Inherit the Wind: Don’t Monkey with Story Issues


This month the Story Focus will be on the life-and-death nature of story stakes—an appropriate topic given that the life-and-death stakes that we celebrate during the Easter season. For any well-structured story, the stakes are rooted in variations of Thematic Issuesthat give context and connections to challenges facing both the characters and the audience.

Or to state it more simply: story stakes reflect the big and small problems of life. And to do that, stories need to look at the problems from as many angles as possible.

Even simpler: Issues = Problems. Stakes = What happens if the problems don’t get solved.

So let’s apply it to the Resurrection first. And then we’ll take a look at a film that dealt with that very issue within the context of American Enlightenment values.

The Resurrection: Jesus died and rose to solve a problem—Human Sin. What was at stake—God loved the world and didn’t want People to land up in hell. What’s at stake if you reject the Resurrection?  Well, let’s take a look at the film…

Inherit the Windis the 1960 adaptation of a stage play and stars Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, Gene Kelly and Dick York in a highly fictionalized version of the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trialthat litigated the issue of teaching evolution in the public schools. The original playwrights and the director of the film, Stanley Kramer, actually used this premise as a parable against McCarthyism. I suppose in an ironic twist of history, modern day conservative Christians could also use the same issue to discuss the overreach of leftist groupthink in the public schools and universities 😉

In any case, this story is a study on what happens when people elevate topical and controversial issues above their personal relationships and others’ free exercise of truth.  In fact, the titular reference to Proverbs 11:29is used within the story to give an ironic comment on that dynamic.

The film explores the topic in several ways: through the Premise Stakes (aka, the Issue at Hand), the Characters’ Personal Issues and Stakes, and the Themes (or Bigger Truths) that have relevance to the films then Current Audience. Let’s look at these one at a time:

The Premise:The story starts out with the arrest of Bertram Cates (Dick York), a teacher who is teaching his students Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in violation of a Tennessee law. The case immediately becomes a national news story, which attracts a noted politician and Christian fundamentalist, Matthew Brady (Frederic March), who volunteers to help prosecute the case.  In response, an atheist newspaper man (Gene Kelly) convinces famous legal-mind and agnostic, Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) to go head-to-head with old friend and longtime rival Brady in order give Cates a fighting chance (and sell a ton of newspapers, of course)!

So the Issue at Hand is the verdict of the case. Which side will win? Pretty straight-forward courtroom drama on one level…

But the subject matter of the courtroom drama is what makes it more than just another Law and Order episode.

The Current Issue: As stated earlier, Inherit the Wind was not a biting social commentary on the Evolution vs. Creationism debate. Frankly, by the time the movie came out, that issue had been settled in American culture—thanks to the very trial it dramatized, the ACLU, the mass media and the cultural marginalization of evangelicals at the hands of Christian modernists.

But what made this story relevant to the then current audience was it’s metaphorical value to the Cold War Era anti-Communist witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. At stake here was the American experiment in freedom of religion, speech, assembly and the press. If in order to fight the Red Soviet threat, American’s could not become an authoritarian state, itself.

Theme:Of course, this then required a greater Thematic discussion on the importance of the right of an individual to have their own thoughts and express them without retribution. And that tied back to the Issue at Hand—the trial of a schoolteacher teaching a controversial belief.  In fact, most of the legal arguments made in the case are more philosophical than legal, which leads us to the last element—

Personal Issues:This case meant something personal to the main character, Henry Drummond. As a champion of free thought and free speech, he walks a tightrope of going against public opinion of the townfolks, the snarky cynicism of the newspaper man, and being too aggressive with his old friend, who is now on the opposite side of the fence. 

So when he loses the case, he does not lose in his personal journey. He knows he has stood up for the right of a mind to think for itself.

On the other side, however, Brady wins the case but it’s a hollow victory when he hems and haws on the literal varacity of Genesis, and Cates is only fined $100.  Brady dies with a busted gut—a man who’s bluster only inherited the wind.

So to summarize:

  • The PLOT explores the ISSUE at HAND inherent in the PREMISE;
  • The THEME uses the ISSUE at HAND as a context to explore BIGGER TRUTHS at STAKE;
  • The CHARACTERS explore the PERSONAL ISSUES and STAKES people face when dealing with EITHER;
  • The GENRE focuses the STORY PREMISE in a way to make them relevant to the CURRENT AUDIENCE.

Having said all that, I now suppose that a conservative Christian taking on the related challenge of the leftist takeover of academia might be well-served to explore this dynamic in order to follow Paul’s advice to Titus (Titus 3:9)—least he he fall into the trap that felled Mathew Brady and lose the impact of his testimony. 

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