I love movies. For good or ill, they have had a major impact on my life. I’m a fan of most genres—comedy, romance, drama, action.
As a fairly analytical human, I was thinking a while back on what makes a great movie…great. Certainly there are many ingredients—good writing, talented actors, a visionary director, striking cinematography, etc. But, I asked myself—are there more intangible qualities in the greatest movies that go even deeper, that elevate a movie to a higher level, leaving us somehow changed? Two qualities came to the surface—Character and Wonder. The most impacting movies (whether the impact is pure entertainment or something deeper) tend to excel in both of these areas.
Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark comes to mind. Indy’s character was larger than life. He was a brilliant archeologist, handy with a whip, a hard-luck romantic, relentless to a fault. And also, none of the characters around him, no matter how minor, were wasted. Even if they just helped to paint the backdrop of a smelly bar in Tibet or a marketplace in Cairo, they all had an energy and color. And the world Indy encountered was also full of wonder—menacing Nazis, exotic locations, mystic and holy dangers. The more recent epic, Lord Of The Rings, is of course another classic example of this—a cast of unforgettable characters against a vast and complex world of wonder.
In some movies, it’s not so much about the character amidst his or her world, but rather the wonder we find in the character himself. In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s character is a wonder to behold, a man whose neurotic peccadilloes alienate him from the one thing he wants most—someone to love. And, Helen Hunt, the eventual object of his love is more of a wondrous character in the simplest sense, that even in her own loneliness, as Jack tells her, “you say what you mean, and you almost always mean something that’s all about being straight and good.” We see in this film how the character of the human spirit is a wonder in itself—we’re complex, we’re simple, we’re full of mysterious emotion, and we’re all crying out for generally the same things.
In one of my favorite movies, To Kill A Mockingbird we see the innocent character in the little girl, Scout, and the wonder of childhood as she explores and seeks to understand the joys and the evils of her small town in Alabama. Her father Atticus is a towering wonder of a character—resolute, wise, compassionate. Boo Radley (my cat is named after him) represents all that is fearful in childhood—he is unknown, his reputation is built far more on shadow and suggestion than anything real. And yet, he turns out, as a grown man, to have the heart and purity of a child. We find that Boo also has the strength, like Atticus, to protect the weak and stand up for what is right. I could go on and on about the character and wonder to be found in virtually every frame of this film.
Some of you will remind me that Mockingbird is actually based on Harper Lee’s brilliant novel, and that these qualities are just as relevant to great literature as they are to movies. And, I’d agree. I actually began this blog with the medium of film as more people tend to watch movies than read books nowadays. But, character and wonder have long been, I think, the supreme ingredient in great literature as well.
And, that leads me (my regular readers knew I’d go here eventually), to what I believe is the greatest storytelling of all time, the ancient story of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is a fascinating book in that while its ultimate purpose is relational, i.e., it’s meant to draw us into a closer encounter with our Creator, the medium God often uses toward this end is fantastic storytelling. And, again, character and wonder are to be found everywhere in its pages.
Moses, for instance, is quite a character, to say the least. He’s this bag of massive neuroses—he’s terribly insecure about his ability to accomplish anything for God, and is seen in a fairly comedic scene arguing with the Almighty ad nauseum about this fact. He asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”1
Like so many of us, Moses knew that his character simply wasn’t up to the task. But, God doesn’t then give him a pep talk to build his self-esteem. What he does is ask Moses to focus on something else—the character and wonder of his Creator. God tells him, “I will be with you… I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them.”2
God wanted Moses to live in a state of wonder as he trusted in the character of his Maker. And, in the cinematic fashion that we’ve marveled at in such movies as The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt, God then imbued insecure, little Moses with the character of someone who could stand up to one of the most powerful men on Earth. Moses delivered over a million people from the hopeless bondage of slavery by demonstrating the wonderful miracles of God. He became the hero of God’s amazing story.
We often go to movies and read books merely to escape from the hopeless drudgery of our daily life. We would love to imagine that we could live the life of that hero we find on the silver screen or in that epic novel, where life is full of meaning and color, where we’re clear about the quest at hand, and determined to see it to the end. But, then we leave the theater, or close the book, and return to what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation”.
But, do you realize that God, the author of the greatest story ever told, has included you as a character in His wonderful quest? An ancient poet said that from your innermost parts, you “are fearfully and wonderfully made,”3 that you are a part of God’s wonderful, creative works. And that, for you to play the character that God has given you to play, you must simply live your life in wonder about Him and the character of His Son, this “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace”4—this Jesus.
God has created us for this quest. You, the actor in God’s story…Are you ready to play your part?
1 Exodus 3:11
2 Exodus 3:12, 20
3 Psalm 139:13-14
4 Isaiah 9:6