Seven Mistakes Movies Make

At the turn of the last century, Mark Twain loved poking fun at the tidy religious stories that were told in his day, even as he produced his own versions. The stories led to a payoff that dealt a death-blow to wickedness and a cheery boost to saintliness, all neatly summed up in a secondary character’s sermonette.
When movies came along, they followed the same trend, but in a condensed, visceral format. You knew what you would get in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s: morality plays pitting the false against the true. The best movies, as with any work of art, transcended their times, but retained a trace of the pattern.
Writers spent the latter part of the 20th century pedaling quickly away from the mistakes those stories made. And that’s a good thing. Gone went the assumption that the only happy ending was an artificially perfect one. Gone went the presumption that God’s plan is knowable to man, and that it’s pretty much our plan, super-charged.
But the problem was, after Hollywood got to a good place, it kept pedaling — and eventually created its own formula, its own typical mistakes.
They are the mistakes of a different culture from the one that invented movies — a post-religious culture. I’ve counted seven (and left the last one expansive enough that you can add your own).
Before we start, though, a caveat: In identifying the mistakes in these movies, I do not mean to say, “These movies are without artistic merit and have no redeeming value.” Quite the contrary. The movies I use as examples often have something important to offer. I simply mean to warn against falling for the mistake along with the rest of the story.
1. Images don’t count.
You and I and our grandmother’s friends would never think of going together as a group to sit and watch a live sex act. We wouldn’t enjoy it — and if we did, we would feel like perverts (for good reason). It would disgust us to learn that a group of coworkers had gone to see such a thing. But many Hollywood producers want us to believe that getting together to watch a sex act in enhanced form — in giant color images, intercut with close-ups and punctuated by music — is a perfectly normal way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Which is to say, many Hollywood producers are perverts, and want us to be perverts, too.
The real difference between watching the live sex act and the simulated sex act on the screen is that after the first, you need to confess voyeurism; after the second, you need to confess pornography. The lasting impression the image makes on our brain is very similar: It’s the chemical stimulation of a hormone, not the excitement of emotions by human drama.
Nudity tends to crowd everything else out in our minds. Ask a group of people — and not just guys — what they remember about the movie Witness, for instance, and they’ll say, “Harrison Ford in an ’80s Amish mystery.” Ask them if they remember a scene in the movie, and, if they remember anything at all, they will remember, “He looks through a keyhole while a woman takes a bath” — a gratuitous scene in the film, which did nothing to advance the plot.
Gore also crowds out drama. If you or I saw a person get shot or knifed or blown up in a movie theater parking lot, we wouldn’t simply remember it for the rest of our lives, it would become a focal point of our history. If it came up in conversation, we’d tell people “we’re dealing with it.” But movies assume we can watch the same thing in billboard-sized slow motion without consequence.
War movies in the old days had a lot of guys clutching their breasts and falling, dying in a way that seems quaint by today’s standards. But I remember being just as inspired by The Longest Day as I was by Saving Private Ryan; ironically, the old D-Day movie actually told the tale of human dignity better by not continually shocking my system with so accurate a depiction of human road-kill.
The fact is, images do count. They stay with us, and it’s important to keep the harmful ones out.
2. Hubris wins the day.
Movies tell you that the more certain you are of your own abilities, the more likely you are to succeed. The ultimate hero is the skilled loner: James Bond, Jason Bourne, Neo.
And it isn’t just action heroes. Last weekend, I went to see the Hannah Montana 3-D concert movie with my eleven-year-old daughter (we were intrigued by the overwhelmingly positive reviews at The lyrics of one of the first songs went as follows: “Life is hard or / It’s a party / The choice is up to you / Life’s what you make it / So let’s make it rock.”
Hannah’s message: By looking inward, one finds the resources necessary to create the fate one wants. Hubris wins the day.
