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This week Jarie pitched Harold and Maude as a great example of an innovative love story. This 1971 cult favorite film was directed by Hal Ashby from a screenplay by Colin Higgins.
Genre: External: Love > Courtship — Internal: Worldview > Education
Controlling idea: We need to be our true selves no matter how odd that might be or risk living a life that does not complete us. Best summed up as “I love you. Oh Harold, that’s wonderful. Go and love some more” on the way to the hospital after Maude took the poison.
- Beginning Hook – When an overbearing mother meddles and controls Harold’s life, Harold lashes out by faking sucides to undermine his mother constantly trying to live his life.
- Middle Build – When Harold meets Maude, he can’t believe that he has found a kindred spirit who lives life fully on her own terms. There adventures are epic.
- Ending Payoff – On her 80th birthday, Maude takes poison because living to 80 is enough. Harold tries in vain to save her but it’s too late. She dies and Harold learns the meaning of love and loss. He is now free to experience life.
Jarie – Out of all the genres we deal with, the Love Story is the most popular. There is something that grabs at us when we see a well done love story. Maybe it’s our desire to find love or maybe it’s that we want to see the lovers end up happily ever after. Cue riding off into the sunset, bareback with long flowing blond hair, bare-chested.
Although love stories are popular, the challenge lies in innovating the scenes so that the audience does not get board. You see this a lot in the Action genre since it usually has a love story sub-plot to add a bit of spice to the mix in between explosions, daring rescues, and classic on-lines.
Within any type of genre, it’s the innovation that makes the story memorable. For me, Harold and Maude sets the standard for innovative Love Story. Everything about it’s construction, music, set, setting, dialogue, and story provide wonderful examples of how to innovate the Love Story.
Harold & Maude also has a strong internal genre of Worldview > Education for Harold, which we won’t dig into too much but you’ll see how it’s used to innovate and setup some of the love story scenes.
To start, let’s take a look at the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of a Love Story and see how Harold & Maude innovated them.
- Triangle: Harold, Maude, and his mother.
- Helpers: The shrink trying to understand Harold.
- Harmers: Harold’s mother Vivian. Truly a brilliant, clueless mom who can’t figure out what to do with Harold.
- Gender Divide: Not only is there a gender divide, it’s opposite (Maude is much older) and there is a generational divide. I can’t think of another movie that does it any better.
- External Need: Harold needs to be loved for who he is.
- Opposing Forces: Society for one. A young man and a much older woman in the 70’s. Not to mention the mother as a big opposing force.
- Society From Couple: N/A
- Couple From Society: That Harold and Maude can be a couple.
- From One Another: Maude wants to die on her 80th birthday.
- From Themselves: That love can take on any form.
- Rituals: Harold and Maude love to attend funerals together.
- Moral Weight: Harold learns that he needs to be able to love and suffer loss. That’s what life is all about.
- Lovers meet: At a funeral. The best part, neither of them know who died. They just like to go to funerals as a hobby.
- First Kiss or Intimate Connection: At the salt flats and at Maude’s house after the fair.
- Confession of love: Harold gives Maude a coin he made at the fair that says Harold Loves Maude to which Maude replies Maude loves Harold. She then promptly throws it in the water. When Harold tells him mom he’s going to marry Maude.
- Lovers break up: When Maude takes the poison.
- Proof of love: Maude helps Harold avoid the draft by faking like he killed her.
- Lovers reunite: N/A
A big part of the set and setting of Harold & Maude has to do with the music. This is hard to replicate in a novel but the sound track, by Cat Stevens, also tells a story about Harold’s Worldview > Education. Other than Chariots of Fire, I can’t think of a better soundtrack.
For a writer, the soundtrack might not seem like something that can help your novel but the mood it creates is an important complement to the dialogue. For any writer, having a soundtrack for your novel will make it easier for your characters to get in the mood. You can see this in several places in the movie (e.g. the soundtrack reflecting back into the dialogue):
- Example #1: When Harold writes his first suicide letter in the opening scene.
- Example #2: When Harold goes to visit Maude and finds that she is posing nude for an ice sculpture artist.
