My wife and I watched the film Doubt last night. We wanted to watch it for several reasons: it stars Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both of whom we think are excellent actors. It also involves a dilemma in the Catholic church; we are Catholic.
The film was made in 2008 and is based on the Pulitzer prize-winning stage play, Doubt: a Parable. In the film, Hoffman plays kindly a parish priest, and Streep plays the ultra strict and conservative principal of the school which is attached to the church. Hoffman befriends the only black boy in the school, who is lonely, insecure and abused by his father. Streep, a very un-trusting nun, suspects that Hoffman has formed an improper relationship with the boy, though she has no real evidence of this. She confronts Hoffman, who denies any wrong doing; she tells Hoffman that she has spoken to a nun in his previous parish who told her that Hoffman had behaved improperly there. Hoffman resigns from his current parish and he is immediately appointed by the Bishop to a larger, more important parish. It turns out that Streep had not actually called his previous parish, and made up the story of improper behaviour. She takes the position, however, that since he resigned, her allegation must be true. At the end of the film, Streep confesses to a young nun that, “I have doubts . . . I have such doubts”.
The acting in the film by both Hoffman and Streep is excellent. In fact, Streep is so cynical and so certain of her position that it is hard to believe that she has any of the doubts she finally expresses. And Hoffman is so sincere in his denials that it is hard to understand his resignation except as a means to get away from Streep, but there is no hint of this.
Through much of the film, my wife and I were shaking our heads: we had doubts about the credibility of the story line. We weren’t convinced that this could be a real situation: it seemed too forced. I realise that it is difficult to create a situation where the audience (or the reader) has doubts about what actually happened, and what it might (or might not) mean. But this is the essence of the film, and I think that rather than focus on the unique characters of the principal and the priest, it would have been more useful to present more ambiguous evidence of guilt or innocence that the characters can argue over. As they argue over the evidence, their characters will be revealed, and the dilemma comes alive. As it is, the only evidence we have is the priest’s friendliness to the boy, the fact that the boy was disciplined for drinking communion wine, and the fact that the priest placed a white shirt in his locker.
As a writer, I consider it absolutely necessary to pause and check the credibility of any twists in the plot, particularly twists which are essential to the central outcomes or messages. For example, I am working on a novel which includes a sudden, catastrophic disaster which has terrible consequences for the main character. To make that disaster more plausible and real, earlier in the book, I have the characters talk about minor versions of the disaster. And, later, before the big disaster, I have the characters actually experience a real, but limited disaster.
One of my concerns in writing Efraim’s Eye was whether the reader would believe that the London Eye is actually vulnerable to attack. Early in the novel, Efraim plans his attack in detail; there is no room for doubt.