Conflict as Metaphor

By Elizabeth English

“If you build it, they will come!” The skillful use of metaphor can give visible shape to a character and recognizable, believable impetus to conflicts in film. The deeper meaning of a situation becomes clear and powerful to the varied cinema audience, when metaphors for conflict are utilized. The film, “Field of Dreams”, is one example of strong use of this device. Put in the simplest terms, a farmer, played by Kevin Costner, down on his luck (conflict), is advised by a voice only he hears, to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield in Iowa. He fights with his wife, his friends and the bank over this wildly improbable notion (conflicts).

He builds the baseball diamond anyway, always believing in his dream, though he has no idea why he does it (conflict). He just “has to”. He solicits the reluctant help of a famous & combative author (conflict), and a long-dead doctor. The ghosts of former baseball players, including the farmer’s deceased father, appear. The film ends with the farmer finally playing catch with his father and rectifying past wrongs, the doctor saves the life of the farmer’s child (conflict), the author goes to his fate, peacefully at last, and the financial fate of the farm and his family is salvaged when long lines of cars arrive with paying baseball fans (solution to conflicts).

The farm itself is a metaphor for one’s career or chosen path in life, which is in conflict with the protagonist’s social and situational milieu. The cornfield/baseball diamond is a metaphor depicting a small portion of that life, but which affects and is in conflict with all other parts of his life. The farmer is Everyman/woman. The wife, the child, the friends and relatives, the bankers, the author and the doctor, as well as the ghostly baseball players and the neighbors, are all recognizable and human metaphors, to whom the audience can relate, for conflicts in one person’s life; past, present and future. The farmer’s character is identified by his conflicts and how he deals with them.

Visual metaphors can speak directly and visibly to our characters’ conflicting feelings and emotions, when used to convey abstractions, such as death, love, fear, joy. A bare winter field can convey death or hopelessness as the character trudges across the frozen wasteland; a bright red balloon floating upward into a blue summer sky can impart happiness or a character surpassing expectations, a sense of freedom, irreplaceable loss, a letting go, or even childlike emotions of simple joy. A woman sadly gazing into pieces of a broken mirror tells the audience more about her personal conflict than does a page of dialog. In the short film, “The Unique Oneness of Christian Savage”, a child’s best friend falls from the tall tree in which they were playing, and is killed…the surviving child runs from the pious words spoken at the funeral and grabs a broken tree branch, and beats at the “evil” tree that killed his little friend. Conflict in film made visible and powerful! This without a single word of dialog.

NORMA RAE tells the story of a factory worker, played by Sally Field, from a small town in North Carolina, who becomes involved in the labor union activities at the textile factory where she works, a cotton mill that has taken too much of a toll on the health of her family for her to ignore her Dickensian working conditions. The young mother and textile worker agrees to help unionize her mill despite the problems and dangers involved. After hearing a speech by New York union organizer Reuben Warshowsky, Norma Rae decides to join the effort to unionize her shop. This causes conflict at home when Norma Rae’s husband says she’s not spending enough time in the home.

The film “Cool Hand Luke” beautifully shows the conflict between the protagonist/hero, Luke, played by Paul Newman, and his captors, who are inhumanly cruel and evil and hold all the cards. Luke seems to have no hope of escape or of retribution, though he makes every effort, only to be doomed to return to solitary confinement over and over, and to further punishment.

Similarly, the film “The Great Escape”, starring the late Steve McQueen, is filled with conflict against the Nazi captors, who are in conflict with the prisoners who try to escape, and whom are killed or re-captured for their trouble. Some other powerful examples of well-written conflict in film are “Babette’s Feast”, “Dersu Uzala”, “American Beauty”, “Jules et Jim”, “The Bagdad Café”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “The Virgin Spring”, “Mulan”, “Sophie’s Choice”, “The Life of Pi”, “Midnight Cowboy” and “La Strada”, to name just a few.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, is about two of the most memorable, conflicted characters in movie history, Clarice Starling, played by Jodi Foster, and Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, and their strange, strained relationship. Both are ostracized by the worlds they want to inhabit–Lecter, by the human race because he is a serial killer and a cannibal, and Clarice, by the law enforcement profession because she is a woman. Both feel powerless–Lecter because he is locked in a maximum-security prison and Clarice because she is surrounded by men who tower over her and fondle her with their eyes. (Excerpted & adapted from a Roger Ebert review)

There are five distinct types of conflict that can be utilized in screenwriting. Inner or personal conflict, relational conflict, social or local conflict, situational conflict, and universal or cosmic conflict. All five types of conflict can be in a single screenplay, and can involve most, if not all of the characters, interacting with each other and with the protagonist and antagonist(s).