- Example #3: The fireworks that lead into the post sex bubble blowing.
- Example #4: When Harold tells his mother that he is going to marry Maude. The banjo rendition of the theme song.
Leslie – I approached my study of this story by asking, what is the nature of innovation? I think of it as zigging (in a satisfying way) when the audience expects the story to zag. Here are some examples from Harold and Maude.
Often with May-December romance/friendship stories, the gender roles are reversed. Also, we see no shame expressed about their age difference in this story.
One major engine of innovation is irony and this film is full of lots of great examples.
- Maude as a 79 year old is way more alive than Harold, a young man with his whole life in front of him.
- Harold’s fake suicide attempts used to get his mother’s attention vs. Maude’s authentic choice to end her life
- Comparison to Romeo and Juliet, but Maude helps Harold commit to his own life
- The total control imposed by Harold’s mother at home vs. how out of control Maude is
- The two home environments and attachment to things vs. people
- Differences in mode of speech and dress
I noted some interesting parallels to Fight Club, including the way Harold and Maude meet and the way it shows a culture that is out of touch with life lacking substance.
How do you innovate a story of any genre?
- Deconstruct to discover necessary elements of the story you want to tell.
- Identify the nature of the characters and what they want (age, gender, class or position in the power structure, competence, level of experience in the arena, etc.)
- Identify the setting and historical context (terrain, social constructs, technology, background social conflict, the means available to the characters to resolve conflict)
- Identify the nature of the conflict (nature of the force of antagonism source,
- Identify the style and tone
- Identify the POV, narrative device, and narrative structure
- Look at the elements from different vantage points and through metaphor. How could the elements be presented in a new and fresh way?
- Reconstruct the necessary elements with your new perspective in mind. You’ll want to do this with intention because not all innovations are created equal. Consider whether it adds to and supports or undermines the story you want to tell.
- Study stories within and outside your genres of choice. Identify how the writers innovate within the story. What choices do they make that are typical? What choices are atypical? How does the story make you feel?
Anne – This is great analysis. I can’t say that I was enthusiastic about watching this movie, just based on the premise, but I was completely charmed by it. At the end, I wasn’t sure I’d seen a love story so much as a Worldview story–and we all agree that Worldview was strong here–but you’re convincing me that it met most of the conventions of a love story in innovative ways. So let’s turn to the B Team for the counterpoint.
I want to start by pointing out that a story like Harold & Maude is where the Story Grid methodology really shines. This is a quirky film that you will either love or hate. People who write stories like this have a hard time working with editors who work subjectively; they’re told to try one thing or another to maybe make the story better.
Story Grid provides us with an objective look at story, so it doesn’t matter whether the editor “gets” it or not. Personal preference is irrelevant.
I’ll be honest, Harold & Maude isn’t my cup of tea. Kim, however, thought it was hilarious. Yet when we analyzed it, we both drew the same conclusions and came up with the same feedback, which is this:
Harold & Maude does not set the standard for innovative love story primarily because it isn’t a love story. It’s a worldview > education story with the love story as the secondary genre. Kim will talk about why it’s an education story in a minute but I’ll start by talking about the love story.
Harold finds meaning through his relationship with Maude. Their love story feeds the global story but it doesn’t work very well in and of itself. Jarie has outlined the obligatory scenes and conventions, but I disagree with his interpretation. (Jarie’s analysis is in black, my comments are in blue.)
- Triangle: Harold, Maude, and his mother. The whole point of having a rival is to create conflict in the relationship. It’s a competing force for the affections of one or both characters. Harold’s mother would only form part of the triangle if she was a rival for Harold’s affections (in a sexual relationship). The girls she tries to set him up with do not pose a serious threat to his relationship with Maude (Harold isn’t interested in them for a second), therefore there’s no triangle.
- Helpers: The shrink trying to understand Harold. How does the shrink help Harold and Maude’s relationship? There aren’t any other characters helping the lovers come together.
