Theory of Nothing? A Review of The Theory of Everything
January 7, 2015
Plot vs. Story
July 29, 2014
Show, Don't Tell - Goal Setting Edition
June 27, 2018
Main Character vs. Protagonist in Foxcatcher
Finally watched Foxcatcher. Disappointing, considering what I had read was so brilliant, if not obviously so. It was my favorite read of the year. Deep and deceptively meaningful. What I felt was so brilliant about E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script was reduced in the final film to mere caricature. Du Pont of the movie was creepy and shallow, not the fully dimensional character of the script. The director Bennett Miller excised several key elements that showed Du Pont exerting control (The dogs scene, the raising of the roof, moving Mark out of the main guest house, etc.), and what was left simply didn’t motivate Du Pont in the same way. The movie reduced Du Pont, perhaps in an attempt to make him Mark’s antagonist. But that misses the point of the script where we felt an epic struggle between Du Pont and Mark. At least we have the script... hmmm.
Foxcatcher is the story of a billionaire benefactor who seeks validation through sponsoring the US Olympic Wrestling Team, instead destroys the lives of two champion brothers, and the sport itself. It is very simply a brilliant script, one that takes the audience on a journey into two vastly different worlds, with very compelling characters. Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t read the script or seen the movie, then avert your eyes.
Let’s start with the assumption that the protagonist and main character are quite often, I mean almost always, the same character. However, literature and movies give us many examples where they are not. Foxcatcher is one of those stories where they are not. Perhaps it would best to start with some definitions, so we’re all starting from the same point. Foxcatcher is such a complex character study, that a thorough examination will be needed.
Google defines Protagonist as “the leading character or ‘one of the major characters’ in a drama, movie, novel, or other fictional text.” Wikipedia defines the protagonist as the main character who enters conflict because of the antagonist, although it goes on to say that the character may be “variously defined” and may denote different concepts, such as the Narrator. John August defines the protagonist as “The character who changes over the course of the story, travelling from Point A to Point B, either literally or figuratively.*” Jim Hull of Narrative First defines the protagonist as the character who pursues the Story Goal** and considers the value of doing so.
The Main Character, on the other hand, is the character who the story is about, as John August says. Jim Hull explains that the main character is the character who gives us a specific point of view of the protagonist. Instead of the Main Character, it may be better to refer to this character as the Focal Character. In a literary sense, the focal character is the person we spend the most time with, although we are meant to care more about the protagonist. That is to say that we should root for or against the protagonist, but it is through the main character that we make value judgements about the protagonist’s choices.
One might simply say the protagonist drives the plot, whereas the focal character drives the story. The difference between plot and story, in a simplified explanation, is that a plot is the series of events which the protagonist experiences. A story is how and why the protagonist changes because of the experience.
When the protagonist and the focal character are the same character, the focus is how the change affects the protagonist himself. The personal insight must, in this case, precede the external battle. If not, the audience will feel any victory is hollow. Conversely, when the the protagonist and the focal character are different characters, we see how the protagonist’s change affects others. The main character must, at the very least, learn something from the protagonist’s change, and so the revelation comes after the battle.
Separate from the idea of Protagonist and Focal Character is the concept of the Hero. John August says the Hero is just the character you root for. The same can be said for the Anti-Hero, although they lack traditional qualities of the hero, we root for or against them. In Poetics, Aristotle said that the Tragic Hero must evoke pity or fear. The character arc of the Tragic Hero is not from bad to good, but from good to bad. Again, most of the time these traits are embodied by the same character, but it is not required, and indeed, with Foxcatcher they are not.
Finally, I want to talk about the Antagonist. Whereas the Hero and the Focal character are defined by plot, the protagonist is defined by story, specifically the conflict with the antagonist. The antagonist is usually a person or group of people who directly oppose the protagonist’s primary goal. This is the goal of the story, defined by the major battle at the climax.
The antagonist doesn’t need to be personified. It can be a force, such as a meteor or a tidal wave, or the eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, or a mother’s approval. Whatever the conflict, it can typically be described as in my version of the big four: Protagonist vs. Person, Protagonist vs. Nature, Protagonist vs. Society, and Protagonist vs. Self. Or as in Foxcatcher, a combination.
Before I get into the Foxcatcher details, I want to share a few examples where the protagonist and the main or focal character are not the same character. Once you see the pattern, you will find many other examples.
Consider the framing device where the movie is told in flashback, for instance. The teller of the tale is imparting wisdom gained from experiencing the story. He or she is the main character of their story. For a simple example, Titanic – the protagonist is Jack. He drives the plot. Without him there is no story. The story, however, is told through the main character Rose.
An excellent example from a movie I didn’t particularly like is American Hustle. I didn’t care for it because I felt the acting was loose, the plot led the characters, and the emotional heft story was insignificant. The protagonist is Bradley Cooper. Bradley is the only one who changes. He wants glory and recognition, at any cost. He drives the plot. Christian Bale was the Focal Character. We were supposed to care about him in the anti-hero sense. Frankly, I didn't care. Fake fat suit? Bad hair? Stunt costuming. Meh. How the hell is he supposed to be cheating on his 23 year old wife, complaining like she's some frumpy old hag? I love Jennifer Lawrence, but she was completely miscast. Amy Adams is Bradley Cooper's antagonist, not Bale. Bale is reactive, doing things because of his external influences. Jennifer's character is just another aspect of ambition that puts pressure on Bale, but that doesn’t matter because the story belongs to Adams and Cooper. The best way to identify the antagonist is to look at the climax. It’s Cooper’s story, and it's Amy who is controlling the situation. My last word about American Hustle. Amy was the best thing about this movie.
