"We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are, I’m no different." - Memento, 2000
What is the greatest story ever told? A story of love? A story of achievement? Self discovery? The triumph of good over evil?
There is no singular answer to this question. In fact, it may be the broadest question ever asked. The answer, of course, depends on the person. In this piece I will attempt to answer the question using film as a medium for story.
To be invested in a story or character on an emotional level, one must experience or empathize with the losses of the main character. Every great story has the main character losing someone close or dealing with that loss.
Leonard Shelby (Memento, 2000) is on a quest seeking vengeance for his wife, who was killed during a home invasion. Leonard, left with no long term memory, has only the clues left to himself by tattoos on his body. Throughout Memento, we see Leonard trying (and failing) to come to terms with the loss of his wife. The reason is simple - Leonard simply cannot make progress or grieve since he cannot feel time due to his condition. How long has it been since she died? Leonard himself hasn’t a clue.
Along with the element of loss is the presence of love. The element of love is often paired with the element of loss. Characters often go through a maze of emotions to arrive at acceptance. Dom Cobb of Inception (2010) only way out of the maze built in his dreams is letting go of his past, which includes the love of his life - Mal. You’ll see in all of the films I mention in this article the elements of love and loss being tied together.
A great story makes us question our own beliefs. In Minority Report (2002), the authors and writers ask: are our actions are predetermined or do we really have a choice in what we do? The film’s main protagonist, John Anderton, is the subject of a manhunt that he himself used to lead, to catch murderers before they strike using a system to predict murders. When John himself is the suspect in a predetermined murder, he goes on the run to discover who he is supposed to kill and why.
Similarly, the filmmakers behind The Dark Knight (2008) ask us what lengths we are willing to go to save someone. The film’s main antagonist The Joker (acted phenomenally by Heath Ledger) is unreachable, and seemingly has no demands. The Joker exists only to wreak havoc. At what lengths is the Batman willing to go to stop the Joker? Would he take a life? In the end, Batman and his associates knowingly violate the privacy of 30 million people to put an end to the Joker’s reign of chaos.
A great journey is incomplete without an element of self-discovery. Much like Leonard in Memento, every great story has a main character trying to discover something within them self or return to something they once knew or were. As you may have noticed by now, I am a huge fan of the 2010 film Inception. Contained in the film’s themes is one thing we can all relate to, and that we all do almost everyday - we all just want to go home. Whether it be after a long day at work, or rough day in general, we all experience the feeling of wanting to go home. Cobb’s goal the entire film is to complete a risky job so he can go home to his kids. The journey home takes Cobb through a route of self-discovery, acceptance of loss, and the acceptance of his belief in reality.
The end of the journey may not be one that you like, but it is often the most fitting of the story’s themes. Whether the ending is one that kills off the protagonist, or provides the audience few answers, the ending isn’t always what is important - it’s how you got there.