The Theology of Screenwriting: Annunciation

What the Angel’s visit to Mary can teach us about the Call to Adventure.

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As many of you may know, I have a background in the academic study of theology, a B.A. in religious studies from the University of Virginia and a Masters of Divinity degree from Yale. So it is only natural I bring that perspective to how I view and understand movies and screenwriting.

Let me be clear, when I say theological, I mean it — in this context — in a secular way. How does that make sense?

The word theology” is a combination of two Greek words: “theos” which means God and “logos” which means word. So theology is words about God. What if for this series we think of God as a metaphor for an explanation for the big questions of life? Thus, theology as words about the meaning of life. Broadly speaking that is one dynamic movies hit on consistently, characters forced to confront their values, behaviors, and world views related to who they are and how they should act.

In this respect, movies and theology wade in very much the same thematic waters. As Andrew Stanton noted about Lawrence of Arabia in this TED Talk, how the central theme of that story is the question asked of the Protagonist “who are you,” that issue exists at the core of perhaps every movie, an existential exploration of a character or characters’ self-identity. So, too, with theology.

Also, movies tend to be about characters at critical junctures in their lives, facing a journey from the Old World into a New World where through a series of challenges and lessons they undergo a significant metamorphosis. Sounds an awful lot like a conversion experience to me.

Thus, it is only natural there will be a lot of crossover of theological themes in movies. But while a theological theme in a movie may have a religious or spiritual connotation, I am more interested in exploring such themes metaphorically to find the widest value possible for screenwriters at large.

By working with this non-religious take on the concept, we can avail ourselves of numerous powerful theological themes in screenwriting regardless of whether our stories are secular or non-secular.

Today: Annunciation

In the Christian tradition, there is The Annunciation wherein it is said the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary:

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. [Luke 1:26–31]

The word “annunciation” derives from the Latin verb annūntiāre which in the past perfect means “to make known.” Of course, it is the root of the English words “announce” and “announcement.”

The Bible has numerous other examples where God communicated directly with humans: a burning bush appearing to Moses, Paul being struck down by a “blinding light,” God’s spirit in the form of a dove to John the Baptist to name just a few.

Likewise literature in general is rife with stories of gods intersecting with human beings. Consider Odysseus in “The Odyssey,” numerous occasions where Athena showed up to help by providing information and comfort.

One common theme in these ‘annunciations’ is that if a god chooses to insert themselves in the life of a human, it is an event of true significance, one that almost always causes a shift in the narrative, often persuading or cajoling the person involved to make a critical choice.

Per the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell called a key annunciation event the Call to Adventure. If we think of this moment as an expression of Fate — that is where the character’s narrative destiny lie — the first step in that transformation-journey is usually set into effect by this Call.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden functions as the Herald who conveys the Call to The Narrator. Since we later learn that Durden is an aspect of The Narrator’s own psyche, one way of looking at this moment is The Narrator’s subconscious announcing to his consciousness that it wants out, it wants to breathe — and The Narrator needs to change.

In Inception, Saito announces an offer to Cobb he cannot resist: The possibility of finally being able to return home to his children by pulling off a near impossible caper. Again this is Cobb’s narrative destiny, not only to find a way home, but also to resolve longstanding issues of attachment to his wife Mal.

In Groundhog Day, the annunciation comes in the form of a supernatural construction: Phil must relive the previous day over and over and over. Again this is his narrative destiny, to rid himself of bad habits, embrace whatever goodness he has inside, and become a New Man in order to break the pattern of who he has been.

In every story, something happens that causes the Protagonist’s normal life to change. We may enter the story in media res so that the Call to Adventure happened in the past, but more often than not it occurs somewhere in the first act after the Ordinary World has been established, the New World beckoning.

Whereby the Fate of the story, the Protagonist’s narrative destiny announces itself to the character — and thus begins their Hero’s Journey.

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