- Harmers: Harold’s mother Vivian. Truly a brilliant, clueless mom who can’t figure out what to do with Harold. A harmer is someone who isn’t in favour of the match and who works to destroy it. Are there any harmers here? Vivian’s goal is not to break up Harold and Maude; in fact she doesn’t even know about them until the end of the film, at which point she doesn’t really do anything (the whole opposition is handled in a series of quick expository clips). There’s no real risk of Vivian (or anyone else) coming between Harold and Maude.
- Gender Divide: Not only is there a gender divide, it’s opposite (Maude is much older) and there is a generational divide. I can’t think of another movie that does it any better. Gender divide has to do with the lovers’ attitudes toward love (male taking the usual female attitude and vice versa). This isn’t the same as the stereotypical idea of an older man in a relationship with a younger women. Role reversal and gender divide are two different issues. In terms of the women being older, The Graduate (where Mrs. Robinson is the older woman) came out five years earlier.
- External Need: Harold needs to be loved for who he is. No, Harold needs to find meaning in life. That’s what the whole movie is about. That said, the external need convention for a love story is different from the protagonist’s objects of desire. External need means that one or both lovers must have external pressures on them to find a mate quickly. Harold’s mother does try to find him a wife because she thinks it will help him, but she gives up fairly quickly (after only 3 women, and she only tries one strategy (a dating service)) and Harold’s life within the family unit remains unchanged. Contrast this with the Bennett girls’ need to find husbands in Pride & Prejudice. Their father’s estate is entailed away from the female line, so unless they marry—and marry well—they’ll be out on the streets. The external need convention is starting to shift in contemporary stories though I think. In contemporary society it’s not usually that one person needs to get married or be in a love relationship, it’s that he/she wants to be in a love relationship. So, in contemporary love stories, I believe it’s shifting from an external need to an internal want.
- Opposing Forces: Society for one. A young man and a much older women in the 70’s. Not to mention the mother as a bug opposing force. I disagree. Society doesn’t keep them apart at all, neither does the mother. In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems with this love story. There’s nothing keeping the lovers apart, not even themselves (neither of them hesitates to form a relationship, either friendship or sexual relationship). Yes, there’s a series of expository clips of authority figures expressing disgust, but they don’t do anything to keep the lovers apart; in fact, Harold has zero respect for their opinions throughout the entire film so they’re not serious forces of opposition, period. He does seem to want his mother’s attention at the outset, but he’s not seeking her approval. Her opinion of what he does (fake suicide attempts) doesn’t keep him from doing it, just like her disapproval of his plan to marry Maude doesn’t keep him from wanting to propose.
- Society From Couple: There are none.
- Couple From Society: That Harold and Maude can be a couple. I disagree. While Harold does keep his friendship with Maude a secret from his mother, as soon as their relationship takes on a sexual dimension, he tells his mother about it immediately. In fact, he tells her that he’s going to marry Maude (before he’s even proposed). It’s the opposite of a secret – Harold can’t wait to share his happiness. Their friendship isn’t a secret from broader society either – they spend lots of time in public together. Their sexual relationship doesn’t have time to play out in society; they have sex with only 12 minutes left in the film.
- From One Another: Maude wants to die on her 80th birthday. Yes. In the funeral scene approximately 15 minutes into the film, when Maude tells Harold she’ll be 80 soon, she says, “that’s a good time to move on, don’t you think? Seventy-five is too early, but at eighty-five you’re just marking time. You may as well go over the horizon”. While her plan is not a secret per se, there’s no reason to believe that Harold would have understand her meaning.
- From Themselves: That love can take on any form. I disagree. They don’t talk about their love for one another and there’s no indication that they’re thinking about it either. It simply happens. They talk about life and death, not the morality or possibility of a sexual relationship between them.
- Rituals: Harold and Maude love to attend funerals together. They do meet at funerals, but do they don’t attend them together. Their ritual is talking about life and death.
- Moral Weight: Harold learns that he needs to be able to love and suffer loss. That’s what life is all about. Harold learns that life is beautiful and worthy of being lived to the fullest. Life itself is meaningful. Yes, Harold definitely has a worldview shift throughout the course of the film; Maude is unchanged internally.
