|Outsiders in Popular Feature Films|
This study guide is designed to help you write about feature films on a common theme. Study of feature films is one of the things you have to do as part of the National Curriculum programmes of study for reading at Key Stages 3 and 4. Your teacher should give you general information about film study. A few basic points will be introduced here, but this guide is mostly directed at three specific films with a common theme. These are The Elephant Man (1980), directed by David Lynch; Edward Scissorhands (1990), dir. Tim Burton, and Babe (1995), dir. Chris Noonan. All these are films about outsiders. You may wish to study other films with the same theme. Some of these are listed in an appendix to this guide. You may choose other films, but check with your teacher to see if they are suitable (are there things in them about which you can write?)
Why are there no pictures on this page? There are several reasons for this.
But if you want to find images for your work or, if you are a teacher, for your students' work, these are easy to find on the web. There is no better place to start looking than the amazingly comprehensive Web site kept by Mike Madin at www.academicinfo.net/film.html. If you can't find a link to what you want here, you haven't looked hard enough.
Click on the link below if you wish to buy any of the films.
What do I have to do?
If your work is being done for GCSE (KS4), you should try to follow the criteria given by your exam board. At KS3 you have more freedom. One thing you are not required to do, is to tell the story of the films (life is too short for this - if it takes the film-maker hours, how long will it take you? You are required to look at the film-makers' techniques (ways of doing things), what the films are about (theme, character and so on) and their significance (making a judgement of how good they are). You cannot write about everything, but should focus on selected episodes - your teacher will show you some of these, but may suggest others for independent study.
These headings will be explained in reference to details of the films later.
The films compared - the set-up:
Watch the first ten minutes (or more) of each film. Then compare them in terms of what you have seen and heard. Note that each of them opens with its theme music.
The Elephant Man you see at once is in monochrome. It was made on a low budget, but the lack of colour helps create period atmosphere - look out for how this is done later in the film. The first scene (in which we see a portrait of a woman, and elephants appear) seems not to make sense: it is meant to be a dream of John Merrick's mother as she is giving birth. We cut to a scene (years later), in which Dr. Frederick Treves visits a fair, where John is being exhibited, but he does not see him, nor does he speak. The first speaker in the film is Mr. Bytes, who claims to be the "owner" of the Elephant Man. Eventually, Treves gains a private viewing: note how Bytes introduces his prize exhibit. The dialogue is important here: Bytes speaks as if to a crowd, not to one viewer only. What have we learned of the central characters so far? How is the setting established? Note the images of furnaces and the references to machines.
In the opening credits to Edward Scissorhands we see some mechanical figures - is there any clue yet as to what these are? Next we see a town deep in snow, and enter a bedroom. Here an old lady is telling a story to a little girl, while snow falls outside. This is the first of many references to fairytales and fantasy. Do we know who these two people are? (The child calls the old lady "Grandma"). Now the film seems to take us back in time, and we see a middle-aged woman selling cosmetics door-to-door. What does the director want us to assume about this woman and the storyteller we have just left? What is suggested about the people in this town by the appearance of their homes? (The film was shot in a real community - Lutz, in Florida; the pastel-painted bungalows have often featured in TV and cinema. Can you see why?)
We meet some of Peg's potential customers - what is revealed about them in the dialogue? Note the use of contrast: compare the uniform rows of small-town suburban homes to the massive Gothic castle on the hill outside the town. This castle should remind you of at least two different kinds of film - what are they?
Note the topiary (sculpted hedges and bushes) - we will see the significance of this only later in the film: for the moment it is just an odd visual detail. What is the effect of putting an Avon lady into this fantastic setting? As with The Elephant Man, we do not see the freak character right away. When Peg sees Edward, who seems more frightened of whom? Comment on Peg's suggestion of improving Edward's complexion with astringent. Edward talks quite a lot to Peg: note how often, later in the film, he responds without speaking, by looks and gestures.
Babe also opens with obvious story-telling devices. Unlike Edward Scissorhands we do not see a storyteller: the narration is a voice-over, and the narrator refers to "our valley". We see captions on the screen to mark different episodes in the story. Why might this seem odd in a film from the 1990s? In what films might you expect to see it? Once again, we note use of contrast: compare the massive factory farm where Babe is born to Hoggett's farm.
