Films With Genius Main Characters

In stories it isn’t always the smartest or the strongest who become heroes it is often the character who perseveres or works hardest. The villain is often smarter and stronger than the hero.

What about really smart characters? Ironically in storytelling, the genius character is often the underdog. Their genius is also their shortcoming, or they have another big shortcoming which undermines their intelligence. Oftentimes their genius ostracises them as loners.  It’s common for a genius character to also be supremely lonely or depressed or pessimistic.

Because of the cultural fascination with genius, it remains a supreme object of desire, despite its associations with tragic oddity.

Nancy Bombaci 

The character arc for a genius character is often to show the world how smart they really are. (The “I’ll show them!” wish fulfilment of many stories for adults), or to win friends and lovers.

In life, there may be many different choices one can make to accomplish a goal. In films, there is often only one, and the hero gets to show how smart s/he is by figuring out what it is.

Suber

Contrast the genius character with the Every(wo)man. Even an highly relatable character must respond in surprising ways in a story, otherwise they’re not sufficiently interesting to engage our attention. One way an Every Character can respond surprisingly is by being smarter than the regular person. Or, in Northrop Frye’s terminology, we’re talking about the romantic hero.

1. Proof



This is one of the few with a girl math nerd. That makes me like it.

2. 21

This is one of these stories about a really nice guy who turns bad for a while but is ultimately redeemed. I think the end goes on for about five minutes too long. You also sort of know how it’s going to end, but the journey is great. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat.

Oh and the story weaves together so well I don’t believe for a moment that this movie has much to do with the true story upon which it is based.

3. The Social Network

Another kind of protagonist is incredibly smart, irritatingly aware of it, and these people are driven to go beyond themselves, which often leads to spectacular failures. Or, in this case, win out in the end with lots of money if not one hundred per cent pure happiness in what he has achieved.

The Social Network was voted the number two film of 2010 according to Margaret and David’s viewers’ poll  (after Inception).

When I saw it, I doubted the authenticity of the strippers and the Asian fangirls. Mark Zuckerberg has said himself that in reality it was just a bunch of guys cutting code. It’s interesting, though, that toilet cubicle sex and nightclub stripper scenes are now ‘obligatory’ in any coming of age/success story, even when those things don’t really fit the story.

Even Mark Zuckerberg isn’t Mark Zuckerberg.

Are viewers so hungry for those done-before scenes that we’ll refuse to sit through any film which refuses to include them for the sake of authenticity?

4. Good Will Hunting

I didn’t really buy Matt Damon as a nerd. I watched it recently and that bowl haircut looks suitably nerdy, but only because it’s dated. Robin Williams played another inspirational teacher figure.

The phrase, “I’m going to see about a girl” felt cheesy. Mainly because it reminded me of the well-known phrase (at least around these parts “I’m going to see a man about a dog.” And last impressions last.

ps ‘Has a critic ever commented on the fact that Matt Damon clearly ripped off the interview scene in Trainspotting for Good Will Hunting?- courtesy of @sarahlapolla

5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Sander is appealing because she is first and foremost a trickster:

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” series have given us female tricksters, women who are quick-witted, fleet-footed, and resolutely brave. Like their male counterparts—Coyote, Anansi, Raven, Rabbit, Hermes, Loki, and all those other mercurial survivors—these women are often famished (bulimic binges are their update on the mythical figure’s ravenous appetite), but also driven by mysterious cravings that make them appealingly enigmatic. Surrounded by predators, they quickly develop survival skills; they cross boundaries, challenge property rights, and outwit all who see them as easy prey. But, unlike their male analogues, they are not just cleverly resourceful and determined to survive. They’re also committed to social causes and political change.

Maria Tatar

Part of what makes this book a page turner or a movie suspenseful is that extreme wrong is dished out to this young woman, and many of us have to keep reading because we know she’s going to exact revenge. There is something very sweet about being underestimated. It’s so much more satisfying than being overestimated.

Suspense in the crime story comes from wondering whether the plan will work. We’re rooting for the bad guys because they are smart, organized, and daring. The ride will be a bumpy one.

6. 17 Again

Ned Gold is the classic fantasy and SF loving nerd into cosplay and learning Elvish who is tortured through high school then makes it big after high school by inventing software that prevented people from pirating music. He also invented the thing that allowed people to pirate music, but ‘that was a happy coincidence’.

As the main star of this movie goes through torture in his life life, it’s apparent to me that nerds are the happiest sort of person in life, and in fiction, because their interests and obsessions never let them down.

7. Vitus

This was described in the TV Guide as ‘uplifting’, so I knew I could watch it with the three year old hanging about. Sure enough, she took an interest, then went over to the piano and banged out a few tunes. Well, I should really put ‘tunes’ in the quote marks they deserve. This was a good family film for a rainy day, as long as your family doesn’t mind reading subtitles.

8. Arrival

The screenwriter of Arrival talks about the difficulties in writing smart characters here:

The script itself was a challenge like no other. I was writing for characters much smarter than myself, facing their own greatest challenges. Ted’s story offered me some groundwork, but I had to find drama and conflict within the linguistic theory to sustain something for a feature film. And a linguist and theoretical physicist couldn’t talk like I do, or else it felt like they were talking down to me. I had to let the smartest people in the room act like it, even if it meant I couldn’t always keep up.

