I once read a theory that I’ve never been able to stop thinking about. It was in some publication and referred to a theory that connected Carl Jung, baseball, and fathers and sons. Carl Jung was a Swiss psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who wrote about psychology, philosophy, culture, art, and history. There is no evidence he ever wrote anything about baseball or, in fact, ever expressed any interest in baseball.
Regardless, here was the author’s unforgettable theory: baseball is a metaphorical Jungian psychodrama about the journey of the son through the world of the father. The father is the pitcher and the fielders are the father’s allies and friends. The pitch is a challenge by the father. The son can then meet that challenge by hitting back, and in order to return back home to safety, he embarks on a journey through the world of the father.
It’s a pretty cool theory, isn’t it? Most stories about fathers and sons usually involve some kind of failure. The son disappoints the father. The father disappoints the son. There’s often some kind of journey, some kind of uneasy reconciliation, and things end on a bittersweet note. There’s your formula for writing a father/son movie. Now all you have to do is add dialogue. Oh, and be sure to include some kind of Jungian psychodrama journey of the son through the world of the father.
Or just do what these movies do: tell really good stories really well. In honor of my two sons, here are my favorite movies about fathers and sons.
You’ve certainly seen those iconic photos of James Dean in sunglasses sitting at the wheel of a convertible, looking as cool as humanly possible. But have you actually seen a James Dean movie? He starred in only three. He had a bunch of minor uncredited roles prior to this one, but this is one of only three films in which he starred before his untimely death in a car crash at the age of 24. Directed by Elia Kazan, and based on the second half of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, this tells a modern version of the story of Cain and Abel. Dean steps on to the screen and you can’t take your eyes off him. Raymond Massey puts in a wonderful performance of the complicated father, Adam Trask. After you finish this, check out Dean’s two other movies: Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956).
This may be the most clever concept for a screenplay ever written, right up there with Groundhog Day (1993). The premise here is that a teenage kid goes back in time to discover the reason his parents are such dorks. Ok, to be fair, that wasn’t the purpose of his journey, but it is what he learned, among other things. Co-written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, it was based on the rhetorical question Gale asked one day: if I went back in time and met my dad, would we be friends? In this case, maybe they don’t end up as best friends, but the son inspired the dad to stand up for himself, thereby winning his future wife’s heart. This is one of those movies that always seems as fresh as the first time I saw it.
“How many ballplayers grow up afraid of losing their father’s love every time they come to the plate? All of them.” There’s the gut punch line of this movie about a father attempting to manage his son’s prodigious talent for chess. Steve Zallian built a career as one of the best screenwriters of the past twenty years, penning such scripts as Schindler’s List (1993), Falcon and the Snowman (1985), and Moneyball (2011). Here, he writes, directs, and pulls marvelous performances out of Joe Mantegna and Max Pomeranc as a 7-year-old chess whiz. This is a moving and wonderful tale about the sometimes misguided love that parents have when they push their children to excel. A cautionary and inspiring tale.
What do we make of a father whose make-believe stories cross well past the line of believability? Tim Burton and screenwriter John August bring Daniel Wallace’s novel of the same name to life in remarkably vivid ways. The father, Edward Bloom (played by Albert Finney as the old man), is dying of cancer and the story of his life is told by his son (Billy Crudup) in a series of flashbacks. The stories are fantastical and implausible and the son clearly doesn’t believe any of them as he tells them. Ewan McGregor plays the young Edward Bloom, and is completely winning. You’re nearly willing to go along with all these far-fetched sagas…until you learn in the end that the stories may actually be true. A lovely, lovely movie to watch on Father’s Day.
When I was a kid growing up on the North side of Minneapolis, there was an outdoor supply store that had a big billboard on their roof that read: “It’s better to go hunting with your son than it is to go hunting for your son.” It’s an excellent point, and worth pondering. Although I am pretty sure nobody from Pixar ever saw that billboard, this film reminds me of this sweet plot where a daddy fish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) goes searching for his son, Nemo. What an adventure ensues. Many would argue that this is Pixar’s best movie. I’ll raise my hand to that. A simply remarkable film. The animation is as good as anything Pixar has ever done, the characters are vivid and familiar, and the voice acting—particularly by Ellen DeGeneres—is peerless. Time to rent this one again.
You’ve probably already seen all the movies above and, while I hope you rent each of them and watch them again, this is one movie you may never have heard of. It is absolutely one of the loveliest movies I’ve ever seen. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, Ewan McGregor plays a young man who is coming to grips with the death of his father (Christopher Plummer). But there’s more. Five years prior, when his Dad was in his 70s and after his wife of many years had died, Dad comes out and tells his son he is gay and always has been. He then goes forward living the life and pursuing the love he always wanted. In the course of watching his father live his final years honestly and freely, the son learns to let go of his hangups about love as well. Written and directed by Mike Mills and based on his own life, this movie feels incredibly real and compassionate. Rent it.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and theBBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.