To Believe or Not to Believe . . . (Or, How Far Can You Run?)

Whenever you produce something, and enough people see it, there are bound to be critics.  The world’s great masterpieces are not universally loved.  And Oscar-winning movies elicit a wide range of opinions.

So it was one day, several years ago, when, during a free moment at a former job of mine, I had a disagreement with a coworker named Rob.  Rob was a good, reliable employee, neat, orderly, someone who painstakingly dotted his I’s and crossed his T’s.

tie

 

He had an event planner on his desk that was always filled in months in advance.  If you were to look up the term “detail-oriented” online, you might just see Rob’s picture staring back at you.

I liked Rob.  He and I got along well–except when it came to movies.  We agreed every now and then, but most of the time we were the amateur version of Siskel and Ebert–always finding ways to contradict each other.  And on that particular day, he took aim at one of my all-time favorite films, Forrest Gump.

“It’s the worst movie I ever saw!” he exclaimed.  “Totally idiotic.  The guy runs across America.  For three years!”  (Actually, it was, according to Forrest, three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours, but who’s counting?)  “A superhero couldn’t do that!  It’s not humanly possible.  It’s completely illogical and stupid.”

forrestbeard

 

I tried to explain that on many levels, Forrest Gump, based on the novel of the same name by Winston Groom,  is a fairy tale.  Not everything in the movie can be, or should be, taken literally–which is one of the many aspects of the film I love.

forrestrunsawaycar

 

On the one hand it is the humorous, wacky, larger-than-life story of a man who always finds himself at the center of history-making events.  But on the other hand, it is a probing character study, a very personal story about Forrest and the people closest to him.  It is a rich, layered movie that never gets old, no matter how many times I watch it.

Rob wouldn’t hear of it.  He was able to accept many of the film’s eccentric qualities and plot lines (“I liked the ping pong,” he admitted), but Forrest running across America?  That’s where he drew the line.  Much like Marc Kuslanski, Rob could not, would not, get past the logic/commonsense divide.  No one can run across America for three solid years.  For him, the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any fantasy was shattered during that scene.  It ruined the story for him, and, as much as I disagreed with him, it did get me thinking about the kind of speculative storytelling that stretches and challenges the imagination.  How do authors, screenwriters, television producers, creators, present fantasy in a way that most people can digest as believable and “real”?

void

 

For me, the “running sequence” in Forrest Gump works beautifully.  It fits the theme, tone, and style of the movie, and enhances the story.  But why?  How?  And, while there will always be some readers (or viewers) like Rob, who cannot take the leap you as the storyteller want them to take, what elements need to be in place to portray an “impossible” or improbable scene in a believable way, a way that an audience can enjoy despite (or perhaps because of) the logic gap that so angered Rob?

I believe the answer lies, as it so often does, in character.  Consider, for instance, the scene that precedes the Forrest Gump running sequence.  A constant theme throughout the movie is Forrest’s unwavering love for Jenny, his one and only girl.  From the time they were children, he and Jenny went together “like peas and carrots.”

forrestjennykids2

 

forrestjennykids

 

Except–Jenny grew up, a very troubled person, and wandered the country, searching for a meaning and peace she never seemed to find.  She would occasionally cross paths with Forrest over the years, but usually they were miles apart.  He loved her, wanted to be her boyfriend, as he openly admitted, but she never seriously considered his offer.  “Forrest, you don’t even know what love is,” she tells him, assuming his low IQ prevents him from understanding and knowing. . . .

But then, after years of separation, Jenny returns, spends some time with Forrest at his home.  He calls it “the happiest time” of his life.

forrestjennyreunite2

 

forrestandjennyreunited

 

At one point, he asks her to marry him.  “I’d make a good husband, Jenny,” he says.  She agrees that he would, but when he asks her why she doesn’t love him, she just shakes her head.

“I’m not a smart man,” he says.  “But I know what love is.”

jennyflowers

 

That night, for the first time, Jenny comes to him not just as a friend, but as a lover, telling him she does love him.  For Forrest Gump, this night is the one he has always dreamed of, the moment he has always longed for.  But then it all comes crashing down, a house of cards strewn and wrecked by a gust of wind.

In the morning, while he sleeps, Jenny leaves.  Without a word.  When we see Forrest next, there is no dialogue, no music, just a series of shots zooming in on him, silent.  We can feel his loneliness, his heartbreak.  From the crest of the highest, most exhilarating wave, he has fallen into the depths.  So what does he do?

In Forrest’s own words, during a voice-over that begins the memorable running-across-America sequence . . .

