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 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.
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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.
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At the beginning of Taken, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is a down-on-his-luck CIA agent who wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter. By the end, he has reconnected with her, but instead of achieving his goal through emotional growth, he achieves it through his particular set of skills.
The emotional core of Bryan's love for his daughter makes Taken work in a way may similar films don't (John Wick stole this trick, but replaced the daughter with a dead wife and dog). The movie also very cleverly disguises familial reconciliation as personal growth, when in fact Bryan's daughter and ex-wife simply realize it's helpful to have the guy around in a pickle. Mills is still Mills; he hasn't grown or changed at all, just killed a bunch of people.
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The titular hero of John Wick goes from point A to point A. Character growth? Who needs it! John Wick takes what made Taken successful and multiplies it by a million. Instead of a retired CIA Agent, you get an unstoppable retired hit man. Instead of saving a kidnapped daughter, it's avenging a puppy's murder. There's nothing sadder in a movie than when the dog dies. John Wick doesn't grow or change, he just kills, kills, and kills until he's satisfied.