Dec 31, 2008
Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of the film.
Drama is a story structure based on exploring a difficult moral issue in depth. It puts more emphasis on moral argument – concerning the right and wrong way to live – than any other genre, which is both a blessing a curse. In the Great Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting Classes, I explain in detail how to express moral argument through the story structure, instead of presenting it in dialogue like a sermon. When moral argument is done through structure it has tremendous impact on the audience, not because it tells them how to live but because it shows them, in deeply personal terms, the effects that moral decisions have on our lives.
Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, is a classic drama, and it shows clearly the strengths and limitations of the drama form. Because of the form’s emphasis on moral argument, the best drama tries to cut the particular issue as close to 51-49 as it can. And Shanley does this quite well. Sister Aloysius is a hard, bigoted, rule-bound woman who accuses another human being of a heinous crime based on no evidence but a feeling. But she is probably right. Father Flynn is a compassionate, gentle and decent man who wants to bring fun and community to the school. But he may be molesting boys. The boy whom the priest is accused of molesting is the first black child at the school. And Father Flynn is his only friend.
This balance and complexity is Doubt’s great strength and allows Shanley to create two powerful scenes between the nun and the priest that have the quality of a heavyweight fight. But Doubt’s great failure – and it is the most serious mistake a drama can make – is that the
story is nothing but moral argument. Drama must always be a story first, and that means plot and character development.
Plot and character development are the scaffolding on which moral argument must stand. Plot is based on surprise. It’s what delights us. It’s the game that seduces the audience into facing the pain the drama ultimately causes its characters and all who watch them. Character development is what makes the audience care about the people going through the struggle. It’s what makes the emotional connection.
Doubt has virtually no plot or character development. We see four characters dealing with a crisis that Sister Aloysius has brought to a head. Almost the entire story is played out in the two big scenes between the priest and the nun. Since the film has no plot or character development, it creates little emotional connection with the audience, so the argument remains intellectual and the mechanics of the drama come to the surface.
Without an emotional connection, everything in the film boils down to the quality of the moral accounting, and in this the drama fails. Sister Aloysius uses trickery to force the priest out, but this trickery is not unreasonable or extreme. And it indicates that the priest was probably guilty. So the film ends up supporting not so much her method of attack but her original certainty that he is guilty, even though it is based on nothing but a feeling. This is highly suspect.
Shanley seems to realize his moral accounting is skewed. So he has the nun experience an emotional breakdown in the final scene, in which she cries out that she has “such doubts.” But this moment is both intellectually unbelievable and emotionally phony. Try as hard as she can, Meryl Streep can’t bring it off. And if Meryl Streep can’t bring it off, there’s a good chance the problem is in the script. The result for the audience is a huge letdown. Because the nun’s final breakdown and confession of doubt is unbelievable, it doesn’t correct the imbalance of the moral argument.
Screenwriters who wish to write drama can learn much from this film, especially from its complexity and its hard-hitting dialogue. But most of all we can learn that even drama is a story first, and the old foundations of plot and character development are the keys to greatness.