“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run.  So I ran to the end of the road.  And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town.  And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County.  And I figured, since I’d run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama.  And that’s what I did. . . . For no particular reason, I just kept on going.  I ran clear to the ocean.  And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going.  When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going. . . .”

And for several minutes, we watch Forrest, now with long, uncut hair and a beard that would make even Santa green with envy, run through pristine mountain hollows and along winding country lanes.

panoramarun

 

Many things happen during the scene, which has its share of zany humor and entertaining encounters.  But at its heart, it is about Forrest dealing with Jenny’s departure.  “I’d think a lot” (as he ran), he tells us in a voice-over.  He’d think about his mother, his friend Lieutenant Dan, but, “most of all, I’d think about Jenny.”

And when, after more than three years, he finally stops running, he says:  “My momma always said, ‘You got to put the past behind you before you can move on.’  And I think that’s what my running was all about.”

forreststopsrunning

 

Yes.  A three-year run across America is pretty far-fetched.  And yes, it would be near-impossible to do, on so many levels.  But we can overlook these things because the scene is, at its core, a response to something we can all relate to–hurt, rejection, a lifelong dream evaporating through your fingers like a hundred tiny pebbles scattering to the earth.  Needing to find a way to cope with loss.  Coming to terms with something that leaves a sour, bitter taste in your mouth every time you swallow.  It’s a fair assumption that none of us has ever run across a continent for three-plus years.  But we’ve all experienced the feelings that motivate this title character to journey on his fairy-tale marathon.

And that, I think, is the axle around which everything turns.  Certainly, when I wrote The Eye-Dancers, a story of parallel worlds and ghost girls that invade dreams, I was taking the risk every speculative fiction writer does–creating a story that might come across as too fantastic, too impossible, too “out there.”

parallelworlds

 

But for every quantum leap across the void, for every haunted dream sequence, for every step further into a mysterious and alien world, there is also a quiet, small moment when one of the main characters laughs at a joke, or shares a childhood memory, or tackles an insecurity that has been gnawing away at him for years.

Forrest Gump, I think, would agree.  If we can create characters readers will root for, care about, become invested in, we can then, boldly and imaginatively, fly them across the empty, black reaches of space, or transport them through endless blue voids, or have them go on a journey to another dimension entirely.

parallel2

 

So, all these years later, Rob, I still disagree with you.

Great fictional characters, characters we believe in, can take us anywhere.

galaxy

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

79 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. tonyroberts64
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 14:59:13

    I’m with you. The running across America in Gump works beautifully. My favorite bit is when he wipes off the mud from his face and it becomes the Smiley Face logo. Brilliant.

    Reply

  2. ptero9
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 15:17:11

    I loved Forrest Gump for its mythology in a modern setting. That movie felt like my life, although it also allowed me to see how much we all tap into a collective experience of our historical time and place.
    Great post!

    Reply

  3. Sherri
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 15:27:39

    Absolutely, I totally agree with you Mike – characters that we can invest in and believe in! Wonderful post as always 🙂

    Reply

  4. Ali
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 16:00:40

    I agree Mike, we all are running in our lives meaninglessly for ages. Not just three years. In that running away and towards our lives we discover things, gifts, etc… That Forrest Gump story is relatable to all our lives. Good article as ever…

    Reply

  5. Honey
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 16:16:09

    Loved that movie. Who can judge the exact length of time someone needs to cope with grief?

    Reply

  6. Sean Smithson
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 16:31:54

    Very well said. And though highly unbelievable, it’s also one of my favourite films.

    Reply

  7. jjspina
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 17:48:36

    I love this movie too! It made me laugh, cry and feel all the emotions that were invoked within the scenes. It is a love story, an adventure, a comedy, a tragedy, a drama and more all rolled into one.

    It is an unforgettable movie and made more so by the incredible acting job of one of the best actors of our time, Tom Hanks, along with all the other wonderful actors.

    I need to watch this movie again soon!
    Thank you, Mike, for your amazing blogs! I am kept spellbound with every word! xo

    Reply

  8. Rosaliene Bacchus
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 18:27:00

    Great article. Sometimes we can spend a lifetime “running” from our past, refusing to face the truth about ourselves.

    Reply

  9. Fashion Mayann
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 18:55:49

    I totally agree with you, Mike, all these years after seeing “Forrest Gump” ! Your post is so lively and powerful ! And, remember, back then “life was like a box of chocolates”, which is, of course, my favorite scene !

    Reply

  10. jenniferkmarsh
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 19:22:05

    I cry so much at Forrest Gump, it verges on ridiculous. That film always reminds me of when I was at school, since throughout those years everyone went, “I love you, Jenny” (in Forrest’s voice, of course!) It got quite annoying sometimes.

