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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gran Torino and the Atypical Hero

I love it when a movie packs a powerful message, but it's even better when I can learn something about writing from the story. Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is one such movie. At first glance, it's a rough movie with a not-so-likable, atypical hero. It is filled with violence and foul language which might turn off many people, but I gave the movie a chance, and I'm glad I did because not only did it touch my heart, it showed taught me several lessons about storytelling.

Writing the Atypical Hero
Clint Eastwood’s character, Walter, a racist, foul-talking, cantankerous old man, is not what you’d think of when you think of a hero. But a hero he was in the end.  I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but I do want to share a few points on how I think an offensive guy like Walter can play the heroic protagonist.

The Power of Characterisation 
Walter’s use of foul-language and racism had a place in this gritty, gang-infested movie. It was raw and hard to listen to at times, but it wasn’t over done. The movie opens at his wife’s funeral, but Walter’s hardened disposition to life was well solidified before his wife’s death. Despite his in-your-face bigotry, you can’t help but like the man. Mainly because those he’s “bigotring” can’t help like him. And that softens his character and turns him into a likable hero.

A Lesson in Character Growth
Little by little you see Walter's redeeming qualities sneak out. Though still cantankerous and demeaning in speech, his actions reveal his heart and betray his hardened exterior. He’s growing as a character and touching the lives around him (the same people he demeans) in a profound and life changing way.

Spiritual Symbolism
When the movie starts, Walter wants nothing to do with God. But as the movie progresses you see the struggle he has with wanting redemption. Though he claims to not need any, he desperately wants it. You see his struggle with his own sin and how, in the end, he plans on earning his forgiveness.
Though the story doesn’t give a Christian message that “there’s forgiveness in Christ alone,” it’s spiritual symbolism is touching and poignant. It’s a great example of how a gritty, ugly, story can present the gospel in a subtle but powerful way, and how an unlikable character can touch our hearts and be a hero.

How about you? What movie has taught you about writing? 

And if you saw Gran Torino, what did you think? SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read the comments if you want to be surprised by the movie!

Gina Conroy, a.k.a. "the other Gina," is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket. She's the founder of Writer...Interrupted and is still learning how to balance a career with raising a family. She is represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, and her first novella, Buried Deception, in the Cherry Blossom Capers Collection, released from Barbour Publishing in January 2012 with her second novel Digging Up Death recently contracted with Stonehouse Ink and will be available this fall.


  1. It was a well-crafted film with a good example of that "despicable" protagonist sucking us into compassion for him. The language is harsh and ugly but so fitting for this character and his transformation. The process is a good reminder for eliciting empathy for an unlikable character. Somehow Chris Fabry does it in Not in the Heart. Takes a true craftsman to accomplish it because most fail when attempting it.

    1. Nicole, I haven't read Fabry's Not in the Heart. I'll have to check it out!

  2. I didn't know what to think of Gran Torino at first. I didn't care for the protagonist, I didn't care for the setting, I didn't care for the gritty setting, I didn't care for the language, I didn't like anything about the film. But it was Clint Eastwood, both Directing and starring, and he's earned some leeway from me, so I stuck it out.

    Wow. So glad I did. His metamorphosis is one of the most impressive feats in recent memory, and his redemption is so Meta I can't hardly stand it - after so many years of solving problems with his guns, his last starring role in a picture he directed has him use that assumption as the biggest gotcha in cinema history. It was masterful, brilliant, and put a coda on his entire life's work.

    This is a movie that requires patience, thought, introspection, and rewards that with redemption and hope.

  3. Gina,well put. ( Also Nicole and Phy) Such a great example of how appropriate grittiness magnifies grace.

    1. Marcia, yes! What a great story to study, one I think I need to examine a bit more to see WHY it works!


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