- Lovers meet: At a funeral. The best part, neither of them know who died. They just like to go to funerals as a hobby. An innovation on the lovers meet scene, yes.
- First Kiss or Intimate Connection: At the salt flats and at Maude’s house after the fair. I think this is when Maude talks about her husband (about 40 minutes into the film). It’s the first time she speaks with depth. Harold reciprocates around 55 minutes into the film when he talks about his mother’s reaction to the news that he’d died at school.
- Confession of love: Harold gives Maude a coin he made at the fair that says Harold Loves Maude to which Maude replies Maude loves Harold. She then promptly throws it in the water. When Harold tells him mom he’s going to marry Maude. The button was a lovely way for Harold to confess his love for Maude, and exactly the kind of thing someone his age would do.
- Lovers break up: When Maude takes the poison. Yes, their relationship definitely ends but having it end because one lover commits suicide isn’t an innovation. (Romeo and Juliet)
- Proof of love: Maude helps Harold avoid the draft by faking like he killed her. Maude does help her friend, but is this an expression of love scene? This the most important scene for a love story; it’s the core event! In the proof of love scene, “one of the lovers must sacrifice for the other’s happiness without hope that the sacrificial act will do them any good whatsoever. Loving someone and acting on that love by personally suffering—all the while knowing your sacrifice will not change the other’s mind—is the proof of authentic love” (Pride & Prejudice, annotated by Shawn Coyne, page xxvii). How does this scene meet the criteria for a proof of love scene? Maude is pretending to protest and protesting is what she’s done all her life. Yes, she jumps down the hole but is there any real thought that this is a sacrifice? Doesn’t Maude see this as an opportunity to have an adventure?
- Lovers reunite: This doesn’t happen, but when a love story ends negatively, the lovers don’t reunite anyway.
So, the highlights are as follows:
The only convention that the film fully explores is moral weight. This relates to the internal content genre that accompanies the love story external content genre and the whole idea is that if the lovers can’t elevate themselves on some level (morally/emotionally/psychologically) they won’t be able to find authentic love. For example, in Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett matures; she elevates herself along the worldview > maturation spectrum of value. In Harold & Maude, Harold elevates himself along the worldview > education spectrum of value; he finds meaning.
With respect to the obligatory scenes, having the lovers meet at a funeral is certainly different, and I thought Harold’s confession of love (when he gives Maude the button he made at the fair) is very well done. It’s authentic and feels perfectly natural for the character. There isn’t a lovers reunite scene, but that’s not a problem since this love story ends negatively which means there wouldn’t be a lovers reunite scene!
However, there is no proof of love scene and that’s where I think this film fails as a love story. This is the core event for the genre and must be present. It comes close to delivering a proof of love scene when Harold tells his mother that he’s getting married, but then it pulls its punch. In the proof of love scene, at least one of the lovers has to sacrifice something without any hope that the sacrifice will do them any good. Mr. Darcy sacrifices money and his social standing to help the Bennett girls without any hope that Elizabeth will change her opinion of him.
By contrast, Harold has nothing to lose by marrying Maude. Yes, his mother is shocked but he can’t lose her approval because he never had it in the first place. Yes there is a series of expository shots of his uncle, psychiatrist and priest disapproving of the union. However, Harold doesn’t care what any of them think. He never has. So, their disapproval is meaningless. Finally, there’s no indication that Harold would lose his financial or social status if he married Maude.
To innovate means to present known information in a fresh, new way. It’s a new look at old material. I think Harold & Maude falls short of this mark.
While there is a significant age difference between the characters (he’s 18 and she’s 79), The Graduate was released five years earlier and, in my opinion, uses the age gap to much greater effect.
Having the lovers break up because one of them committed suicide has also been done before in Romeo and Juliet and as such is cliche. Yes, Maude does help Harold understand that life has meaning, as Leslie says, and Kim will talk more about that in a minute.
In more recent years, Brokeback Mountain beautifully innovated the genre by using two lovers of the same sex. So, if a client came to me looking for examples of stories that innovated the genre, I’d point them to The Graduate or Brokeback Mountain.