    What you wrote… ‘I was taking the risk every speculative fiction writer does–creating a story that might come across as too fantastic, too impossible, too “out there.”‘ Gosh, I’m with you there! I cannot tell you how many times I stopped when I was writing Times of Old and just thought that the story was ‘too weird’. That’s what I think with Ilimoskus: I thought no one was going to like it because it was too weird, a head-on collision between fantasy and reality.

    But I agree with you: great fictional characters are what make a story. I’m totally a character person – the deeper the better. They’re so important 🙂 Thanks for the post.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 09, 2013 @ 20:22:19

      Thanks so much for your great comments, Jennifer! There is no substitute for great characters, is there? They can make any “out there” story perfectly relatable and accessible to anyone! That is always fun, too–taking a strange or arcane subject matter and then peopling the story with characters readers can believe in and root for.

      Reply

  11. John W. Howell
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 20:31:17

    Each of my posts have a title that is in memory of the magic of Forrest Gump. I absolutely loved the movie and feel its fairy tale spirit every time I post. Nostalgic Is as Nostalgic Does. Really enjoyed this.

    Reply

  12. Holistic Wayfarer
    Dec 07, 2013 @ 03:26:13

    Quite enjoyed this, Mike. Feels likes decades since I saw it, but I remember some of the simple signature lines (like about how he’d make a good husband). You did very well bringing this home (wrapping it up), esp the part about our coming to the point of investing in the characters.

    Reply

  13. Francina
    Dec 07, 2013 @ 17:25:06

    great article, Mike, very well written and I agree with you on the running scene.

    Reply

  14. stockdalewolfe
    Dec 07, 2013 @ 20:02:33

    Agreed! A feel good movie! and inspiring!

    Reply

  15. Bruce Thiesen
    Dec 07, 2013 @ 21:45:31

    Mike – I may be one of the minority here. I’ve never watched the movie all the way through. When it was first released, I saw some of it and not getting a very good feeling – I remember that it seemed depressing. That was a long time ago and now that you have written this nice review, I’m ready to take another look. Of course it’s true for most, that no matter how far you run, the past is always right behind.

    Reply

  16. laurie27wsmith
    Dec 07, 2013 @ 23:18:24

    I always liked Forrest, a simple man in a complex time who saw through life with the eyes of an innocent.

    Reply

  17. Barbara Monier
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 01:01:40

    I just saw the 2nd half of the movie again recently, and was struck anew by it. Forrest accepts life, events, and the others around him with unmitigated acceptance and abiding love. What a lesson for us all.

    Reply

  18. Freda Moya
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 19:45:11

    I’d forgotten how much I loved this movie when I saw it. Right now I am Forest Gump so couldn’t watch it at the moment again. I cried just reading this, you described the film so beautifully. Instead, I may just take a very long run across the country…

    Reply

  19. Suzanne Steele
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 20:55:31

    Wow Mike, you just did a phenomenal job on articulating and bringing understanding to an Author on: ‘how to pull a reader into a story line.’
    I will walk away from from reading this having learned something today.
    Thank you…

    Reply

  20. whatwewear
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 20:56:23

    we absolutely love this movie! in fact, it’s one of our favorites!
    while it is in a way very fantastical, it is also a wonderful and very human character study as well as a strong portrayal of American culture and history.
    great post!
    xx Vera & Rony

    Reply

  21. Kavita Joshi
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 22:52:24

    awe this is fantastic really..love this post dear 🙂

    Reply

  22. Dylan Hearn
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 18:38:34

    Great post.I can believe in anything fantastical as long as it fits within the rules the author set out in establishing the story. It is only when these rules are broken, either through characters behaving in a way that flies against everything they have done before for no reason (did you see what a tangle I got myself into trying to avoid writing characters behaving out of character), or the author breaking world or structural rules (many time travel stories fall foul of this) in order to forward the plot.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 11, 2013 @ 16:22:30

      You bring up some great points. As you say, fantastical things can happen–but they have to be consistent within the story and with the characters. Sounds like a post for another day!

      Reply

  23. likeitiz
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 22:45:54

    I always cry when I watch this film!

    Reply

  24. Trackback: To Believe or Not to Believe . . . (Or, How Far Can You Run?) | Crane Consultants.co
  25. Angela Grant
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 12:50:14

    Reblogged this on Failure to Listen.

