I think it was the second time I saw the film Doctor Zhivago (1965) that it occurred to me that Ilya Andreyevich Zhivago (Omar Sharif) was not actually a moral man, by my standards, because he was cheating on his wife. As far as I could tell, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), his real wife, had done nothing wrong, she clearly loved her husband and followed him into that middle of nowhere house so that he could write poetry, and she was rewarded for her fidelity by him cheating on her with Lara Antipove (Julie Christie), the nurse he worked with in the revolutionary war.
People seem to love the romance in the film because at the end Lara and Zhivago get together, Tonya goes to France for some utterly implausible reason merely to get her out of the way and the cheating husband gets together with his one true love. Ahh, the romance of it. But he’s still an immoral shit.
Some time later I saw a film called The Shooting Party (1985). One of the sub-plots in this film is Olivia Lilburn (Judy Bowker) and Lionel Stephens (Rupert Frazer), who clearly are infatuated with each other but who cannot be together because Olivia is already married. This is a common film trope, an apparently perfect couple prevented from being together by previous association of one of them. However, in Shooting Party the trope doesn’t work because it is impossible for me to see why Olivia married her husband, Lord Bob Lilburn (Robert Hardy), in the first place. I have vague memories of thinking this before, that the trope was set up by a clearly implausible husband or wife making it seem somehow appropriate or proper or even romantic for the trapped partner to desire, if not actually to obtain, a more fulfilling relationship with the apparently more suitable partner thrown up by the film.
Another example of the inappropriate partner can be found in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View (1985). Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) accepts the proposal of Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) for reasons that remain a complete mystery to me, just so that at the denouement she can cancel their engagement and run off with George Emerson (Julian Sands). It’s perfectly obvious that Cecil is not meant to be a serious contender for her affections and the film (is this different from the book?) portrays him as intelligent though devoid of affection. Maybe the book shows him as something else.
What we have gained from this is an insight that these different characters are to some extent templates. I’m not claiming that they are identical. Far from it. It only takes a few moments to see that their goals and motivations, the baggage they bring with them and their approaches to problem solving make them individuals, unique characters and very real people. However, Olivia Lilburn, Lucy Honeychurch and Ilya Andreyevich Zhivago are the same in the sense that they are set up with the wrong partner in order for one problem in the story to be getting them together with the right partner. In Room With a View and Zhivago this goal is achieved but in Shooting Party it is not and the reasons why are interesting but will form part of a subsequent essay, but the basic reason is that in one case this false relationship is the main story problem and in the other case it is a sub-plot.
This conflict, the inappropriate partner, seems both obvious and unreal. It seems obvious because in real life people often find themselves in relationships they no longer want to pursue and they want to get out and move on to something else, so when someone better, or maybe even just someone else, comes along we have obvious story material. However, for me it doesn’t work in two of the examples presented here because it really is very difficult for me to see why they ever embarked on the first relationship to start with. In Doctor Zhivago, however, it does work. There is a sense that Ilya and Tonya were destined for each other by circumstances and in the film he would have had to have been mad (or gay) to not fall for her charms.
There is, however, a slight sense that he treats her more like a sister than a lover, their relationship is presented, at least from his side, as extreme friendship rather than passionate love and, from memory, I don’t think we ever see them so much as hold hands let alone do anything as romantic as kiss each other. Then he goes off to war, or is more accurately taken off to war, where he meets Lara to whom he is clearly very attracted and they both, to be honest, resist, then the war ends and they both go home. Only later, when he is in the remote dacha and accidentally meets Lara on a trip into town does the relationship commence. And, (personal insight) maybe that’s why I do not view Zhivago as a lovely romantic story. I understand why he was with Tonya and consider him an immoral shit for abandoning her, but in Shooting Party I don’t understand why Olivia was with Bob Lilburn and can’t criticise her for preferring Lionel Stephens.
This just leaves me with one problem to resolve. Why does it not work for me in Room with a View? Helena Bonham Carter running off with Julian Sands just doesn’t feel right, somehow. Maybe it’s different in the book but in the film I must admit I never saw it coming and it just comes across almost as a deux-ex-machina engineered to bring the story to a timely resolution before the curtain closes. Maybe in the book it is telegraphed better, maybe they spend more time together or maybe I just think George Emerson a twit who doesn’t deserve her; he certainly comes across as something of a daddy’s boy, under his father’s thumb somewhat. I really must read the book and find out how it is handled there and see whether my impression is modelled by the way the film handles this sub-plot or by some other factor within the story itself.
