A Groundhog Day – How to write an outstanding character arc

‘Groundhog Day’ is a comedy drama film made in 1993 that tells a story of a man who, due to a mysterious mechanism that makes him living the same day over and over, learns that sharing is the key for a good life and of course, to find the love!

The entire plot can be read in here

On a screenwriting point of view ‘Groundhog Day’, written by Danny Rubin , and Harold Ramis  is a character driven film. In particular, it shows very well how to develop a romantic comedy character’s transformational arc, to cite the Dara Marks’s theory.

A screenplay is a text made by an unstoppable chain of scenes, thorough whom the character evolves.

In that way, the main protagonist of the film, is the arrogant Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors. Bill Murray plays this character who lives a journey that changes him via a series of specific reactions to specific situations, as explained below.

The drama has a three act structure where the first act introduces the characters and outlines the subject matter and plot. In Groundhog Day’s first act, Phil is introduced like a very unfriendly person. In fact, the scenes in here are written in a way that shows him exhibiting bad behaviour with the people surrounding him.

The second act shows the problem introduced in the first and how the main character copes with it. In our case, during the second act, Phil experiments himself thorough obstacles and choices learning the principles that he will able to use as a lesson in the third one. In that way, most of the scenes are about how he lives the time loop situation, driven by his fatal flaw (for a fatal flaw meaning see Dara Marks’ theory).  We could say as well that Phil have to learn how to cope with his inner problem whilst he faces his exterior problem, because both of them are preventing him to reach out what he wants (inner problem=to be open to and trust others / exterior problem=to overcome the Time loop situation and conquer the young producer Rita).

The third act resolves all the situations that has been told about previously. In the third act, all the questions asked in the first act and developed in the second one are resolved. In Groundhog Day’s third Act, Phil has learnt a lesson and comes back to his life like a new person.

The screenplay is made by a limited number of scenes therefore it is necessary to make ‘narrative economy’. Some key scenes, the ones that I underline later on, from act One and act Three show how characters change in a very simple and practical way. In Phil’s case, the evolution is from being a selfish and self-centred man to a caring, friendly and sociable person (from STAGE A to STAGE B). A film comprises of images so, in that sense, I would suggest to focus on the following scenes when watching the movie to appreciate the powerful, dramatic and visual way the main character evolves. I would suggest watching the movie first and then going back to re-read the article.

FIRST ACT

STAGE A

The meeting with the man in the hotel’s hallway

The meeting with the homeless man

 

The meeting with the old classmate

In the third Act, there are key scenes which show how Phil now reacts in a totally different way to the same situation.

THIRD ACT

STAGE B

The meeting with the man in the hotel’s hallway

The meeting with the homeless man

The meeting with Phil’s old classmate

This protagonist’s evolution from the first Act to the third shows the transition from appearing to being. In this transition, Phil discovers and enhances himself in that he is no longer self-centred but transforms into a person who opens up to accommodate others. The screenwriters show this aspect, for instance, by making him learn to play a musical instrument, the piano, and taking up ice carving (have a look at the Rita one: amazing!). Both these activities involve connecting to others. They are about doing something that other people can share and gifting to others art and beauty.  This dynamic, dramaturgic choice sheds a light on the importance of developing deep narrative structures in writing. In this case, the whole film is structured on a deeper narrative level based on the dichotomy of the individual – society / selfishness – sharing.

This transition from a self-centred individual to a society oriented person is actually the thematic scaffolding of the entire plot. In particular, a sentence defines a ‘thematic question’ that the entire film tries to answer. Phil asks his friends at the pubs, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

Moreover, it is interesting to notice that this question is asked around the 30th minutes of the screenplay; at the first plot point, or better a time in the script where the protagonist makes his first conscious choice about how to face a situation (Syd Field – ‘Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting’).

Following the decision that he has made, Phil no longer uses his time loop to conquer women, commit crimes or even challenge the death (unconsciously), but

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M628DuIEZ_o

has now learnt how to use his time and make his obstacle (time loop) into an ally to better himself through activities that helps others which are now his elisir, citing the Hero’s Journey Chris Vogler’s theory.

Last, but certainly not least, Phil’s transformation is shown strongly in the romantic plot line with Rita from Act one to Act three. By dating Rita after his initial ‘fake efforts’ during the second act, Phil discovers new aspects of his own personality and so does Rita who subsequently starts to see him in a new light.

The first night that the two spend together till the morning, around the end of the second act or plot point two (second conscious choice), sets up the transformation of Phil. Rita acted as a muse or a messenger to compel him to change.  The day after she is gone, the time loop is still going on but Rita has just suggested to him a pathway. Rita has shown trust in him and he now trusts her. It is Phil’s choice and responsibility now to bring what he has learnt during the second Act as a lesson to apply in the third Act. The change is about to happen.  They will sleep together for the second time in the third Act and she will still be there the morning after, when the changing will have defined and the spell will be broken.

As far as the romantic structure is concerned, it is interesting to point out that it follows a co-protagonist structure. Almost all of the romantic comedy has the same dynamics whereby both Rita and Phil play both protagonist or co-protagonist, respectively (Billy Mernit ‘Writing the romantic comedy’). This is explained because the classic romantic narrative structure wants that the couple has to overcome interior and exterior obstacles before falling for each other and that whilst changing they feed one’s change to the other one. This mechanism is shown in an exemplary manner by the brilliant and innovative Nora Ephron in her writing of ‘When Harry met Sally’

In conclusion, a screenplay is a ‘sense game’ with characters, in order to build for them a world where to live.  It is a serious game for both screenwriters and characters and as such it should be the same for us as the audience.

Groundhog Day plays as a serious game giving us a life lesson.

The film has severely challenged the character of Phill. Having said that, it has also given him a new way to approach his life as well as giving us, the audience, a message of harmony. As suggested by the song which concludes the film, the message is about how our life can be improved by sharing it with others and by caring for others (Nat King Cole ‘Almost Like Being in Love’):

“…There’s a smile on my face

For the whole human race

Why it’s almost like being in love…”

 

 

 

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