(A Movie Review – last of 3 parts)
The primary conflict – Will Ben and Phillip succeed in diminishing the role of James in the creation of the OED and in striking out William as a contributor? – is categorized as “man against man.” Conversely, what I consider as the secondary conflict – Will Eliza forgive William? – is classified as “man against himself.” It is this conflict that gives the movie a semblance of drama and romance.
While the challenges James and William had to overcome emanate from the selfish motives of two of the members of the OED project’s oversight committee, Eliza’s struggle comes from within her. She had to make a choice – forgive the man who killed her husband or not.
Anyone seeking forgiveness needs to show repentance and the willingness to recompense even when not asked to do so. William did both.
William could have just disregarded the crime he committed and hide his guilt under the rug of his condition declared by the judicial and health authorities as insanity. But he did not. Guilt pricked his conscience no end knowing fully well the severity of the crime he committed – killing the husband to a wife and the father to 6 children. Already tormented by flashbacks to the American Civil War (where he served as surgeon of the Union Army), William also had to bear that guilt.
Thus, he asked that his army pension be given to Eliza. Deep inside, William is a good man with a brilliant mind (when lucid). Such goodness and brilliance were ruined by a mental disorder.
Mr. Muncie, a guard at the psychiatric hospital, recognizes that goodness in William. Eventually, a friendship developed between them. Same with William and James, they became very good friends too.
The story exemplifies what people are willing to do for their friends. Mr. Muncie tried to defend William against the abuses of Dr. Brayne and James did everything he could to secure his release from the psychiatric hospital. James had a very good friend in Freddie too. How remarkable are Freddie’s attempts to save James from getting booted out of the OED project by lying to the oversight committee that he was responsible for the missing words that were supposedly included in volume 1 of the dictionary. Freddie went as far as using his connections to secure the royal seal of patronage for James acknowledging him as the primary mover of the OED rendering moot and academic all of the efforts of Ben and Phillip “to ease the gentle Scotsman off his little perch.” And that is the resolution of the main conflict.
What about the secondary conflict – Will Eliza forgive William?
Mr. Muncie, upon William’s bidding, visits Eliza to discuss the financial assistance William proposed to give. Eliza, at first, refuses. After a while, seeing how difficult life has been for her and her children, Eliza tells Muncie who visited them again one Christmas eve, that she will accept William’s offer but that is only after seeing the killer of her husband in person to find out if she could stomach accepting the money.
The meeting between Eliza and William happened. Eliza finally agreed to accept the money but at the end of that encounter with her husband’s murderer said that her accepting William’s offer doesn’t make things right. William may have not received the forgiveness that perhaps he was hoping he gets but somehow a certain portion of his guilt went away when Eliza accepted the financial assistance he offered.
Eliza visited William for a second time, brought a book for him, and thanked him for the money. He informed William as well that things were better for her and her children. In that conversation, Eliza said that it wasn’t right for her to continue receiving William’s money to which the latter replied that his life belongs to Eliza and what is his is hers too… and all that started the night he killed her husband.
Those words perhaps melted Eliza’s heart and vaporized whatever hatred she had for William.
That visit led to some more and when William discovered that actually Eliza could not read he begged her to allow him to teach her how to… if only for the reason that she should be able to teach her children to read as well.
William explained to Eliza the importance of reading this way – “ [Reading] is freedom. I can fly out of this place on the backs of books. I’ve gone to the ends of the world on the wings of words. When I read, no one is after me. When I read I’m the one chasing. Chasing after God.”
Eliza accepted William’s offer. Each time she visits, William would teach her how to read. The way she looks at Eliza betrayed how he feels towards the widow of the man he murdered.
Eventually, Eliza learned to read the words written in the pages of books. There’s something else she learned to read – the innate goodness of William. Eliza came to know who and what William really is.
On the day Eliza brought her children to the psychiatric hospital for them to meet William for the first time, Claire, Eliza’s firstborn, wasn’t able to refrain from expressing her anger towards the killer of her father. Eliza apologized to William for her daughter’s outburst and after kissing him, she told him that she has already forgiven him.