Conflict as the central event drives the story and the characters. Conflict in the plot structure breathes life into your story! The audience relates to your protagonist and to the conflicts he or she faces. The patterns of tension resulting from the visible and invisible forces the characters overcome create a believable reality for the filmgoer, and increase the film’s impact on that audience.

Inner conflict is the hardest type of conflict to convey successfully in a film, if that’s the central focus of conflict in the story. It’s also the most difficult kind of screenplay to sell, despite the recent success of such films about inner, personal conflict, like “American Beauty”. In the comedy, “Tootsie”, the protagonist goes through conflict with his original situation (poverty, wanting to be a great actor), to personal conflict (lack of confidence in his ability to pull off the scam), relational (falling in love with a woman who thinks the protagonist is a woman), social conflict (with his boss and co-workers, friends, the father of the woman he loves, and his TV audience), and another situational conflict (should he let the cat out of the bag in order to win the heart of the woman he loves?). Only when inner, societal, situational, or universal conflict is projected outward toward another character, and becomes relational, and is therefore the basis of the clear story-line, does it have the most dramatic impact.

THELMA & LOUISE, starring Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis, Before their journey is done, these two conflicted characters will have undergone a difficult rite of passage, and will have finally discovered themselves.

The wildly-popular American TV reality series, “Survivor”, is an archetypal example of strong conflicts among a group of people, and of those clear conflicts driving the “story”. The producers and directors of the reality-based series emphasize conflicts when editing each week’s film footage. The millions of fanatic audience members cared about the characters, or they hated them. The TV viewers hoped that their favorites remained on the island, jungle or various exotic locations, and that one of them would win the prize. They argued on internet chat rooms and message boards, and around the office water cooler or in the halls at school about complete strangers whom they perceived to be bad guys or good guys worthy of achieving the show’s goal, of winning the million dollars, despite the characters’ conflicts with isolation, hunger, danger, competition with the other “tribe”, and with each other. This also with “Downton Abbey”, “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad”, “The Simpsons” and “American Idol”. Conflict, conflict, conflict!

THE COLOR PURPLE, As a young teenager, Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is raped by the man she takes to be her father, and both of her babies are taken away from her. Told she cannot have more children, she is given to a brutal farmer named Mister (Danny Glover), who beats her, uses her as a servant and as a receptacle for his lust, and convinces her she is ugly, but we can empathize with her struggle and ultimate victory. We learn something about what it must have been like to be her, and share her conflicts.
 Celie is a great & powerful movie character, played with astonishing grace and tenderness, and to feel her story is to be blessed with her humanity. (excerpted & adapted from a Roger Ebert review)

Conflict is the ultimate basis of dramas, action films and comedies, and is the key ingredient for great characterizations and is key to a successful screenplay and film. All conflict occurs when a character has a goal that is not shared with another character, whether it’s the protagonist and antagonist, &/or secondary characters in the story. One will win and the other will lose, or may come around to the viewpoint and goals of the main character. Build each hurdle or obstacle your protagonist faces higher than the last. Make each subsequent conflict be more insurmountable or impossible than the one before.

In a film, the audience comes to observe and to experience the story’s conflicts and the expected or surprising conclusion. The audience wants the protagonist to have as much trouble reaching his or her goal as is possible. The antagonist must be as strong as, or stronger than, the protagonist. The more powerful and persuasive the antagonist, the greater the eventual victory is for the protagonist. The last five or ten pages of the script should play out the final conflict and answer the question whether the central character will realize his or her goal.