That’s not to say that Harold & Maude isn’t innovative. For more on that, I’ll hand it over to Kim.
Kim – So a couple things up front. I had never seen this film before, I wasn’t very familiar with the premise, and so I was able to watch it with open, observant, just-enjoy-the-story mind. And I LOVED it. Like one of my top favorite movies/stories of all time kind of loved it. So thank you to Jarie for picking it because I don’t know if or when I would have seen it otherwise.
So I agree that Harold & Maude is completely innovative, for all the reasons that Leslie mentioned earlier, but not as a global Love story, even though Harold loves Maude and Maude loves Harold.
So then, what is it?
Harold and Maude is a masterful example of a global Worldview-Education story.
These stories are about a protagonist who finds meaning and significance in life, either for the first time, or after having lost that sense of meaning (being disillusioned) before.
To identify the internal genre, we use Friedman’s Framework
- Identify the protagonist–the character that changes the most and that audience cares about the most.
- Look at the protagonist at the beginning of the story and assess their moral character, mode of thought, and level of fortune.
- Look at the protagonist at the end of the story and assess these sames thing again.
- One or all may have changed, but which has had the most significant change? This is our biggest clue to the internal genre.
- Also, consider how the audience feels about this change–is it what they hoped or what they feared would happen?
Harold and Maude:
- Our protagonist is Harold, certainly the character the story is about, the one we are watching most closely, and the one who undergoes the biggest change.
Then we look at Harold at the beginning of the story and at the end. One interesting tool you can use for this is to compare and contrast the exact opening and closing images/moments. How are they similar or different? And how do those similarities and differences demonstrate a change? What does that change signify?
- At the beginning of the story, Harold is walking to his death with rigid and deliberate steps down the rich wooden stairs of his mother’s mansion home. He doesn’t want to be alive but he doesn’t really want to die either. He is stuck in this limbo of nothingness. His mother doesn’t see him or try to understand him. He is alone, living a meaningless existence of insignificance.
- After his whirlwind week with Maude, the final image is Harold with a dance in his step, plucking out a tune on the banjo atop a grassy green cliff. These are things Maude taught him to do—to dance and play.
- This is in every way an opposite of the opening. A complete 180 degree flip. It shows someone wanting to die vs someone deciding to live.
The opening & final images technique is can be used for stories of any medium, though it certainly lends itself most easily to visual ones such as films, comics, graphic novels. But it’s something worth thinking and being intentional about in your written works. These are the subtleties that really bring a literary work to life and solidify your genre pattern to your audience using subtext.
We can check our work with a Cause and Effect Statement for Worldview-Education:
- Where a sympathetic protagonist, with a naive or cynical outlook, experiences an opportunity or challenge that enlightens them to a broader understanding, they find new meaning in their existing actions.
- When Harold, a young man with no friends who stages suicides and attends funerals for fun, meets 79 year old larger-than-life Maude who helps him understand for, the first time, what it means to truly live, he embraces living this newly found authentic way even after Maude’s life ends.
- Strong Mentor—Maude, a 79 year old woman who becomes the young protagonist’s lover. Indeed innovative.
- Big Social Problem—consumerism, obsession with social standing, the glory of war
- Shapeshifters as Hypocrites—this feels like the major innovation of the story. Maude is the shapeshifter-hypocrite in that she teaches Harold to live everyday to the fullest only to elect to die on her 80th birthday, but also that she is a shapeshifter hypocrite who never lied.
- This is in contrast Harold’s mother, specifically his memory he tells Maude about the chemistry lab explosion and his mother’s overly dramatic faint at the news of his death—this fake reaction is what triggered Harold’s obsession with death. She also is gives inconsistent accounts about Harold depending on the situation, either he’s a fussy child always getting sick or he’s a wonderful and happy baby.
- Clear point of no return—Harold falls in love with Maude and wants to marry her.
- Win but lose lose but win ending—Maude is dead but Harold has finally learned how to live each day to the fullest.
- Inciting opportunity or challenge—Maude introduces herself at a funeral. She asks him if he sings and dances.