Eliza’s forgiveness paved the way for William’s redemption. At that point, the question – Will Eliza forgive William? – was answered. But instead of the “falling action” (at least for that subplot) following after that, there was a heightening (rising) of the action instead. Eliza, aside from forgiveness, gave William something else… love.
In one of James’ visits, he saw the portrait of a woman that William painted. When asked who that woman is William replied, “the impossible.”
Indeed, it is seemingly impossible for Eliza to forgive William, the killer of her husband. And what is more impossible is for Eliza to end up loving William.
But as James said when William referred to her as “the impossible” – “the more impossible, the greater the love.”
And what happened to the note Eliza gave William – “If love, then what?”
William, with that unstable mind that he had, responded to it unexpectedly. It brought back the guilt that he felt after killing Eliza’s husband. Eliza falling in love with him is like killing her husband for the second time. To Eliza’s question “If love, then what?”, William responded, “There’s no chance redemption.” That guilt made William’s paranoid delusions worse prompting him to “punish” himself.
That day Eliza gave William that note and asked him to open it when she’s gone, William said, “I’m sorry Eliza.” Eliza responded, “But what if I’m not?” Then they kissed.
That, for me, is the most beautiful part of the movie. What followed thereafter are the darkest parts of the story – particularly William “punishing” himself and the monsters – Ben, Phillip and Dr. Bryne – rearing their ugly heads.
The ending may be formulaic – the good triumphs over evil – but what I would like to remember the movie by is Eliza’s answer to her own question.
“If love, then what?” L O V E.
If you are in love, just love… no ifs… no buts.
(A Movie Review – 2nd of 3 parts)
It might be surprising to some that a review of a movie about how a dictionary was created would bear the title “If love… then what?”
No… it’s not an attempt to romanticize the love for words of the lexicographers who dedicated their lives to create a comprehensive compilation of all known English words. I choose that title because of that very interesting twist in the biopic involving Eliza and William.
The Professor and the Madman is based on a book with the same name featuring the true story of Sir James Murray, a Scottish lexicographer and first editor of what is now known as The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon and lexicographer researcher who contributed significantly to the creation of the said dictionary. The latter suffered from paranoid delusions and he killed a man (Eliza’s husband in the story) whom he accused of breaking into his room. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital and it was while undergoing treatment that he (reportedly) made his contributions to the OED.
Given all the aforementioned you wouldn’t think that this would be an interesting movie. How in the world would a movie about creating a dictionary generate excitement?
Well… I trust in the imagination and creativity of the scriptwriters
While obviously, the main plot revolves around the events that led to the creation of the OED, as I expected, the creative minds behind the movie injected subplots to make the flick more literary and cinematic.
Those subplots were stitched together using as threads the literary themes friendship, redemption, forgiveness, and love.
The main plot is centered upon diligence as the source of its theme. Ada, James’ wife, defined diligence to the members of the Oxford University Press. She said the following to the gentlemen deliberating the ouster of her husband from the OED project – “Diligence. I looked it up in your dictionary. Constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken. Persistence. Application. But also, toil… and pain.”
Those words encapsulate the kind of efforts James and William exerted to create the OED. The persistence they have shown in the pursuit of such a daunting endeavor is worthy of emulation and it is perhaps the most important value viewers could learn from the movie.
But as expected, James and Williams should meet an opposition to satisfy one very important requirement in story writing – conflict. Without it, the movie would turn into just a plain documentary. That opposition came from Ben and Phillip, the one whom Ada addressed as Mr. Gell when she gatecrashed into that meeting of the OED project’s oversight committee to speak on behalf (and in defense) of William and her husband.
Ben and Phillip, along with Dr. Richard Brayne (supervisor of the psychiatric hospital where William was undergoing treatment… or is it where he was incarcerated), are the story’s villains.
The maneuverings Ben and Phillip do to make things hard for James and William represents what I think is the main conflict of the story – Will Ben and Phillip succeed in diminishing the role of James in the creation of the OED and in striking out William as a contributor?
The main plot revolves around the conflict aforementioned. But the story has another conflict, one that, in my opinion, overshadowed the main conflict. It is the one that involves William and Eliza.
As previously mentioned, Eliza is the wife of the man whom William killed while having a fit of delusion. This represents the other conflict in the story – Will Eliza forgive William?