At first, this might seem naturalistic (realistic) in appearance, but it is stylized, as if copied from a picture in a storybook: can you see in what ways? How soon does the audience become comfortable with the idea of animals talking? Note that we have real animals "acting", as well as three animatronic mice. These are obviously models, and their voices are conventionally distorted, as if by speeding up: this is funny in itself, but may make the other "real" animals more easy to believe in as characters.
These mice are not characters, but they announce the chapter titles (captions) and provide comic musical accompaniment or comment, here and elsewhere. Note how the theme music plays when Hoggett first meets Babe: the musical theme will return at many important moments in the film.
The films compared - some central scenes:
In the first of two central scenes fromThe Elephant Man Dr. Treves introduces John Merrick to the director of the hospital, Dr. Carr-Gomme. Treves has coached John in how to behave and what to say. Carr-Gomme is unimpressed by John's recital of part of Psalm 23. But just as he leaves, Treves hears John reading the rest of the psalm. He calls the director back, and John reveals that he can read, and knows the Bible well; his intelligence is shown and he is allowed to stay. Here we see John more clearly than earlier. As Treves makes his discovery, we hear musical accompaniment. The structure of the scene is interesting - we experience disappointment with Treves before he realizes what John's reading means. Note the reaction shots - we hear John's voice, but watch Treves's facial expression.
A second scene shows what happens when a distinguished actress, Mrs. Kendall, visits John. She gives him a copy of Shakespeare's plays, and he reads Romeo's words on meeting Juliet (Act 1, scene 5, line 91 on). Mrs. Kendall replies with Juliet's lines up to the point where John says: "And then it says: They kiss." Mrs. Kendall gently kisses John on the cheek and says: "Oh, Mr. Merrick, you're not an Elephant Man at all". In this episode you should note the extensive use of reaction shots: much of the narrative is achieved by close-ups of Mrs. Kendall's face.
Look at the symbolism of John's hobby: he has built a model of the cathedral, but can only see the spire - so must imagine what he cannot know. Music is effective once again. The scene alludes both to the Beauty and the Beast theme (also in Edward Scissorhands) as well as Romeo and Juliet.
The first of two central scenes from Babe is like John's meeting with the hospital director. Babe has his first chance at herding sheep but looks as if he will fail. The sheep will not obey him, and the older dog (Rex) is offended by the attempt. But just as Farmer Hoggett walks away sadly (very like Treves in the scene above), we see that Babe has persuaded the sheep to enter the pen. In this scene music is critical - the theme plays quietly on a glockenspiel throughout, but as Babe enjoys his triumph the full orchestra shows this with a crescendo. The brass instruments, especially, are picked out to convey the triumphal mood.
Hoggett says little but reaction shots are important. Cinematography moves between close-ups of the farmer and animals, and a panoramic view looking down on the sheep being herded. Dialogue among the animals is important - especially when Rex shows his pride by referring to the "blood of the ancient Bahu" (the bloodline of prize sheepdogs).
There is humour in the way in which Ma (the old sheep) teaches Babe how to herd the others, and in the way she reacts to Babe's attempted bite. Babe's unconventional approach reflects Hoggett's own ideas of doing things differently. Babe's herding is gentler than Fly's. Note also how by this point in the film, the audience is convinced that the animals are really talking. The editor has used advanced lip-synching and computer manipulation to match mouth movements to dialogue. It is so natural that we do not notice anything odd when Fly goes from speaking (to Babe) to barking (at Farmer Hoggett).
In the second scene, Babe is ill after running away from the farmhouse. Hoggett is concerned for him, but cannot at first think what to do. Then he has a brainwave - he sings and dances. This has the desired effect - and Babe starts to drink, and eat his food. Music is crucial - again we hear the film's main theme. Hoggett sings (not very tunefully) at first solo, and then with some (unseen) accompaniment. The tempo changes to that of an Irish jig, and Hoggett performs a lively folk dance (reminiscent of the Irish dancing in Riverdance, which was contemporary with the release of this film). At the end, the farm animals are looking in at the windows - as if laughing. Hoggett looks rather embarrassed.
