Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods or between evils instead of choosing between good and evil?

Yes, the entire story should be driven by an overall irreconcilable moral dilemma, but the heroes should also face a long succession of additional dilemmas throughout the story. Casablanca is an excellent example of how such dilemmas can pile up and also of how the presence of these dilemmas need not sour the mood. 
  • Before we even meet Rick, we see the question that hangs over his employees’ heads: As they try to run a nightclub in Nazi-occupied Morocco, is it worth accommodating the Nazis to keep the peace? How much interference in the club’s affairs will be too much? 
  • Then we meet Rick, the suave club owner, just as Ugarte the criminal asks him to hide some letters. Should Rick risk his tricky peace with the Nazis to protect this man? 
  • When the police show up to arrest Ugarte, he begs Rick for help. Rick has already assured Renault, “I stick my neck out for no one,” but it’s hard to say no when Ugarte is clinging to him and begging as the Nazis drag him away. Unlike many “hero’s flaw” scenes, Rick faces a genuinely hard choice. We don’t know what we would do in Rick’s position. We disapprove of Rick’s callousness, but we’ve come to appreciate the impossibility of his position. We can’t see any other feasible action he could have taken. 
  • Of course, we then arrive at the big question: If you suspect your ex-girlfriend still loves you, should you try to steal her away from her bland husband? This question will drive the main narrative, but others continue to pop up. 
  • This leads to a flashback where that girlfriend is torn by a similar question: Should you leave your new love if your husband turns up alive? 
  • And if you do, is it kinder to explain or slip away? 
  • Meanwhile, a subplot asks, "Should you sleep with a corrupt official to save your husband’s life?" 
  • Later another tricky question is raised: Should you ask someone to attend a resistance meeting if you know it might get him killed? 
These are all tough questions, and we dread the thought of having to face such dilemmas. And yet the mood of this movie remains sophisticated and effervescent, even though the painful emotional dilemmas faced by every character in every scene could not be more dire. The comedic elements are made that much sharper by scraping up against these cold, hard stones.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Accept a drunk ride or lose out on chance to have sex, cover for a cheating friend, etc.


YES, break quarantine to save Kane or not, for instance.

An Education

YES. The condemnations of David are tinged with anti-Semitism, forcing her to choose between tolerance and self-protection.

The Babadook

YES. Sedate your child that can’t sleep?  Take your child’s side in a violent incident? 

Blazing Saddles

YES. Even in the most absurd scene, where they face a moral dilemma as to what to do when the sheriff takes himself hostage.  

Blue Velvet

YES. (well, they don’t have to, but they choose to) Is it wrong to spy to solve a crime, to steal a girl from a lame lunk-head, to accept sex from a damaged woman, etc…

The Bourne Identity

YES. he has to get out of there without killing anyone except his fellow assassins.  Compare to Knight and Daywhere Tom Cruise is in a similar situation and kills everyone he sees.


YES. Fun vs. fiscal responsibility, for instance. 


YES. is it worth accommodating the Nazis to keep the peace, is Ugarte worth saving, should you leave your new love if your husband turns up alive, etc…


YES. Take sleazy cases or not? Publicize the results or not? Take on two clients with competing interests or not?

Donnie Brasco

YES.  break cover vs. hurt innocents, etc.

Do the Right Thing

NO. Not much.  There are few moral dilemmas until the end.

The Farewell

YES. She keeps being put in moral dilemmas in China.

The Fighter

YES. Should you protect your criminal brother from a police beating? Etc. 


YES. Get married without family’s blessing?  Sacrifice your safety to save your family member?  Live as a hermit if no one understands you?

The Fugitive

YES. Save the boy vs. stay free, etc.  Such decisions were the heart of the excellent TV show on which this was based.  As Davis points out in the commentary, the only sequence in the movie that is similar to average episodes of the original show is the one where he saves the boy and exposes his secret to Julianne Moore. 

Get Out

YES. She chooses to stand up to the cop for him, he has to decide whether or not to reveal his suspicions about the servants, etc. 

Groundhog Day

YES. There’s a lot of good vs. evil choices, but he also has to choose between goods (he can’t save everybody) and evils (chooses suicide over suffering)

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. He keeps finding ways to avoid fighting the dragons without fighting his community.

In a Lonely Place

Somewhat.  There aren’t a lot of tough dilemmas for Dix, just for those who have to decide whether or not to trust him.

Iron Man

YES. He escapes even though it means his mentor will be killed, destroys his own business even though his friends depend on it.

Lady Bird

YES.  Hang onto friends who may be holding you back? Kyle represents justice but not decency. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Put fugitives out of your house in the rain?  Swap wives to keep your job?


NO. Not really.  Max’s madness drives the plot, not hard choices. 


YES. Very much so: Johnson is choosing between using his political clout on anti-poverty programs or civil rights.  King is choosing between winning over his enemies or keeping his allies. 

The Shining

Somewhat.  The characters don’t get to make a lot of choices. Kubrick was a big Fate guy.


YES. Betray Jack or Maya? Lie to Jack about telling Maya to maintain friendship? Protect Jack from the consequences of actions or not?

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Is it okay to lie to Lecter? Okay to tell him anything? Even Bill has to choose between his losing his dog or losing his kill.

Star Wars

YES. Endanger relatives to help the cause of freedom? Risk the mission to save the princess? 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Joe and Betty are both cheating, everyone feeds Norma’s violent delusions in order to spare her feelings.  

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