Specs & The City: Unreliable Narrators and (500) Days of Summer

Movies are filled with exciting events and off-the-wall characters. We watch – willingly suspending our disbelief –  as aliens attack the White House, secret agents save the day with high-tech gizmos, and magic (both literally and figuratively) transports us, and the characters we love, to far-away places where we all have extraordinary adventures together. The audience wants to believe that the perception of the story they’re being told is the truth. A lot of times, it is — but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes a movie lies to us.

That’s the unreliable narrator.

Every story is told from the perspective of a specific character, but what if that character doesn’t see reality clearly? Most unreliable narrators come to provide a twist to a story. Whether it’s Edward Norton’s narrator being one side of a split personality with Tyler Durden (Fight Club), the revelation that Verbal Kent is the criminal mastermind Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects), or the fact that Bruce Willis was actually dead the entire time (The Sixth Sense) – sorry for the spoilers if you haven’t caught these films yet over the past decade or so – their narration purposely dupes the audience into believing one thing for the sole purpose of the big reveal at the end of the film.

But that’s not the only way to utilize an unreliable narrator. I’d like to take a look at one without a twist – where the unreliable nature of the narration is put front and center.

Let’s take a look at…

Unreliable Narrator and (500) Days of Summer

Part of what makes the use of an unreliable narrator is that they are usually likeable or sympathetic characters. You need to identify with them, to want them to succeed, so that you don’t question the lies they tell you throughout the story. That’s exactly the case with Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Summer.

He’s an extremely likable guy. He’s friendly, funny, and talented – but a little unsure of himself. Who can’t identify with him? And these are the reasons that we cheer for him and Summer. We want their relationship to succeed even though an actual omniscient narrator tells the audience at the beginning of the film – “You should know up front, this is not a love story.”

It’s right there, but we cheer Tom on anyway because of our admiration of him as a character (and our assumptions about the genre of film we think we’re watching).

(500) Days of Summer goes out of its way to show the audience that Tom isn’t reliable. Hell, there’s even an extended dance number with animation after Tom and Summer have sex for the first time to show how much of a fantasy world he truly lives in.

And then there’s this – the most straight-forward display of the fact that Tom’s POV can’t be trusted.

Here ‘s Tom on page 23 of the script. A man in love.

TOM
It's official. I'm in love with
Summer.
Paul looks at Tom, horrified.
CUT TO:
CU - SUMMER'S SMILE
TOM (V.O.)
I love her smile.
CU - SUMMER'S HAIR
TOM (V.O.)
I love her hair.
CU - SUMMER'S KNEES
TOM (V.O.)
I love her knees.
CU - SUMMER'S EYES
TOM (V.O.)
I love how one eye is higher up on
her face than the other eye.
CU - SUMMER'S NECK
TOM (V.O.)
I love the scar on her neck from
this operation she had as a kid.
CU - SUMMER ASLEEP
TOM (V.O.)
I love how she looks when she's
sleeping.
CU - SUMMER'S LAUGH
TOM (V.O.)
I love the sound of her laugh.

And here is the same scene forty-three pages later. Tom is in full-blown heartbreak.

TOM
(into CAMERA)
I hate Summer.
CU - SUMMER'S SMILE (as before)
TOM (V.O.)
I hate her crooked teeth.
CU - SUMMER'S HAIR (as before)
TOM (V.O.)
I hate her 1950s haircut.
CU - SUMMER'S KNEES (as before)
TOM (V.O.)
I hate her knobby knees.
CU - SUMMER'S EYES (as before)
TOM (V.O.)
I hate her lopsided, asymmetrical,
cock-eyed head.
CU - SUMMER'S NECK (as before)
TOM (V.O.)
I hate that centipede-shaped scar.
CU - SUMMER ASLEEP (as before)
TOM (V.O.)
I hate the way she sleeps.
CU - SUMMER'S LAUGH (as before)
TOM (V.O.)
I hate the way she laughs.

It’s a sly way to illustrate the point that Tom is not to be trusted, and it also shows you can still effectively use an unreliable narrator in films that don’t have suspenseful twist-endings.

Take a look at your script. Is it too direct? Too straight forward?

Think about the POV of your story. Can that character be trusted to tell the truth? If the answer is “No”, then adding an unreliable narrator just might be a new way for you to add another level of excitement to your story.

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