Capitalism loves to impose rules on product, because if you can figure out why something sells, you can reproduce its success. This axiom applies to the film industry in myriad ways, including standard narrative patterns based around the arc of a protagonist - as anyone in Hollywood will tell you, a character should become a better or worse version of his or herself over the course of a film. The former is a positive arc, the latter, a negative arc. This primarily satisfying story pattern has kept audiences coming back year after year, no matter how cliché it becomes. If you're an astute cinephile, you've surely noticed countless movies where the hero doesn't grow. And maybe you've also noticed that a lot of films where the hero stays the same are made by great filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, or the Coen Brothers.
So what gives? Are good movies with no character development (at least not on the part of the protagonist) an aberration? Or does their existence expose the inherent fallacy of film being, fundamentally, a narrative medium begging for character growth? Is there something wrong with static film heroes, or are these characters drawn by filmmakers skilled enough to disregard rules and still come away with a fantastic product? What is a hero, really? Is the protagonist of every film necessarily heroic?
Despite common wisdom, not every movie is a journey designed to teach its characters and audience important life lessons. Character studies such as The Wolf of Wall Street, for instance, are more interested in exploring the inherently unchangeable nature of each person's core personality. You are who you are, for better or worse, the film seems to tell its audience. Other films without character development, such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off or The Big Lebowski, are more interested in how characters react to circumstances beyond their control than they are in moralizing. Have a favorite movie with no arc you don't see here? Leave a note in the comments section below.
Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) is a simple man who lives in complex times. If Forrest grew or arced, it would run counter to the theme of the film. The movie mines lot of comedy from Forrest finding his way into great wealth and the company of famous figures, but there's also a lot of heart in the message that someone so good-natured and simple succeeds in a violent, corrupt world, despite his naivety.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of the all-time great teen movies, despite the fact that Ferris (Matthew Broderick) remains the same unrepentant rule-breaker when he gets home from his epic day of playing hooky as he was when he woke up that morning. Though Ferris is the central character, his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) goes through a far more traditional arc, gaining courage to stand up to his controlling father by the end of the film.
Writer-director John Hughes made a brilliant move having Cameron undergo growth; it allows the audience to enjoy Ferris's consequence-free hijinks while getting emotional satisfaction from the movie.
La Dolce Vita is indisputably one of the best films ever made, so if you ever find yourself facing down an angry screenwriting professor who insists you add character arc or growth to your script, you can always site Fellini's masterpiece as a reason not to (though maybe don't if your movie is about muscle daddies fighting aliens in the jungle).
Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), the journalist at the center of La Dolce Vita, goes from a wild hedonist cavorting with movie stars in Rome to an exhausted cynic stranded on a rural beach over the course of the film, though his character does not grow or change. Rather, the nihilism that drives his character goes from manifesting itself as hedonism in a care-free celebrity culture to, after the suicide of a friend and collapse of some important relationships, provoking hateful cynicism. Marcello is, however, the same man from start to finish in a movie that has one of the best opening and closing sequences in cinema.
Louis Bloom (Jake Glyllenhaal) is the same sociopathic slimeball at the end of Nightcrawler as he is at the beginning. The only way you could argue he grows is he gets more sociopathic and slimeball-esque as the film goes on.
In a more traditional film, Louis might undergo a humbling experience that would teach him how to empathize with others. One of the things that makes Nightcrawler great is its defiant resistance of convention. While the character gains confidence as events unfold, he ultimately has no arc.