Previous to both of these films I saw the most recent film version of Last of the Mohicans (1992). In this there is a character called Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) who is pursuing a suit with Cora Monroe played by the inestimably beautiful Madeline Stowe. She rejects his advances and later in the film we see him reveal his true colours when he shows himself to be a racist and a liar. These actions justify Cora’s rejection of his suit and cast him as a villain if not the main antagonist in the film. At the end, however, he redeems himself with a sacrifice that seems completely out of character. Later, I learned that this incident, and indeed this whole character, is in the film but not in the book.
This character, the redeemed villain, is also seen in one of the National Treasure films, Book of Secrets (2007). The bad boy Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) is a nasty piece of work throughout the film, arrogant, greedy, and dangerous to the point of killing innocent people to get what he wants. But when the treasure seekers get inside the mountain and are about to be drowned he completely changes character and sacrifices himself so that the others may succeed. Utterly implausible change of character to propel the plot forwards. If he hadn’t done that they would all have drowned in the outer chamber and the secret gold treasure would never have been discovered.
So, this gives me three character templates to look out for, the utterly implausible change of character, the inappropriate partner, and the redeemed villain. At this point it might be interesting to observe that all of these template descriptions involve change. The villain changes to redeem himself, the woman changes her affections from one partner to another, and implausible change obviously requires character change.
Change is important because it is change that drives a story forward. In my first creative writing class I was told that there are only six basic stories and one of them is called Return to Stasis. Stasis is the normal lives our characters are enjoying at the beginning of the story before something happens, some event occurs to knock their life off its finely balanced course. The story then becomes their attempts to return to the stasis they enjoyed at the beginning and it is very rare for them to achieve the same stasis they had at the beginning; their life changes. The Clint Eastwood film, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) is a good example of this story line. At the beginning, Josey is a peace loving farmer with his young son and beautiful wife, tilling their land and eking a noble existence out of the soil. Then some civil war renegades come along and kill his family, burn his farmhouse to the ground and leave him with an ugly scar across his face.
After burying his family and giving us a fine demonstration that Clint really can’t act, he takes out his gun and changes. He practices shooting with both hands until he is the quickest and most accurate shot on his side of the black stump and at that point a bunch of outlaws led by Fletcher (John Vernon) ride up keen on getting revenge for the renegade raids so Josey joins up with them and sets out to get his life back. By the end of the story he has something worth having but he can never go back to being that peace loving farmer again and his life has found a new stasis, he is on a new course with a new woman on a ranch in southern Texas.
Change drives stories because life is like that too. Growing up is a constant change and leaving school, getting a job, making relationships, having children, moving house, meeting new friends, arguing over money and what colour to paint the skirting board. Life is one long series of changes and the story version of stasis is really a myth. The idea that our lives ever settle into some sort of steady orbit is something we would like to be true but it isn’t. Every day brings something new, and sometimes that something is the start of a story, a challenge to be overcome, but sometimes it is just something we absorb into our lives and move on like the tide rolling up the beach and erasing the footprints left behind by people we no longer know.
A fine example of how change doesn’t always have to be a bad thing can be found in an excellent though under reported film called Ordinary People (1980). This film starts long after stasis has been left behind. There is a dark event somewhere in the past and the family have been desperately trying to keep their perfectly ordinary lives on track ever since but the wheels are starting to wobble and part of the problem is that no one realises that change is necessary. There is a solid central performance from Donald Sutherland as the father and a surprisingly emotional Mary Tyler Moore plays mum but it is the youngsters who really make this film what it is.
Conrad (Timothy Hutton) is their son and he has been struggling with guilt over the tragedy in their past and we watch his life unravel before our eyes while his oblivious parents are wrestling with a problem of their own. There is hope in the shape of Karen (Dinah Manoff), as the girl who shares his problem and for a while she appears to be the balm to his sores but ultimately she has too many problems of her own and it is left to the quiet choir girl, Jeannine Pratt (played by the gorgeous Elizabeth McGovern), who simply by being utterly normal brings a sense of peace into his life and in the final scene, in what is, in my opinion, the most romantic scene in film, she invites Conrad into her house to share breakfast with her and we just know that although his problem has not been erased, and that it will take some time for them to put it completely behind them, this change is a new beginning for both of them and those wobbly wheels are now back on track again.