Movies are about transformation. We want to see someone change. It’s the reason we are drawn to sit in a dark room and eat popcorn with a bunch of strangers. But this transformation has to have a larger meaning. This is where knowing what your story is about comes in. Without a clear theme your story doesn’t have the context it needs to truly affect the audience. But how do you establish the notoriously hard to pin down theme?
In my last post I talked about how the theme of a story can be articulated by what the protagonist learns. This means that we come to understand what the story is really about by seeing the protagonist experience a meaningful epiphany. In order to ensure your main character has a specific moment of realization we need to give them an emotionally compelling transformation which is a two step process.
First you need to give your protagonist a subconscious longing, need or desire that they are initially unaware of (reconcile loss, gain confidence, forgive). This becomes their internal goal. It’s why they want what they want. It tells us what is really motivating them to achieve their external goal and articulates what they really need (even though they don’t know it yet!).
The second part of developing the protagonist’s transformation is giving the protagonist an epiphany that makes the subconscious conscious. This is where they realize the flaw they must heal in order to be transformed. It’s this moment that tells us what the story is really about.
The King’s Speech does this beautifully:
• The opening scene at Wembley Stadium establishes Albert’s stammer and his considerable fear of public speaking. His subsequent visit to the doctor tells us his external goal is to overcome his speech impediment.
• Albert’s father, King George V (Michael Gambon), gives his annual Christmas broadcast and afterwards bullies Albert into trying the microphone reminding him he has to overcome his stammer sooner than later. This beat sets up Albert’s lack of confidence and roots his weak self esteem in his antagonistic relationship with his father.
We know that Albert’s subconscious inner goal is to feel worthy of being King and to do this he’s going to have to let go of his unattainable need for his father’s love and approval – the flaw that stands in the way of his self confidence.
• With his father’s words ringing in his ears Albert begins seeing Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to address his stammer. During their sessions Albert resists discussing his past but as the story progresses and their friendship solidifies he reveals some of the more difficult moments of his childhood. These conversations nicely set up Albert’s growing awareness of the real cause of his stammer and ultimately his lack of confidence.
• King George V dies and Albert’s brother (Guy Pearce) inherits the throne becoming King Edward VIII. During a session with Logue Albert reveals his worry that Edward will abdicate and he’ll be forced to take over. Lionel assures him he has what it takes to be King which forces Albert to confront his lack of self worth head on. But Albert’s not yet willing to look at his insecurity and instead lashes out at Logue ridiculing his failed acting career.
• Their altercation causes a rift in their friendship that isn’t repaired until King Edward VIII does in fact abdicate and Albert is made King. Now, unable to avoid a future filled with public speaking obligations, Albert seeks out Logue and apologizes. Their reconciliation underscores an internal shift in Albert’s character and his acceptance of his fate shows the first glimmer of his willingness to confront his flaw and believe in himself.
• Albert and Logue prepare for Albert’s coronation at Westminster Abbey. While they do this the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi) investigates Logue’s credentials and in a climatic scene interrupts their preparations to tell Albert that Logue isn’t even a real doctor. The Archbishop’s shocking revelation proves Albert’s worst fear – he lacks judgment and has trusted someone he shouldn’t have. He is in fact not fit to be King.
• Albert again lashes out at Logue. But instead of backing down Logue helps him to see that he doesn’t need the Archbishop, his father or anyone else’s approval, including Logue’s, to be worthy of the crown – he just needs his own. This is Albert’s epiphany. He is now conscious of how his lack of self worth, instilled in him by his father and reinforced by his debilitating stammer, has held him back from embracing his role as King. This new awareness gives him the confidence he needs to accept the position with dignity. This moment tells us what the story is really about and articulates the theme of accepting yourself flaws and all.
• Albert’s newfound confidence and acceptance of his role as King is beautifully established in the final sequence when he confidently gives his wartime address. This sequence works as well as it does because we know how much Albert has grown over the course of the story. We have witnessed his transformation from being unable to speak to the crowd at Wembley to giving an inspiring radio broadcast that unites the people of Britain and earns their undying trust and respect.
If The King’s Speech was just about how King George VI overcame his stammer it wouldn’t engage us the way that it has. It’s his internal journey as he gains self confidence that keeps us hooked and ultimately moves us. Giving your protagonist a compelling emotional transformation is one of the best ways to not only fully engage your audience but ensure you tell a meaningful story with a clearly articulated theme.