10 Dec Write, Forrest, Write! A Case Study
I like Forrest Gump. That’s a brave admission these days. In the twenty-two years since the film snagged an Oscar for Best Picture, it’s become trendy to sneer at its universal appeal. Just ask the cool kids at BuzzFeed. They took a break from composing listicles of the Meanest Comments on Taylor Swift’s Instagram just to insult a movie from 1994. As a frame of reference, Taytay was four at the time of the release on June 6th, and the internet was barely a thing.
Still, I like Forrest Gump. It’s an imperfect film, but darn if it ain’t charming. Forrest is refreshingly honest, the kind of guy who will tell JFK that he has to “go pee” or show Richard Nixon a scar on his buttocks. He overshares with Presidents. It’s adorable.
Aside from the humor, the reason the movie works is its clever premise: a not-so-perceptive guy walks right through the pages of history without noticing it. He’s an innocent with no ego, which is refreshing in the age of the selfie.
@RunForrest Momma says you dance so well ‘cause you have magic shoes!
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT, JENNY?
Forrest Gump is a movie about change.
Considering the last blog post, let’s think about the film in terms of this concept. Forrest Gump lives at the center of one of America’s most tumultuous eras. Massive social changes are happening around him like The Civil Rights Movement and The Vietnam War, and he somehow finds himself smack in the middle of each.
We’re surprised and delighted when we find Forrest inserted into the recognizable past. Moving his braced legs to the strum of a guitar, Forrest gives Elvis his most famous dance move. Years later, he innocently picks up a book dropped by an African-American student during Alabama’s forced school integration. After completing a tour of Vietnam, Forrest literally stumbles into a seminal anti-war protest on the Washington Mall.
On the soundtrack, Buffalo Springfield tells us that, “It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”
Forrest has no idea what’s going down. He doesn’t seem to know what’s up, either.
IF GUMP DID THE COMMONAPP
Most major events in Forrest’s life story would be amazing material for a personal statement, though he wouldn’t know it. For example, Forrest reports what he thinks is a power outage at the building next to The Watergate Hotel, not realizing that he’s tipping off authorities to an event that will lead to the resignation of President Nixon.
In another scene, Forrest wipes his face on a yellow shirt, then tells the shirt’s owner to, “Have a nice day,” as he hands the shirt back. The audience understands what Forrest doesn’t: he just inspired a cultural symbol and penned the accompanying slogan.
It would seem that most of the change occurs in the world around Forrest, and perhaps more perplexing, he facilitates it yet fails to recognize it. It’s one of the criticisms of the film, that it’s not believable for a person to go through such an eventful life without noticing the changes he’s caused, but it’s what gives Forrest Gump a surreal, fairytale feeling.
There’s a deeper problem with this critique, which is that Forrest himself is neither stupid nor static.
NAIVE OR NOT?
In many peoples’ read of the film, Forrest is oblivious, remaining the same person from start to finish. The critics say that as a character, Forrest doesn’t change.
I disagree, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so fond of the film.
Yes, Forrest oftentimes misses the bigger picture and doesn’t grasp the far-reaching consequences of his actions, but he has several moments of personal transformation.
This is precisely the kind of metamorphosis that admissions committees seek in essays. Would an admissions committee be more impressed that you changed history by accident, or that you were changed by a deeply personal experience?
Forrest is not ignorant of his personal transformation either. If you asked him about the most impactful moments in his life, he would likely have definitive answers, none of them involving drinking too much Dr. Pepper or pulling his pants down at The White House.
For evidence of his metamorphoses, consider the rare scenes in the film where Forrest himself becomes emotional.
(Spoiler alert, obviously!)
- Forrest leaves his “Momma” to go to war
- Forrest’s “best good friend” Bubba dies in his arms
- Forrest’s Momma dies
- Forrest meets his son
- Forrest marries Jenny
- Forrest loses Jenny
All of these are moments that transform his life in an instant. Let’s consider them in light of The Big Changes:
- Death of someone you love
- Losing a job
Take a second and match each scene to one of The Big Changes. The two that don’t seem to fit at first are Forrest’s marriage (#5) and meeting his son (#4), but we can think of them as analogous to two of The Big Changes. If we consider divorce and marriage as opposite sides of the same coin, and gaining a member of the family as the counterexample to losing one, then we can account for all six moments.
Each event shifts Forrest’s path. If we examine the scenes before and after the inciting event, we see his new route.
After leaving home, Forrest embraces the Army.
After Bubba dies, Forrest leaves the Army.
After Momma passes, Forrest goes running.
When Forrest loses Jenny, he becomes a father to Little Forrest.
While critics contend that Forrest is a simpleton who never changes, it is clear that these are the moments where he does. He matures, growing up a little after each event.
This is the foundation of a great essay topic. If it impacts you in such a way that you emerge changed, then you’re on the right track.
A disclaimer: all essays don’t need to be about a dramatic shift in your life, especially if you haven’t lived through any of the big changes. Not to worry! You’re more likely to have faced incremental personal changes in life, rather than one or two big ones. After all, not many applicants “got shot in the buttocks.”
ESSAY TOPICS ARE NOT LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES
The next logical question is, “Which of Gump’s topics is best?” Consider it for a moment. Is it the saddest one? The happiest one? The one that brings about the most change in his character?
Maybe it’s the one that makes the audience cry. Note that your essay will have an audience, too: the admissions committee, and your personal statement should evoke emotional responses from them. Also note that the scene in the film that jerks a tear or two from me is when Forrest visits Jenny’s grave, but I swear it’s because I have allergies. I’m cutting onions, too. Is it dusty in here?
There’s no correct answer to, “Which topic is best for Forrest?” As an exercise, pick one of the six moments and jot down notes about how you would structure the essay if you were Forrest. You don’t have to limit yourself to one moment, either, as long as you can draw firm connections.
Let’s say you’re writing about losing Bubba. You have to make a choice on where to start the essay. Maybe you begin on the day they meet on the bus. Or perhaps you start upon their arrival in Vietnam. Bubba’s death would be a transformative moment that would have to come early in the essay’s structure. The majority of it would then be about how Forrest copes with this death, keeping his promise to Bubba by creating a shrimping company in his name. The struggle and eventual success of the business would make a riveting climax, one that would resonate nicely if the first part of the essay captured the beauty of Forrest and Bubba’s relationship. They were friends who made a promise to one another, and Forrest kept that promise.
Structuring an essay and selecting the right content for the topic can be easier when you’re divorced from the material, so I’d recommend giving this exercise a try.
These structuring choices are all calls you will have to make when crafting your personal statement, but it will be harder because all of the stuff happened to you. How can you know what’s most interesting and best suited for a compelling essay? (Hint: it doesn’t hurt to have help.)
AND THE AWARD FOR BEST FAKE ESSAY GOES TO…
Here’s a fun idea: leave your notes for the Forrest Gump personal statement, including the topic you chose and the structural arc of the essay, in the comments. On December 24th, two weeks from this posting date (and also Christmas Eve!), I will select the best one to win a special prize.
That prize? The cinematic classic Forrest Gump, gifted to you on iTunes.
(Or, if you can make a better argument than BuzzFeed for why I should hate the movie, I’ll send you an iTunes gift card instead.)
So… Write, Forrest, write!