Eric Heisserer, LA Times

The other thing is, the job of the writer is to make the audience feel smart.

9. The Breaking Bad Movie

Since Breaking Bad has a movie now, I’m going to add Walter White the ultimate genius character, whose downfall is ultimately his hubris rather than his lack of smarts.

Related Links

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk by Colin Stimpson (2012)

As you can see from the cover art, this picture book has been illustrated by someone with a lot of experience in digital art — as a coffee table book of illustrations this stands alone as an exhibition of beautiful colour, wonderfully composed perspective drawings and interesting character design.

The O.G. Jack And The Beanstalk is, at its heart, a male coming-of-age tale, in a milieu where boys must learn to be the income earners for the females in their family. You’ve probably also heard theories about what the beanstalk symbolises. I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM

As a story for older readers, this modern retelling would be good for discussing ideas such as industrialisation and its impact on small vendors, the problems with large fast food companies and a capitalist economy.

Normally in stories like these, the ‘giant’ stands for ‘the corporation’. Is that what the giant stands for here? If so, would the world really run better if these corporations suddenly quashed the structures they’ve worked to build?

The ideology of the original tale is a bit dodgy actually, when you think about it: Modern picturebook writers don’t get away with glamorising thieves. Just take a look at the one-star reviews of This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, which is a great story, but rubs some gatekeepers of children’s literature completely up the wrong way. I would add, in the case of the modern Klassen story, the thief is duly punished. (He — or she? — gets eaten.) Not so in the original Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack is richly rewarded for his thievery and daring.

In Stimpson’s modern retelling, however, the setting is different and so must be the ideology. What do you think of when you think ‘capitalism’? Those in favour of capitalism probably conjure up a (traditionally) picture book township, with a milk bar, a greengrocer, a picture theatre and butcher on each side of main street. The butcher who sells better sausages ends up making more money and eventually puts the inferior butcher out of business. Consumers win.

We’ve seen over the past centure or so that, actually, capitalism has a much darker side than that; in a capitalist society the rich can become super wealthy simply by having money in the first place, while the poor become increasingly destitute and are unable to work their way out of the pit.

What about the ideology in this book? This is no idealistic view of capitalism; it is a critique. The ‘little guy’ can easily get screwed over due to the machinations and schemings of people with far more money. This ‘flyover’ symbolises the way in which the super wealthy build their empires without a second thought to the little people, passing them over, so to speak. And in any narrative, the little people are the ‘underdogs‘.  We love stories starring underdogs.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Stimpson’s wonderful illustrations emphasise the similarity between the beanstalk and the flyover. Both are very high, thick structures wending and twisting high into the sky. There are other hints of beanstalk, too, foreshadowing what’s to come. Take a closer look at this wooden pole below, with the electrical cabling wound around it; this city hasn’t completely given itself over to industrialism — vestiges of the more wholesome natural world remain.

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk treasure
The illustrations in this story are wonderfully atmospheric. I love that there seems to be light coming off the magical can.



The bright green of the beanstalk contrasts beautifully against the monochromatic, drab and rainy city.

STORY STRUCTURE

The story structure is interesting. It’s only after looking closely I realise that Jack and The Giant share the character arc, which suggests that — symbolically, at least — Jack and The Giant are the same. By ‘one and the same’ I mean that Jack starts off the story with a shortcoming and desire, but it’s the giant who has the anagnorisis. They both share the new equilibrium, along with the mother. Fairytales often go by a number of different titles and this one is no different, sometimes known as Jack and the Giant Man, which underscores my theory, don’t you think?

What might be the reason for uniting Jack and The Giant like this? Ultimately, this is a fantasy revenge tale. If only the little guy could crush the big corporations with a bit of magic.

Our hero Jack also has a trusty dog called Bella, but apart from just being there, Bella plays no huge role in the story. I do wonder if the inclusion of a dog with a specifically female name serves a political purpose, though; to ameliorate the depiction of the only human female — the mother, who is almost always portrayed in Jack and the Beanstalk retellings as awful.

WEAKNESS

Jack and his mother run a very small food truck type business in  a down-and-out looking part of the city. When a new overpass is built right over their food truck, they no longer have a living income. The engine of this truck broke down a long time ago, as explained on the first page. This lampshades that particular plot problem: Normally food trucks can go elsewhere but these two are stuck in this spot.

DESIRE

Jack wants to have enough money for his mother and himself and also wants to be a man. Being a man involves going out in the world, contrasted with what it is to be a woman, which is staying in the home. Although the  mother tells him to go to the shops and buy coffee and milk, he finds some manly autonomy on the road. When the travelling salesman with the magic baked beans convinces him to buy them, this is possibly the first time he’s ever disobeyed his mother.

Readers of the original tale would have been immediately suspect of this travelling salesman, renowned sellers of snake oil, travelling from town to town for the express purpose of running from their bad reputation. But a modern audience knows that this particular travelling salesman is legit.