In the central part of Edward Scissorhands there are several scenes worthy of comment, but some parts of the narrative run continuously through the film. Early on we see Edward cut a hedge into the shape of a dinosaur. We see brief shots of him creating other works of topiary. But after a while we do not see him doing this: we just see the results - he has brought individuality to the near identical homes in the town. Another important part of the narrative is a series of flashbacks in which Edward recalls how he was made in the castle - these appear throughout the film, but only in the last one, do we learn why he was never finished.
A very important scene occurs about two thirds of the way into the film. It is Christmas and the Boggs family is decorating their house. Suddenly it seems to start snowing, and Kim goes outside to see Edward carving an enormous sculpture (an angel) out of ice. While he carves away, Kim dances in the snow. In this episode the colour symbolism of the film is striking: the red and white of traditional Christmas decorations are seen in Peg's and Kim's dresses (note that the tree is white, not green). We see this contrast between Kim's pale complexion and rouged cheeks and red lipstick.
At the end of the scene, distracted by Jim (his rival) Edward cuts Kim's hand and we see the redness of the blood. Kim's dancing is almost in slow motion, very balletic, and is accompanied by the film's theme music - at first picked out on a single instrument. More instruments join in, followed by a "heavenly" choir of the sort heard in older feature films.
The episodes in which Edward recalls how he was made take us to the castle. But unlike the set-up, where the interior is brightly lit, these scenes are shot with a filter which leaches the colour, reducing the palette almost to monochrome - this both suggests a past time, and films of an earlier era. This device becomes a signal to the audience that we are seeing Edward's recollections. We see an assembly line where strange machines build a robot, which is then refined to become the character we have seen. The machines themselves have features like humans.
In the last part of this series of memories, Edward's inventor is ready to complete his work. It is Christmas (another thematic link) and he has a present - Edward's hands. But as he shows them, delightedly, to Edward - his expression changes, and he falls dead. Edward, upset by what he sees, has no concern now for the hands, and pierces them with his scissor blades. This scene connects with the rest of the narrative because it explains other things (why Edward lived alone in the castle; why he has normal human features except for his lack of hands) and because of the Christmas theme running through the film.
The films compared - the endings:
Edward Scissorhands ends with Edward being pursued to his castle by an angry mob. Kim follows him, as does her ex-boyfriend, Jim. Jim shoots Edward, then strikes him. Edward does not retaliate, but Kim tries to defend him. When Jim strikes her, Edward impales him on one of his blades. Jim crashes through a window, and falls to his death. Before leaving Edward, Kim declares her love for him. She tells the mob that the two have killed each other - displaying a spare "scissorhand" as evidence.
In the closing frames, we return to the storytelling with which the film began. Only now do we realize that the storyteller is Kim, now an old lady. Although this was all long ago, she says, she is sure Edward is still in the castle. Before he came to town it never snowed - now it snows every Christmas. "Sometimes," she says she catches herself dancing in it. As the theme music returns, we see Edward, surrounded by ice sculptures, carving away in the roof of the castle, while snow cascades down the walls. Against the falling snow we see the younger Kim, in her white dress, dancing as she did many years before.
This ending brings together lots of elements of the narrative - the unlikely love story reaches a kind of fulfilment. The film ends, as it begins, with snow - but now we know why. This is linked to Kim, like her white dress, symbolizing her purity: she has apparently remained single. We see how Edward has changed the drab lives of the townspeople. The pursuit of Edward by the angry mob is reminiscent of the ending of James Whale's horror film Frankenstein (not at all like Mary Shelley's original novel! The scenes in the castle are lighted in the same way as the recollection scenes. When Kim emerges from the castle, her white dress is marked with a bright red patch of blood. The film returns to the time at which the old Kim is telling her story. The theme music returns to blend these elements together.
Babe ends triumphantly. It seems as if Babe will not be able to herd the sheep, but a protest against his taking part in the trials, allows time for him to learn the password to which the sheep will respond. Rex, who has earlier stood in his way, has to race home to the farm, and back, with the magic rhyme. He returns in time to deliver the password, and Babe drives the sheep into the pen, to thunderous applause.