    Reply

  26. merrildsmith
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 12:54:20

    I agree completely with this: “If we can create characters readers will root for, care about, become invested in, we can then, boldly and imaginatively, fly them across the empty, black reaches of space, or transport them through endless blue voids, or have them go on a journey to another dimension entirely.” I guess I’m in the minority, too, because I just don’t remember that happening with me with Forrest Gump. I remember it being an OK and enjoyable movie, but not one of my top favorites. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, so maybe I will have to re-watch it. 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 11, 2013 @ 16:25:03

      Thanks, Merril! Forrest Gump is an interesting movie in that a lot of people really love it, but a lot of people don’t. Well, I suppose almost all movies can state something similar, but with Forrest Gump I’ve noticed it even more. A lot of different opinions on this film. I do hope you watch it again, though, and would love to hear your thoughts when you do!

      Reply

      • merrildsmith
        Dec 11, 2013 @ 16:28:40

        I agree. There are many new movies I want to see, but when I watch Forrest Gump again, I will definitely let you know what I think! All best,
        Merril

  27. Carleton W Moten
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 14:38:53

    An excellent piece.
    Brought back the memory of the movie vividly and added to its meaning.

    Reply

  28. Charron's Chatter
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 17:10:20

    OMG, Mike i love, love, love this movie! As a runner, jim and i frequently riff on the running sequence in terms of my own habits/distances (I can be pretty OCD about it myself–and way more back inna day) but the run is an actualization of the figurative process we all go through after such trauma….not meant to be construed literally–although that’s fun, too, especially with the “s**t happens” and smiley face shirt evolution–

    i can totally recite huge chunks of that movie’s dialogue–me an Jim used to say we went together like peas and carrots–we did for a time–and i just love everything about it.

    it doesn’t hurt Tom Hanks is a favorite actor of mine–seen most all of his earlier work, but kinda broke around the da Vinci code–and i even waited on him and his wife for a weekend at San Ysidro ranch–back when I was a bah-tendah…:)

    Great fun!!

    Reply

  29. Charron's Chatter
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 17:11:34

    also the whole thing is this: he had an unbelievably rich life–because he believed he could. I think that’s the bigger message–and along the way–realizing even the impaired feel a great range of emotion, and sometimes on a much purer level.

    (p.s.) 🙂

    Reply

  30. the Master's Slave
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 18:26:06

    Great thought. One of my favorite flicks. Happy Holidays! M

    Reply

  31. BroadBlogs
    Dec 11, 2013 @ 19:11:33

    I hate to admit this but I didn’t get Forrest Gump when I saw it. The fantasy part didn’t bother me. I just didn’t get it. Thanks for clueing me in. I guess I’ll have to see it again.

    Reply

  32. the Urban Strategist
    Dec 12, 2013 @ 21:08:50

    Awesome take on it, I really enjoyed the depth of humanity and how it’s true, people want to root for hope and happiness- we really want to believe in something better.

    Reply

  33. The Fashion Huntress
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 03:42:01

    Forrest was such (and is) a relatable character- simple and complex. That movie has so many classic cinema moments- it’s hard not to love it. I completely agree with you- fictional characters can take us anywhere. 😉

    Reply

  34. insearchofitall
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 20:05:35

    I’m with you. Life is just one big metaphor anyway. It’s all an illusion so we must always suspend out belief.

    Reply

  35. AGentleandQuiteSpirit
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 11:32:38

    I totally agree with you! But, one other thing I would add, if you want to maintain your readers willingness to suspend disbelief I think you also need to have consistent rules. If one minute your character can read minds and the next he forgets to do this at a critical moment, you’re readers will walk away. If you have big monsters that could save the day, but no one remembers them in the battle, your readers will wonder if all the characters are plain dumb. Consistent rules and actions are a very necessary part of the puzzle along with characters, like you said. Also, I totally agree with you, the running scene in Forrest is completely in character with the rest of the movie and with his character. 🙂 Good article!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 18, 2013 @ 19:23:47

      Thanks, Abby! Always great hearing from you.:) And you bring up a great point about consistency within the structure of the story. Sounds like a post for another day!:)

      Reply

  36. WordsFallFromMyEyes
    Dec 20, 2013 @ 23:27:46

    This was interesting indeed, Michael. Believe it or not, I haven’t seen Forrest Gump! I thought it was a kid’s show, just got that impression.

    Love how you raised this with your organised work colleague, your differences. Really enjoyed this.

    Reply

  37. katdesigner
    Jan 23, 2014 @ 18:12:21

    I have never seen this movie, but recently I had a conversation at very early hours of the morning about it with my friend. He called it as one of the best movies of all the times, so true to life. Now after reading your article I finally understood what he meant and I have to agree, it brought tears to my eyes. Very nice post! Kat

    Reply

  38. Trackback: Post 8: When a man tells you he loves you… little too late! 115 to go! | My journey on becoming full-time designer.
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