OPPONENT

The mother in this modern retelling is basically the same character as the mother in the original; she doesn’t ‘beat’ him, but she definitely yells at him and tries to cut him back down to size. The mother is the human opponent. Compared to Jack she is massive. Her size is emphasised when she stands at the door of their caravan, hands on hips, standing above Jack. Since the giant in this tale is benign, the mother becomes the giant.

It’s a very common storytelling technique — pitting a main male character against a woman in his own family to make the audience feel sorry for him. You can see in many modern stories, for example in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, where Walt is painted very much as an underdog character, ‘pussy whipped’ by his wife. (Vince Gilligan put cries of sexism back upon the audience, but look closely at the pilot and tell me again how it wasn’t of his very own making.)

There is also a non-human opponent in this tale — the unseen corporation who designed the overpass: Capitalism and progress at the expense of that specific kind of human-to-human interaction that occurs when a small restaurant cooks for its customers. This tale also has a very Michael Pollan view of food and cooking.

PLAN

The original plan — devised by the mother — is to sell coffee instead of run a fuller menu as before, but Jack’s plans change when he is convinced by the travelling baked bean man to buy his wares.

They change once again after the huge stalk grows. Now he’ll climb it.

BATTLE

The giant in in this tale is not an opponent, which is where the ‘twist’ comes in. (It’s only a twist if you’ve read the original — and it’s assumed the young reader has.)

Instead, the giant is presented as a possible opponent, but it is revealed soon enough that he is in fact a secret ally, who has been waiting for someone to visit.

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk giant admires Jack
A view of the giant before we realise he doesn’t actually want to eat Jack

This friendly giant loves to cater for other people, but his immense riches have required lots of counting and he hasn’t, until Jack’s arrival, been able to fulfil this passion.

spread-ten

The giant uses his immense weight to crush the overpass.

spread-fourteen

SELF-REVELATION

It’s the giant who has the anagnorisis. If he stops focusing on his immense wealth, he can have the job he always wanted: working in a downtown cafe.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The giant uses his wealth to build an excellent restaurant where the food truck once was. Jack, the Giant and the mother all work together, running their food business.

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk cityscape

How To Write Underdog Stories

underdogs in fiction

The underdog is very popular as a main character in fiction. But there are ways to write underdogs well as well as pitfalls to avoid.

What Is An Underdog?

  • An underdog story is a ‘David Beats Goliath’ story going back even further than Biblical times.
  • Underdog stories are often rags-to-riches stories. (Cinderella stories)
  • Another variation is the Baby In The Basket, starting with Oedipus.
  • When the main character is an underdog the audience tends to care about them and root for their success in whatever goal the writer sets up.
  • Sometimes the underdog is discriminated against due to their identity, e.g. racism or sexism or any other kind of prejudice. In fairytales it was because they were poor or unconnected or because their stepmother didn’t love them.
  • In children’s stories, the child is always part underdog archetype by virtue of being a child, not considered capable of doing anything significant, not trusted, not believed.
  • In fables, mice are under-‘dogs’ because of their small size.
  • Northrop Frye categorised heroes based on how similar main characters are to the average person. The underdog sits between low mimetic and ironic narrative, right at the bottom of the pecking order.

 

The Three Assumptions Behind Most Underdog Stories

It’s worth thinking hard about our own attitudes towards social hierarchy before writing an underdog story. In contemporary stories, these are some shared beliefs:

  1. In every situation there always has to be a winner and a loser. A happy ending requires not just someone’s triumph but also someone else’s defeat.
  2. The best way to win is to have the individual power to take control and win by one’s own actions
  3. A truly happy ending occurs only when a person who was oppressed achieves a position in which it’s possible to oppress others. 

If you’re anything like me, you have a problem with these assumptions. For starters they promote a particularly combative, warring view on the world. Subversive stories will go beyond these conservative defaults. From a feminist perspective, these assumptions also pander to a masculine sensibility.

Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are  is an excellent representation of these political assumptions. Surprisingly few award-winning texts for children celebrate the value of groups of people working together as equals; far more celebrate the power of individuals controlling groups.

– from The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer

The Paradox Of Underdog Characters

Readers want heroes to be underdogs, but they don’t want them to be losers. They don’t want your main character to actually go from being zero to hero: they want him or her to start out with skills and admirable characteristics that will carry him or her though the story.

Matt Bird

Matt Bird uses the phrase ‘zero to hero’, analogous to John Truby’s concept of Range of Change.

The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade
The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade is an example of a children’s story in which the reader is encouraged to root for the smallest character.

Underdog Stories vs Carnivalesque Stories

Leaving Northrop Frye’s categorisation aside for a moment, in which the superhero is the inverse of an underdog, the inverse of an ‘underdog story’ is a ‘carnivalesque’ story. Read Pippi Longstocking for a prime example of carnivalesque. In a carnivalesque story a character with little agency (probably a child, or a child stand-in) has great fun by ignoring societal conventions, basically going on a bender and to hell with the consequences. For the duration of the story, this character has broken free from their underdog status.