- Protagonist denies responsibility to respond—although he is polite to Maude, he is slow to warm to her and continues with his dramatized suicides.
- Forced to respond the hero lashes out—
- Protagonist learns the antagonist’s object of desire—Harold’s mother wants him to get married and signs him up for a dating service.
- Protagonist’s initial strategy fails—even after he thwarted all his mother’s attempts to set him up, met and fell in genuine love with Maude, proudly told his mother his intentions, he discovers Maude always intended to die on her 80th birthday.
- In an all is lost moment, the protagonist realizes that what she thought she wanted is not enough to give him meaning—he finds out Maude has taken pills to die, and in the ambulance tells her he loves her. She tells him that’s wonderful, now go and love some more, and in that moment he says no, never.
- The action moment when the protagonist’s gift is expressed as acceptance of an imperfect world—Harold drives his jaguar turned hearse off the cliff but saves himself, dances away while playing his banjo.
This story feels like a masterwork for me on a lot of levels. Along with a great example of Global Worldview>Education, I also think that is an excellent case study for dialogue and characterization. Each character has distinct voice, and mode of being and dress. And even though the characters are portrayed by actors in a film, these things came from the written story/script first.
This story would be an interesting exercise to write the same scene from a different POV character. What they notice and care about and how they perceive and interpret things would be completely distinct. One thing that would stay the same in any version of the scene is the dialogue. Seeing the thoughts of a character behind the words, or often a lack of words for Harold, which is an interesting way to think about dialogue: what doesn’t a character say? And what does that mean?
If you aim to write global internal genres of any kind, I strongly encourage you to watch and study Harold and Maude.
Jarie – I disagree that Harold has nothing to lose by marrying Maude. He has a lot to lose since his controlling mother would certainly disown him as well as the shunning of society, which is not as big a deal to Harold as most.
The argument that the lovers must reunite in a love story I disagree with, especially if the love story ends negatively, like Romeo and Juliet and Harold and Maude. I think this is another reason Harold and Maude is innovative — the negative ending yet you feel upbeat. It’s rare for a love story to do that. Usually, it’s a happily ever after kind of thing. That’s probably why the reviews when Harold and Maude first came out were not that great. It did break the mold in that sense.
In the case of The Graduate, the Mrs. Robinson love interest is an opposing force or even the triangle aspect and not the main love story. So the comparison is not exactly accurate but I see the point on how The Graduate uses the triangle between Benjamin, Elaine, and Mrs. Robinson as innovative.
I do see the point about innovation in the World View > Education internal genre. I had originally thought that this was World View > Maturation since Harold does get more sophisticated but the real driver is that his life now has meaning. This was a direct result of reflecting on Valerie’s/Kim’s excellent opposition’s arguments about the internal genre. As for the Love Story innovation, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. What I will say is that a lot of love stories do have a strong internal genre since one or both of the lovers go through a transformation.
Anne – I’m really on the fence here. I hate to be wishy-washy, but both teams have made a good case! Is Harold and Maude innovative? Or it is simply not a global love story at all? What do YOU think? Has the A-team made their case? Points to the B-team? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Mike Scanlon on Twitter. He says:
In Gone Girl, three different characters are identified as Hero, three as Victim, and two (plus media, talk shows, reality) as Villain. Surprising that a successful story is so muddled in defining those roles. Would it be better to to use the Wrong Man genre? What’s innovative is that in Gone Girl we have an unlikable Wrong Man. Mike clarifies that he’s thinking of stories like The Fugitive, no way Out, and the Hitchcock original.
Anne – Roles and characters are not the same thing. We didn’t all agree that the story quite worked, partly because of muddled roles. The movie was “successful” because it met most conventions pretty well and had an innovative twist. “Wrong Man” isn’t a genre per se, but may be a trope or plot device, and yes, it would be innovative to have the wrong man be an unlikable or reprehensible character.
If you have a question about the Love Story, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by going to storygrid.com/resources, clicking on Editor Roundtable Podcast, and leaving us a voice message.
Join us next time to find out whether Valerie can make the case that Waking Ned Devine is a great example of Progressive Complications and the Power of 10. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?
Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.
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