Virgin in this case is Sarah Connor.

Incidentally, in the Old Testament, Sarah is the wife of Abraham, the precursor of three of the world’s most important religions, whose own miraculous pregnancy and childbirth are often interpreted as a distant divine prophecy of the birth of the Savior. So, the choice of the name for the heroine of The Terminator may not have been entirely accidental.

The difficult-to-grasp Christian concept of God sending an angel to the Virgin to announce His own birth as a man is delivered as a science-fiction analogy of John Connor of the future sending Kyle Reese to ensure his own birth in the past.

The idea of sacrifice as the cost of salvation is fulfilled in Reese’s heroic death.

[Top Ten Tips for Creating Winning Characters]

Of course, the key motif in The Terminator is that of "Massacre of the Innocents", expressed in the iconic figure of T-800, a diabolical, red-eyed, shapeshifting monster who, to leave no stone unturned, murders every Sarah Connor in L.A., similarly to how Herod’s henchmen killed every infant in Bethlehem when he learned that one of these children may be the future Christ.

The Flight to Egypt is mirrored in Sarah’s flight to Mexico in the resolution of the movie. (“There’s a storm coming in.”)

I’m not claiming that the success of The Terminator may be explained by the attention that movie received among the devoted Christian audiences worldwide. No, I believe that the Biblical mythology at the core of this movie resonated equally well with religious and non-religious people alike, drawing on the abundance of the common Western cultural experience, deeply rooted in the Bible.

What’s particularly remarkable about Christian symbolism included in The Terminator is that James Cameron is not a religious person. Quite on the contrary, even though he was brought up in a strict Protestant household, as an adult he became a militant, card-carrying atheist!

Cameron even produced two documentaries for Discovery Channel, The Exodus Decoded (2006) and The Lost Tomb of Jesus (2007), setting out to scientifically prove that the miracles described in the Bible—including the resurrection of Jesus, the key tenet of Christianity—did not really happen.

But James Cameron’s atheism is precisely the reason why his work can serve as such an ideal example of the all-permeating influence of Christianity on mainstream cinema. Despite his rebellious attitude to Christianity, James Cameron belongs to the cultural tradition of the Western civilization, which has been dominated by Christianity for two millennia! Even being an atheist, he can’t escape the influence of the common source of ideas in our entire civilization! No wonder that even on his quest to debunk Christianity, he is still dealing with Christianity as his subject.

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Thank you for reading Part 1 of our series, Cultural Foundations of Screenwriting!

In the next article of this series, we’ll review some of the creative methods we can use to interpret the mythology and morals of Abrahamism in the works of mainstream screenwriting!

Please stay tuned for the next article!

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