Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Directed by Alan J. Pakula and based on a best­selling novel by William Styron, Sophie’s Choice received over eleven Academy nomin­a­tions and won the best actress Oscar for Meryl Streep. It’s aspir­a­tions to be a tragic love story were never quite fulfilled in the film version but the tale of a trian­gular rela­tion­ship between two men and a woman  (a little like Truffaut’s Jules et Jim) seemed to strike a chord with the public.

An aspiring young writer, Stingo (Peter MacNicol), forms a deep friend­ship with a young couple in post-war New York. Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline) appear to be deeply in love but Nathan is a Jekyll and Hyde char­acter; he suffers from a mental illness that can make him vicious and destructive. Stingo tries to rescue Sophie from Nathan’s cruelty but, when she reveals her tragic past, he accepts they belong together.

Char­acter case study: the terrible choice

The choices that you present your char­ac­ters are an important indic­ator of how well char­acter and plot are integ­rated. A prot­ag­onist, in partic­ular, needs to have the power to make important choices for an audi­ence to identify with them fully. A feature of many classic film dramas is a moment that occurs in the third act called the crisis decision:

A major decision taken by the Prot­ag­onist under full pres­sure from the story. Ideally it should go beyond the character’s sense of right and wrong: ie. a choice between two irre­con­cil­able goods or the lesser of two evils. If he or she then chooses A by sacri­fi­cing B, a price is paid, a risk taken.

Robert Mckee

In the scene shown here, Stingo has offered to marry Sophie and mentioned the possib­ility of them having chil­dren together. In response, she reveals a part of her back­story; some­thing that has not been told to him or to the audi­ence before.

Sophie’s choice is a classic example of a crisis decision but it is not used directly to turn the story. Although it occurs in the third act, the func­tion of the scene is to reveal a crucial piece of inform­a­tion, some­thing that trans­fig­ures our under­standing of the char­acter. It is also a presen­ti­ment of the film’s tragic ending, creating a sense of pity and dread in the audience.

(See notes on “The Three Act” struc­ture)

© David Clough 2010

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