- solidarity versus individualism
- fun versus responsibility
- compromise versus integrity
Some stories are focused not so much on good versus good but more on evil versus evil:
- death versus dishonor
- betraying a loved one versus betraying society
- societal control versus chaos
Here are some dilemmas from the examples we looked at in chapter three:
- The movie Casablanca: love versus patriotism
- The novel and movie Beloved: death versus enslavement, self-forgiveness versus self-accountability
- The novel and movie Silence of the Lambs: dealing with one monster versus letting another go free
- The movie Groundhog Day: acceptance versus ambition
- The novel and movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: justice (seeking out and confronting evil, even at the risk of innocent lives) versus peace (maintaining order by banishing evil from discussion)
- The novel and movie Sideways: delusional optimism versus clear-eyed cynicism
- The comic and movie Iron Man: societal responsibility versus individual innovation
- The memoir and movie An Education: living up to one’s responsibilities versus having an interesting life
- Reading [Taylor] Branch’s account of that period, it is revealing how distracted Johnson was by Vietnam. In the days when the scenes of violence in Alabama should have been his focus, he was in endless meetings with Robert McNamara about a secret order to begin a bombing campaign. “It was this crisis that had shortened his patience for King’s visit from Selma,” Branch writes. There is not much mention of Vietnam in “Selma”; in this, the filmmakers did Johnson a kindness.
If DuVernay’s goal was really to turn LBJ from the co-hero of the movement into the villain, as many affronted LBJ supporters claimed, surely Vietnam would have been the way to go. All she had to do was honestly depict those McNamara meetings. And of course including Vietnam would have been dramatic: Death! Explosions! Great betrayals! Tragic downfalls!
Instead, her Johnson says that he can’t do what King wants because he’s rather use his political capital on his War on Poverty. In a great use of objects to physicalize the plot, he’s actually got his plan in a leather folder and tries to hand it to King but King refuses to accept it and forces Johnson to put it down, literally and figuratively.
DuVernay (and/or credited writer Paul Webb) knows that great drama comes from choosing between goods, not from choosing between good and evil (as would have been the case in a choice between voting rights and Vietnam). Good vs. evil is a no-brainer with a pat solution, but good vs. good is an anguishing choice. Ultimately, of course, we know that Johnson brilliantly pushed through both the War on Poverty and voting rights, but in the movie, it’s a tough call that’s left unresolved, which is always good with a thematic conflict. We like it when a story tips towards one side of a thematic conflict but leaves the question open and not fully resolved. That makes a story meaty.
- There’s no forced entry and the killer used Kimble’s own gun (and Kimble’s paperweight to finish the job)
- She had the family money and a big insurance policy.
- As he moves her dying body to the bed, she accidentally scratches his neck, leaving his skin under her fingernails.
- Due to tremendously bad luck, her 911 tape overwhelming implicates him (She calls out “Richard…” when he enters, but it sounds like she’s naming her killer.)
- It makes it far more terrifying for the audience. This could happen to any of us. It’s a nightmare with no easy solution
- But more importantly, it makes the thematic dilemma (law vs. justice) more impartial, and that always makes the meaning of a story resonate more.
In the end, as the checklist recommends, the dilemma is resolved in a way that tips to one side but not decisively: Justice is better than law, but we cannot choose one over the other: they must be reunited for either to be worthwhile.
This is shocking: Dan Harmon, after all, created “Heat Vision and Jack”, perhaps the most tongue-in-cheek pilot ever made, and then followed that up with the droll anti-sitcom “The Sarah Silverman Program”. How did this guy end up creating this pilot? Two possible answers:
- Presumably after failing to break through to a wide audience, he was more willing to take network notes and give them the kind of show they wanted, but more importantly…
- This pilot’s ingenuousness is somewhat disingenuous. When I saw it in 2009, I remember thinking “Wow, this looks great, and it could be the show that brings unironic learning and growing back to sitcoms.” I was certainly right about the show being great, but not about the show’s commitment to non-irony. Just the opposite happened: the show quickly shifted to a far more ironic tone, to the point where every other episode became a brilliantly-post-modern parody of a different film genre.
- The ironic dilemma, between individual achievement and community building, tips decisively in one direction (no hints as to which one.)
- The plot doesn’t just collide thesis and antithesis and let us choose, the characters actually talk quite a bit about what it all means, synthesizing a concrete moral. Audiences normally hate this.
- Our hero has a resolvable issue that can ultimately be solved in a tidy way
This show doesn’t simply ignore the possibility of moral ambiguity, it actively campaigns against it. As Jeff says at one point, while defending his lies: “I’ve understood since I was a kid that if I talked long enough, I could make anything true. So either I’m God or truth is relative, and in either case: booyah.” This is refreshing. In the world of the show, unambiguous morality, instead of seeming trite and simplistic, seems like a daring new concept.
So why doesn’t it sabotage things to have the cast talk so much about morality? One reason is the setting: college is the land of over-earnest talky-talk-talk. That’s true to life and it’s also part of the joke: at no other point in life is your level of “insight” so divorced from your actual wisdom. When we watch this very diverse ensemble trying to wrap things up with a bow, we maintain a healthy distance from them, somewhat convinced but also amused, which keeps the show from feeling overly moralistic.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. Respect for women vs. need for sex, self-sufficiency vs. co-dependent love.
YES, loyalty vs. self-preservation.
YES. Glamour vs. responsibility
YES. Greiving vs. Looking forward, fighting bad feelings vs. accepting them.
YES. Good vs. good: Individualism vs. solidarity, standing up to people vs. winning them over. Bad vs. bad: anger vs. subservience.
YES. two evils: naivete vs. cynicism
The Bourne Identity
YES. Duty vs. conscience
YES. Friendship vs. romantic love
YES. love vs. country.
YES. Honor the past or build the future.
YES. Being a good father/husband/friend vs. being a good cop.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Integration vs. self-preservation
YES. Is it better (and healthier) to live a happy lie or an unhappy truth?
YES. Family vs. independence.
YES. Family vs. independence
YES. Law vs. justice and public vs. private
YES. Cooperation vs. vigilance
YES. Ambition vs. acceptance, quantity of life vs. quality of life.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. Victory vs. peace-making, justice vs. family loyalty
In a Lonely Place
YES. Sacrificing for love vs. self protection.
YES. Individual achievement vs. societal responsibility.
YES. Contentment vs. ambition.
YES. Settle for a meager legal life vs. achieving a better life through extra-legal means.
YES. Ambition vs. Acceptance
YES. Be moderate (work together) or be immoderate (take a righteous stand).
YES. Lots of thematic questions: Family vs. masculinity, loyalty to father vs. loyalty to mother, trust your parents vs. trust yourself, making it work vs. moving on, etc…
YES. Blind optimism vs. clear-eyed cynicism, push for more out of life or accept less.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Evil vs. evil: empower one killer to stop another.
YES. Spirituality vs. technology, freedom vs. unjust peace, solidarity vs. personal safety
YES. success vs. dignity