Another example familiar to most people is Shawshank Redemption – the plot drives forward with the protagonist Andy, he fights the antagonist force of institutionalism, personified through the warden Andy’s is change is a physical one, not internal. We never get into Andy's head. The main character and narrator is Red who gives us a specific POV of Andy. We only track Andy’s story through Red’s eyes. Andy's escape is a win, not just for Andy, more importantly for Red. In fact we only find out about it after the fact, as the other characters discover it. It's really Red's journey that we're emotionally tracking throughout. Andy's escape give him hope.
Psycho is a special case. Although we spend the first 15 minutes with Marion, she is not the main character or protagonist, she is a False Protagonist. The real protagonist is her boyfriend Sam, who actively searches for the truth throughout the story. Norman is surely the focal character, but he's Sam’s antagonist, with the reactive goal of protecting “his mother” from Sam's goal of finding out what happened. I argue that Norman isn’t the protagonist because he doesn’t actively pursue the story goal and doesn’t change.
So why is Mark Schultz in Foxcatcher not the film’s protagonist? Don’t we spend the first 23 pages focused on him and his golden boy brother Dave? Like in Psycho, it is a mistake to think that just because we see Mark’s point of view first that he is the protagonist. We care for Mark, but he’s not the protagonist. Although he changes, it’s not in a significant way. In the end scene, he’s still fighting, still seeking validation. More importantly, his goal – his only stated goal – is to win the Soul Olympics. No one, not even John du Pont, opposes this goal. In fact, Mark’s success furthers du Pont’s stated goal, to restore the greatness of the US Wrestling Team. Mark’s goal is not the story goal, therefore he can’t be the protagonist. Mark is the Focal Character.
Mark’s brother Dave Schultz is a Viewpoint Character, another main character type, meant to give us reflection of the Focal Character and the theme. In thematic opposition to Mark, Dave has always had validation. Taking a step back, the purpose of the first act of Foxcatcher is world building. To show us the world or wrestling as it was before du Pont came into the picture. The writers could have done this without focusing Mark and Dave. We could have entered the story when the wrestlers come to Foxcatcher and we would still have essentially the same story but almost exclusively from du Pont’s perspective. The story doesn’t really begin until Mark comes to Foxcatcher, but it subtly began weeks or months before page one with du Pont’s incessant phone calls to Mark and Dave.
The protagonist in Foxcatcher is John du Pont. He is a Tragic Anti Hero. A man who descends into a monster. The story goal is du Pont’s control of the wrestlers. Mark stands firmly in opposition throughout the story. The relationship between Mark and du Pont is a metaphorical wrestling match, which Mark ultimately wins when he loses his match as his way of escaping du Pont’s control.
Thematically, both Mark and du Pont seek validation. Dave is the embodiment of validation. Mark wants the validation of the win, the validation of the father figure (both Dave and du Pont). As stated, du Pont wants the glory of restoring the greatness of the US wrestling team, but more than that he wants to be seen as the equal of his patriotic forefathers. And most importantly, he wants to be validated by his mother. An Olympic win for Mark or Dave represents du Pont’s ultimate validation, he thinks, in the eyes of his mother. His tragic drive for control and success is his undoing. With du Pont’s mother now dead and Mark gone, all that is left for du Pont is Dave, the personification of the validation that du Pont could never achieve.
From this perspective, it makes complete sense for du Pont to kill Dave. From that point on, we don’t need to see anything more of du Pont’s story because what’s important for the story is how du Pont’s actions affect the Focal Character, Mark. If du Pont had been the main character, then we would have seen how his actions affected him.
Despite not meeting du Pont until the second act, Foxcatcher can be divided into three acts from his perspective. The first act is bringing the audience up to speed with the state of amateur wrestling. Two Olympic Gold Medal winners who are treated as polar opposites. Mark is our POV character for the transformation of amateur wrestling from a noble, ancient sport to its modern incarnation in Mixed Martial Arts. Mark is presented as a false protagonist, like Marion in Psycho. Foxcatcher is quite subtle though, because du Pont is present in the lives of the brothers prior to the start of the script. Remember, he had been calling the brothers for weeks or months. The second act is how du Pont changes wrestling for his own personal gain, and the third act is how du Pont ultimately affected the sport, personified by the killing of one brother and driving the other into mixed martial arts.
Foxcatcher is structured like a classic Monster movie, similar to Frankenstein, Dracula, Jeckell & Hyde, and even Edward Scissorhands or the Great Gatsby. The LA Times calls Foxcatcher a True American Horror Story. Du Pont is the misfit who wants to fit in, who is ultimately revealed to be the monster. Separating the protagonist from the main character brilliantly allows us to focus on du Pont’s character driving of the plot without necessarily having to care about him. We aren’t forced to empathize with his tragic character. We watch du Pont descend into madness and hope that he won’t do what feels inevitable. We are rooting for the tragic anti-hero not to act. And when the main character, Mark, escapes, it feels like a win. A temporary win.
Last points, director Bennett Miller apparently thinks that du Pont is the protagonist. He structures the trailer and featurettes to tell the story from du Pont’s perspective. And he is quoted in the Hollywood Reporter, discussing the similarities of du Pont to the protagonists in his earlier works Capote and Moneyball. They are “the quintessential story of somebody living a life you don't belong in. And that’s Foxcatcher.”***
Then again, it could just be the truism that every character is the hero of her own story.