All this is the reverse of the classic literary arc. In traditional literature, a protagonist triumphs; the bad guys fight back and get the hero into an impossible bind; if the hero believes only in himself, it’s called hubris, and he fails. This kind of story was called a tragedy.
But if the hero turns outside himself for help — to God, country, friends, lover, second mate, or faithful dog — he wins.
Take an old story like Treasure Island or Kidnapped. Each features a boy who is thrust into a situation where he faces the bad guys virtually alone. But Jim Hawkins and David Balfour don’t “believe in themselves,” and in so doing, overcome their foes. Rather, each sees his weaknesses so clearly that he grasps for anyone who can help him, even outlaws.
In modern kids’ corollaries, like Spy Kids and Hercules, the opposite is the case: What the kids need to triumph in these movies are gizmos to wield with swaggering confidence. The trope is so prevalent that Toy Story 2 even jokes about it: The toy dinosaur is surprised that “believing in yourself” isn’t the way to defeat Zerg in a video game.
This movie mistake comes from, and feeds, radical individualism. In these stories, the self is the important thing; others are just props, obstacles, or boosters on the hero’s stage. But this error leaves audiences ill-equipped for the real world, where true success comes only to those willing to see their shortcomings and trust others.
3. Religious people aren’t normal.
Since most people in Hollywood aren’t religious, they don’t seem to understand what religious people are all about. In fact, their knowledge seems limited to knowing that we believe weird things and want to spoil their social lives. As a result, they often portray religious people as creepy or scary.
Even when Hollywood is trying to be nice and reach out, they seem incapable. Often, the highest praise Hollywood can pay to religion is the backhanded compliment of making its practitioners merely banal instead of baldly malevolent.
We don’t have to look far for examples: The Da Vinci Code notoriously cast an “Opus Dei monk” as the evil-doer, and The Golden Compass is about the evil “Magisterium’s” wicked designs. The cliché appears even when religion isn’t a major theme: The Shawshank Redemption has its evil Christian prison guard; Shiloh turns the book’s nasty Church-shunning man with a sour family history into a Bible-thumping anti-evolutionist with a sour Christian family history. {mospagebreak}
If Christians aren’t played as the bad guys, religious themes are often erased from movies entirely. Deleted scenes from The Rookie, about a high school baseball coach trying to make the big leagues, illustrate a religious sub-story that was mostly nonexistent in the commercial release. In the DVD of My Dog Skip, the reminiscences of Willie Morris, the deleted segments reveal a sweet nighttime prayer scene that never made it into the movie.
Why was religious normalcy expunged from the final product? It’s hard to say — but then, deleting God from movies is nothing new in Hollywood.
4. Movies don’t know God.
The real God is a mystery. In a crude analogy, He is both the computer programmer who designed our world and set it in motion, as well as the power source that keeps the whole thing running.
But Hollywood chops God in half: He is no longer a person, just an energy source. Star Wars makes that explicit, naming him the Force and describing him as a non-personal center of ubiquitous energy. Other movies pray to the same God, without ever describing him so theologically. The romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, depressingly, places the Force at the center of Orthodox Christianity. The Polar Express practically portrays faith in the Force as salvific.
But to the extent that movies win converts to this ambiguous faith, they destroy real faith. If God is merely a force, real life offers as much evidence that he’s malevolent as it does that he’s benign.
In Cast Away, for example, God is conspicuously absent. Who could go through Tom Hanks’ ordeal and not turn to God, either in anger or devotion? It’s humanly impossible. Yet the film never goes there.
Once again, even if the true God makes His way into recent films, His best scenes often end up on the cutting room floor. In The Road to Perdition, our hero turns from a life of crime to a life devoted to his son’s protection. Critics’ reactions were: Great, nice, but what motivates his change? A deleted scene in a Catholic church holds the answer: Christ.
And do you remember the brief but inspiring scene in Gladiator, in which the hungry lion approaches the Christian martyr who, Madonna-like, cradles her child? If you didn’t watch the deleted scenes, you never saw it, and you probably wondered where all the Christians were.
5. Dreams always come true.
It’s great for movies to have happy endings that encourage hope by showing us that life is hard but worth it. But many movies make the mistake of delivering improbably happy endings that tell audiences: If you dream about something, and if you really want it, your dream will come true.