(Last of 3 Parts)
One subject that I miss teaching is Creative Writing. I consider it an ultimate challenge as an English and literature teacher to teach the said subject. It is quite challenging to lead a study of the different forms of discourse with the end goal of developing in the students the ability to write narrative, descriptive, expository, and argumentative compositions. What adds to the challenge is making the students understand the principles of stylistics, literary criticism, and linguistic and literary devices. As course requirements, I required them to submit a movie review, a short story analysis, two essays, and a short story.
When I created the syllabus for the course, I intentionally did not include poetry. It wasn’t just possible for me to cover both prose and poetry in one semester. It would be difficult for them had I included a poem among those they should submit at the end of the term.
My students had struggles with writing stories. It was easier for them to produce essays. They just toyed with the movie review and short story analysis. Yes, it was easy for them to deconstruct a story and break it down into its different parts – the so-called elements of fiction. But most of them had difficulty putting those component parts to construct their own stories.
I told them that I had the same struggles when I began writing. My first stories then were terrible (I hope they are better now.) Writing a story is a skill that would require time to develop. I explained to them that the most famous and talented writers had to hone their craft over a period of many years. Admittedly, I didn’t have statistical data to support that statement but it was (and still is) safe to assume that the literary greats had “burned oil in many midnights” before they attained their greatness.
I did not mention about Gladwell’s 10,000 hour-rule for it might just instantly extinguish any flickering hope of any one of them to become a writer. Perhaps some of them may have bumped into that idea later on. If during those times I have already known about Kaufman’s 20 hour-rule, I would not be mentioning it either for I don’t like to give them false hope that it would take that so short a time to become good at writing stories.
To become good at writing stories, you have to attain a certain degree of fluency or proficiency in the language you are using to write your stories. If saying that your sentences should be syntactically correct is a mouthful then let me just say that they (your sentences) should be correct and comprehensible.
You already have an advantage if the language you intend to use to write your stories is your native language. You very well know how important is vocabulary in writing. Consider this: Native-level fluency (this is from Wikipedia) is estimated to require a lexicon between 20,000 to 40,000 words.
But it doesn’t mean that being a native speaker of that language automatically makes one a good writer. If so, we could have had lots of Shakespeares, Hemmingways, Tolstoys, Hugos, Tagores, Xuns, and Rizals. Many native speakers of their own languages could not write a simple story or a poem.
Proficiency in a language is only one of the many skills you have to develop. There are other skills necessary to writing well including the ability to choose the right words to develop related ideas, organize those ideas into a cohesive whole, and to creatively combine and contrast those ideas. And as I reiterated in part 1 of this 3-part series… “Writing stories require that you should be able to knit together the elements of fiction within the frame of the plot, to make sure that the most important element of fiction – conflict – is laid down clearly and passes through exposition, complication, crisis, falling action, and resolution.”
In short, writing stories is an art and I doubt if anybody could learn it in just 20 hours. Just developing proficiency in a language, if you are not a native speaker of that language, is not achievable in 20 hours. However, you might think spending 10,000 hours to develop a specific skill would probably be too much – unless you want to acquire true expertise in a specific field. If you do it for 5 days a week, because you might need a 2-day break, that’s 4 hours a day in nine years.
You probably would like to start developing your writing skills at least one hour each day. That’s what I have been doing. It works for me.
Prior to writing the short story, I would require my students to submit a 10-sentence story line of the story that they are planning to write. One time, when I was giving them examples of story lines off the top of my head, one of them asked me where am I getting ideas for my stories.
Before answering that question, I asked them to, again, define literature. Then one of them gave exactly the definition upon which I intended to anchor my answer to the question one of them asked – “Literature is a faithful reproduction of life executed in an artistic pattern.”
I explained that what we read in stories mirror the things happening in real life. Writers draw ideas for their stories from the experiences of people around them and from theirs as well. That’s how I do it.
“Literature,” I added, “is an artistic expression of significant human experiences.” (I can’t recall anymore who said that.) That’s the reason why when we are reading stories or watching movies we feel like it’s our personal story being told.
I told my students that rarely do I borrow someone’s experience to write a story because my life itself is a fountain of many story lines.