There is one issue in my marriage that has caused an impasse. A conflict over, of all things, lack of conflict. I’m talking about one of the worst movies ever made. “Forrest Gump.” My husband loves it. He thinks it’s a fantastic movie about a man’s life. I, on the other hand, despise it. It’s a three hour snooze fest about some random guy. To it’s credit, the movie had an excellent soundtrack, and to be honest, I’ve never read the book, but from what I can gather it’s just a longer version of the movie so I’ll spare myself the trauma.
This all came to mind when I was confronted with the question: Does a book have to have conflict? My immediate answer was “Yes, of course it does. What’s the point of writing it if there’s no conflict and who would even read it?” Then I remembered “Forrest Gump” and how it’s lack of conflict stretched for hours.
Why is this such a bone of contention in my marriage? I guess because I’m so stolidly against the stupid movie, and because so many people, for some strange reason, seem to love it. Here are my main problems:
1. It has no plot. None. From as early as I can remember learning about story structure, I was taught a story has five parts: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. A good story forms an arc (This mnemonic is even used as another name for galley copies of books, or advance reader copies. Coincidence? I think not). “Forrest Gump” is linear. My husband argues that the guy’s life is the plot. But even stories about lives follow the arc or else they’re boring. That’s why memoirs don’t sell well. Just sitting down and reading about some random person’s life is boring. “I woke up today and ate two Rudy’s frozen sausage biscuits for breakfast. Fed the dog. Brushed my teeth. Dressed and left for work. The drive was good. No traffic.” That’s boring. Why do you think reality shows all have the same format (No tv, lots of alcohol, put them in dramatic situations, etc)? Because every day people going about their every day lives is boring. At best, “Forrest Gump” revolves around several episodic scenes, but those are typically called subplots. I guess you can say the plot revolves around him and Jenny, but even romance stories have the five parts of a plot.
If we break “Forrest Gump” into the five parts we have this: Exposition- We meet Forrest in small town Alabama, a puny kid with leg braces. He likes a girl and he gets bullied. That sets the scene. Okay, I’m following so far. Rising Action- He and the girl become friends. He loses the braces and discovers he can run. He runs away from the bullies, championed by the girl. He gets a football scholarship and he and the girl drift apart. Here’s where it starts to crumble. That’s as close to rising action as I can see. Then it goes flat. Conflict- I’m just not sure. I don’t think there is a conflict. Finding and losing Jenny is as close as it gets, but that isn’t conflict. It’s just two people living. What is the main thing he’s fighting against? Himself? The perceptions of others? That’s not good enough to drive the story. There needs to be something he has to overcome, something that represents his internal conflicts if that indeed is the driving force of the story. But no. He just bounces from one scene to another without anything really changing. With each scene Forrest meets a Character, and he does the same thing- he runs. Whoopty-doo. Falling action- Perhaps returning home? But that’s tenuous at best. Resolution- He has a baby with Jenny, which isn’t really resolution at all. More like another story altogether.
So we have a linear, episodic story, with no point. I have no idea what he accomplished other than what every one of us accomplishes until day we die. He lived. That’s it. I don’t know how the book sold. I couldn’t imagine reading a book with no plot. Yet somehow, it did. Go figure.
2. It frustrated the heck out of me because I kept waiting for conflict that never came. It’s like when “Marley and Me” came out. I love animals and really wanted to see the movie. My little sister, however, ruined it. *Spoiler Alert* She told me the dog dies. I’m a somewhat emotional person. Especially when it comes to animals. I can’t stand to watch those Sarah McLachlan commercials for the ASPCA because I cry every time I see those poor, pitiful creatures. I used to like the song, but now I can’t even hear “In the Arms of the Angel” without welling up. So there I was, watching the movie about an adorably bad yellow lab and every time something bad would happen, I’d brace myself. Tears would start to form. I’d turn my head and squeeze my husband’s hand…only to realize the dog was fine. And it got worse as the movie progressed. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to die early on, so the longer it stretched, the worse I got, until I ended up just crying through the last quarter.
That’s what happened with “Forrest Gump.” I kept bracing myself, waiting for the conflict, but it never came. I kept thinking: “Surely the conflict is coming. It’s getting close to the end!” But the movie stretched on, and the conflict never appeared. It was torturous.
3. It’s not real, but people believe it is. Forrest Gump was not real person. Greenbow, Alabama does not exist. There’s a Greensboro, and a Greenville, but no Greenbow. Forrest Gump did not exist. He never played foot ball at the University of Alabama. Because he wasn’t real. Yet, I’m amazed at how many people think he was.
I’m from Alabama and this is source of constant headache every time this movie is mentioned (and even though it’s old, it inevitably comes up when people discuss “great movies,” ugh). Namely, thanks to University of Alabama fans who are proud “one of their own” had a movie about his life. It blows my mind. Especially because most “Bama” fans are extremely hardcore and obnoxious, yet don’t know their history well enough to know the man never played there. Again, because he’s fictional. (They also can’t grasp they don’t really have fourteen national championships, but good luck explaining that logic to them. For those of you outside the state, I graduated from Auburn University, Alabama’s rival, so I say this from a completely unbiased viewpoint. War Eagle!).
Bubba Gump shrimp doesn’t exist either. Bayou La Batre does. My best friend from college is from there. And it’s a huge shrimping area. Pretty much all the men in her family were/are shrimp boat captains. Bubba however, completely fake.
I guess it’s a pride thing. People try to latch on to something so they can say “Hey, look! He’s from Alabama. Go Alabama!” They can say the story is set in Alabama (Yay, go Alabama!) but the story itself and it’s main characters, are fiction.
4. One word. Oscar. As a rule, I immediately discount anything nominated for an Oscar. If it’s something I’d been wanting to see, the moment it’s nominated, it drops down my list. Why? Because most Oscar movies suck. Sure, there are a few gems. “The King’s Speech” wasn’t bad. “Titanic” was okay. On the whole, though? They’re typically horrible and terribly pretentious. “Tree of Life” is close to “Forrest Gump” in a lot of ways. They were both awful, plotless, Oscar nominees. (Don’t even get me started on “Tree of Life.” What a gigantic waste of an evening. It’s like the director only filmed a scene from the first page of every chapter of a book and spliced it together with space scenes from National Geographic to form a mostly dialogue-less piece of gibberish. Like “Forrest Gump” I hung in there, waiting for the story, the conflict, something, anything…and then the movie was just over. Boom). Bottom line, if a movie gets an Oscar nom, it’s pretty much guaranteed to suck.
So, I circle back around to my earlier question. Does a book (or movie) have to have conflict? My answer, after much debate is: no. If it doesn’t have conflict it will be highly praised and critically acclaimed and people will love it despite it’s obvious flaws. It will be nominated for lots of awards and probably make the author a lot of money.
In my mind the better question is: Does a book (or movie) have to have conflict to be good? Yes. Yes it does. But don’t expect any Oscars.