This is another mistake that is so ubiquitous that examples are easy: National Treasure is one, as is National Treasure 2. Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Must Like Dogs, and nearly every other romantic comedy makes romantic love the dream that will always come true.
It’s a dangerous promise to make, and the result of the false expectations we’ve raised are all around us: Sadness and depression (life isn’t supposed to be second-rate!), divorces and social drop-outs (human relationships are supposed to bring untroubled happiness!).
The fact is, our dreams don’t come true. Something like our dreams sometimes comes true, but usually only if we work hard for it. For that reason, good antidotes to this phenomenon are work-hard movies like Miracle (they didn’t dare dream of what they got), or Rudy (who got something less and yet more than his dream) or Cinderella Man.
6. “I love you” is about me, not you.
Pope John Paul II taught us that “Love is self gift.” Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that “Love is not practiced as a means of achieving other ends.” Mother Teresa showed us that “to love is to sacrifice.”
These great Catholic figures of our time have told us over and over again that love is all about serving a beloved, and not about using someone else to satiate our own needs and desires.
Yet, in the movies, “I love you” isn’t about what I give my beloved; it’s all about what my beloved provides for me. One of the best known scenes in modern film has Tom Cruise bursting into a divorce support group meeting and begging for Rene Zellweger to return (Jerry McGuire). He had her at hello. Unfortunately he got the love thing all wrong: “You complete me,” he told her.
To which she should have replied, “Complete yourself, buddy, then look me up when you’ve matured past narcissism and are ready to love.”
Aristotle distinguished friendships of pleasure, friendships of utility, and true friendships. Movie love affairs fall in line with Aristotle.
Love for pleasure is the most common movie love. You’re cool and you please me; therefore, I love you. That shows up in everything from High School Musical to Lost in Translation.
Love for utility is another common cinematic form. Jane Austen, for all her novels’ considerable charm and skill, often wrote about impoverished lasses who longed for the impoverished kind of love that enriches materially. The Phantom of the Opera is all about love for utility.
And then there is true love. I love you, and that love is a mystery, but it means I will serve you, no matter what. Princess Bride teaches this lesson with a smile; A Beautiful Mind, with a grimace.
The best modern movies recognize what love is. Some, like Match Point and Juno, recognize the hollow forms of love and either despair or shrug. Others, like The Painted Veil, discover the beauty of love serving the other person. Meryl Streep and Rene Zellweger’s One True Thing is a beautiful and surprising defense of the housewife’s vocation as true lover . . . until the very end spoils it.
What each of these films recognize, though, is that love isn’t an emotion, it’s a set of actions. Audiences know that’s true; it’s one reason Titanic did so well, while Pearl Harbor flopped. Titanic is the biggest money-making movie of all time, in large part because the man dies for the woman; his actions, in the end, show true love — and girls couldn’t see it enough.
7. Good is bad, and bad is good.
The mistake: Movies often teach the reverse of traditional concepts of good and evil. They’ll have the lead character succeed in his mission by breaking one of the commandments (and not just the sixth; also the fourth, as in Little Mermaid; and the seventh, as in Waking Ned Devine; or both, as in School of Rock).
They’ll even kill when it isn’t necessary. Revenge is sweet in the movies in a way it rarely is in real life.
In closing, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think any of the movies I’ve mentioned are without redeeming value. Nor do I think any of them ought to be banned. It’s good to know the mistakes, though, in order to remind ourselves (and our children) what they are. Even better, why not buy and rewatch only the movies that don’t make those mistakes?

Tom Hoopes is executive editor of the National Catholic Register and with his wife, April, is editorial co-director of Faith & Family magazine.


  • Tom Hoopes

    Tom Hoopes is writer-in-residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Previously, he served as editor of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine. He is the author, most recently, of What Pope Francis Really Said (Servant, 2016).

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