As at other important moments in the film, the theme music plays. Hoggett's liking for plain speech is shown in the very understated praise he gives to Babe. At the end of the film, a shaft of sunlight falls on the pair (like a theatre spotlight, sent by God) - a conventional way in film of showing approval. The cleverness of the plotting now appears - earlier a power cut struck Hoggett's farm, while he was watching television. So, when the power is restored, by workmen whose significance has so far not been obvious, the television comes on - allowing the other farm animals to watch Babe's performance.
About two thirds of the way throughThe Elephant Man John Merrick is abducted by Mr. Bytes, his former "owner", who takes him to France. He is exhibited in a travelling circus but saved by the other performers, among them a giant and a dwarf. One night Bytes is drunk, and they take John to a port from which he can return to England. In a London railway station he accidentally knocks over a child, and is pursued by a crowd into a public toilet. As they surround him, John shouts "I am not an elephant, I am not an animal - I am a human being!".
He returns to the London Hospital, and visits the theatre for the first time, where Mrs. Kendall dedicates the evening's performance to him, and John receives a standing ovation. Though he has now been accepted by society, John does not feel completely human so long as he is unable to sleep in a normal bed. So he removes the piles of pillows on which he has slept previously, and lies down to sleep, knowing it will probably be his last. The film ends with John's mother calling him back to her, as stars rush past him.
In these scenes you should note first the menace of Mr. Bytes - the audience's sympathy is with John, but we cannot see any escape. In the circus, he is among other people of unusual physical appearance, but they are shown as gentle and kind, compared to the "normal" but sadistic Bytes. In spite of their poverty and weakness they are able to work together and share their resources to save John. The scene in the station lavatory makes clear one of the film's themes - that deformity is no bar to humanity. This is confirmed by Mrs. Kendall's speech in John's honour. The performance John sees has a magical quality - we see people dressed as animals or flying, gunpowder flashes and other illusions.
In the closing frames we see that John's model cathedral is finished - the real cathedral is shown against it to prove how exact the model is. John looks at a picture of a child in a bed - as if this shows what he never had. The point of his removing the pillows is not explained directly, but we are expected to remember that Treves has earlier said that John will die if he lies down. We do not see John's dying by looking at him. Instead, the director gives us John's own viewpoint, as if rushing through time and space, to be with his mother. As in Edward Scissorhands the end of the film recalls its beginning.
The film-makers' techniques
Symbolism and imagery:
InThe Elephant Man there is obvious symbolism in the title: because he is the most celebrated of them, John Merrick stands for all those who are deformed, disabled and exploited or excluded by society. John's physical deformity is not an image of spiritual ugliness - quite the reverse. This becomes clear when he meets the other "freaks" in France: they show humanity, while Bytes, sleeping drunkenly in an animal cage, is morally and spiritually degraded. Contrast the degrading spectacle of the freak show at the start of the film with the magical illusion of the theatre that John visits. John's model cathedral is a symbol of his imagination and creativity.
In Edward Scissorhands we see another deformed character - the creator's vision is beautiful, but his work is unfinished. Edward destroys his own hands - what does this mean? His "hands" are sharp blades: but these are not weapons. Instead he uses them to create beauty - his topiary and ice-sculpture. Only when Kim is struck does he use them to hurt. Near the end of the film he is fearful to embrace Kim, not wishing to hurt her - but she takes his arms and wraps them around her, so the blades are beyond her, and she is safe.
We see scenes early in the film in which Edward cuts bushes or hedges into fantastic shapes. Later, we do not see them being made - we just see more and more topiary which was not there before. Note how the almost identical houses are made more individual by this topiary, just as Edward gives very individual hairstyles to everyone who asks. Colour symbolism is important, too - especially white for purity and the red of blood.
After she befriends Edward, Kim increasingly wears white dresses. The castle where Edward is made reminds us both of castles in horror films and fairytale castles like that in Disney's The Sleeping Beauty. The snow with which the film begins and ends is a recurring motif which links Edward (he creates it by his sculpture) and Kim (she dances in it, and white becomes her thematic colour).
Babe symbolizes all of those characters that defy convention and prejudice. There is visual symbolism in the shaft of light we see shining on Babe and Hoggett at the end of the film.
Reference - to other works of cinema, literature or art:
Edward Scissorhands is by far the most intentionally referential of these films.The Elephant Man resembles visually early works of cinema like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but has little explicit reference to other works, save in one episode where John Merrick and Mrs. Kendall read from Romeo and Juliet. Babe has a jokey reference to the author of The Sheep Pig (in the name of the sheepdog trials). The opening scene, where a lorry reverses into the factory farm, seems to have inspired Nick Park in his animation A Close Shave. The captions that serve as titles for episodes in the film remind us of such headings in early silent films.
But Edward Scissorhands is full of allusion. The inventor's castle suggests both Sleeping Beauty and other Gothic films. This is confirmed by casting Vincent Price, star of many horror films, as the inventor. The idea of creating a perfect being echoes Frankenstein and this parallel is again obvious at the end of the film, where Edward is pursued by an angry mob, bent on destroying him, just as in James Whale's classic film. The film parodies the style of the 1960s in clothes, hair and music - although the castle belongs in an earlier age, while the vehicles and things such as CD players are more contemporary. The flashback scenes (where Edward is being made) are in monochrome, a reference to early gothic films. The film refers to Pinocchio with its idea of a mechanical boy who tries to be human, while the death of the villain at the end is much like that in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
Narrative methods - e.g. viewpoint, direct or indirect narration:
The Elephant Man tells a true story. The director has adapted it from Dr. Treves' contemporary account, and other records. Edward Scissorhands is original but draws on a tradition of fairytales. Both of these films are cinematic versions of the classic tale of beauty and the beast. Babe is a dramatization of a children's novel (The Sheep Pig) adapted for cinema.
The Elephant Man tells its story through dramatic means - apart from a few speeches by Treves, we see everything happen on screen. Edward Scissorhands opens and ends with an old lady telling a little girl a bedtime story - at the end of the film we understand its significance: why, for example, the story is told at Christmas, as the snow falls. Babe reflects its origins as a novel, as each episode is given a caption that matches a chapter title in the original book.
Screenplays and dialogue:
To discuss this, you need to look at how the story is written in visual terms and as dialogue. Often the story is told by events that require no comment or narration. There is almost none in the opening frames ofThe Elephant Man. Both Babe and Edward Scissorhands open with explicit narration. At some points dialogue is very important (as when John Merrick and Mrs. Kendall read from Romeo and Juliet - note how John reads the stage direction, but does not follow it, yet Mrs. Kendall does). Look at interesting pieces of dialogue in all the films, and scenes where dialogue is notable by its absence.
Structure - e.g. order of scenes, time shifts, editing:
The Elephant Man is more or less chronological - the set-up jumps over about twenty years, but there are no flashbacks. What we learn of John's past is told by him. Babe also follows normal chronology, except in one scene where Fly tells Babe of how Rex lost his chance to be the champion sheepdog. Edward Scissorhands has much more complex chronology - the set-up and end frame the main narrative which is set many years before (at the end we know Kim is the narrator, so we can guess how many). But there is a series of flashbacks from this, in which Edward recalls how he was made. In Babe and Edward Scissorhands the main action takes place over a period of months. InThe Elephant Man the time-scale is less clear. See for yourself whether there are differences in the lengths and numbers of scenes, in the length of takes (continuous passages of filming), or in camera positions in a given scene.
Cinematography - composition of shots, tracking, viewpoint, colour and lighting:
InThe Elephant Man we note the use of monochrome, to suggest mood and period. The cinematographer (Freddie Francis) has many dimly lit scenes in the set-up - we do not see John clearly for some time. Later, he makes much use of close-ups, especially reaction shots. Much of our sympathy for John comes from the facial expressions of those around him - we see contempt from Bytes, and great compassion from Mrs. Kendall, Treves and (briefly) his wife.
In Babe the cinematography is very competent but less remarkable, although many shots give us a panoramic view, to show how the dogs and Babe herd the sheep.
Edward Scissorhands has very self-conscious cinematography that recalls other films - panoramic views of the town or the Gothic castle, for example, and the reduced colour of the flashback scenes. Slow motion is used for Kim's dancing. In the set-up we seem to move from a model to a real view of the town. There is a neat piece of camera-work where Peg thinks of going to the castle as she sees it reflected in the wing mirror of her car.
Incidental or theme music - how this reinforces or manipulates our response:
Music is important in manipulating our feelings or strengthening a response. In Babe the theme music comes in when Hoggett wins Babe, when Babe first herds the sheep, when Hoggett sings to Babe, and in the conclusion of the film - a jokey reggae version plays over the credits.The Elephant Man has two themes - one is like fairground music, and we hear this at the start, and at times when John is being exhibited or exploited. A more romantic theme plays at moments of high drama. Edward Scissorhands has a score by Danny Elfman (as do all of Tim Burton's films) which combines orchestration and choral singing - though at times the theme is picked out on a single percussion instrument. This is especially powerful in the film's closing frames as Kim remembers dancing in the snow years before.
Special effects and artistic design:
All of these films make use of SFX. InThe Elephant Man these are chiefly effects of make-up. You should comment on the effect of the make-up worn by John Hurt in the title rôle. The director also shows us some old-fashioned theatrical effects from the Victorian era. For the most part actual locations are used to recreate Victorian London.
Babe won the 1995 Academy Award (Oscar) for Visual Effects. Computer graphic manipulation synchronizes the movements of animals' mouths with dubbed speech. Computer graphics and conventional make-up were used so that many piglets (which grow too fast for one to have done all the "acting" could play one character (Babe). Animatronics were used to create the three singing mice, which provide links between episodes.
Edward Scissorhands uses SFX for the inventor's assembly line in the castle, and for Edward's "hands". Makeup is also striking; not just Edward's but also Kim's. It is ironic that Peg should sell it for a living! (The film was nominated for an Oscar for best makeup). The artistic design is very obvious in this film - look at Edward's trademark topiary and ice-sculpture, at the architecture of the town and the castle, at costume and hairstyles.
Effect on audience:
You should judge for yourself, as you are part of an audience, although you may not have seen the films in the cinema, or in a single showing. The most well-regarded film guide (Halliwell's Film and Video Guide) has a star rating for films: "four stars indicate a film outstanding in many ways, a milestone in cinema history...three stars indicate a very high standard of professional excellence or great historical interest...two stars indicate a good level of competence and a generally entertaining film."
According to this grading systemThe Elephant Man and Babe rate three stars, while Edward Scissorhands rates two. Would you agree with this? Say why.
Appendix 1: Outlines of the films - selected episodes
The Elephant Man
Appendix 2: Some other films about outsiders
This is not an exhaustive list. Ask your teacher if you wish to write about another film. Star ratings are from Halliwell's Film and Video Guide, 1998.
A simple guide to screenplays:
A rule of thumb in writing for cinema is that a screenplay proceeds at a page a minute. The first ten minutes or so must catch the audience's attention with a hook (some obvious point of interest - a horribly deformed man, whom we never see, an Avon [cosmetics] saleswoman calling at a Gothic castle, or a pig talking to other animals). The first twenty or so minutes should establish the central situation and characters: this is the set-up.
After this, it is usual for the hero or heroine to face obstacles, which will lead to conflict for the characters, and tension for the audience. The situation will be resolved (sorted out) in the finale (also known as the dénouement) - the conclusion to the film, although it may well have an epilogue, which serves as a comment (or twist) on what we have seen. You will find an epilogue in Psycho, Edward Scissorhands and Titanic. The "twist" epilogue is found in horror films like Carrie (where a hand reaches out of a grave to seize the heroine - but it is a nightmare) and The Silence of the Lambs. As the credits roll, we see Hannibal Lecter walking behind a man we recognize as Dr. Chilton, his next victim. Dr. Lecter has just told the heroine (on the phone) and the audience that he is expecting to have an old friend for dinner.
You should see that, if you ignore framing devices (prologue and epilogue) feature films, like all good stories, have a beginning, a middle and an end.
© Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me