12 Movies That Can Teach You Everything You Need to Know about Character Transformation

7. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

What it can teach you: Transformation is all about the journey.

It´s a Wonderful Life can better be described in metaphors. There is a numbness in doing so, since the film in itself, is an abundant well of metaphorical light, an allegory of ill held, reckless self-abandon, a tale of decompression, a low stir of breath alive with possibility.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a special cinematic phenomenon. It was swirled into being by awkwardly angled forces, and has staggered through time, with the same courage, thunders fancy, when their luminescence and roar blots out a portion of the stars.

It has the quality of an ageless, long, lost letter found frozen among the remains of a hidden treasure, still pure and touch-less, still swooning over infinite beauty, reflecting, evoking a journey about familial longing and the pang of some old loss.

The movie was a flop when it first came out, but that did not discourage dissent about its tickling nostalgia. Once the Christmas re-runs instilled global appreciation for the film, this metaphorical story of wonder and disrepair became a national monument, and an annual family holiday in its own self.

George Bailey plunges into despondency when his business goes fatally wrong. His life in the small, picturesque town of Bedford Falls, appears to be as meaningless as a split quiver second of sunlight, shining ephemerally over the spotless horizon. He contemplates suicide. He goes to the nearest bridge, climbs over the edge, and waits for his guts to push him over the cold emptiness of the precipice.

However, a second-class angel in need of wings comes to his rescue, and shifts our protagonist onto a journey melancholic enough, to tear away little chunks of his inhibitions. The angel takes us all, Bailey, the audience, the yearly generations watching this film, forward into an existentialism caravan of intergalactic perplexity.

James Stewart has such an electrically stale face, that thin slats of light rake out of it to illuminate all the blackness, and shade out all the whiteness of the image. Along this abiding silhouette, the film is a millennial statement on the symbolic barriers a character must endure in order to complete a full-blown transformation.

In order to find the light of day, one must access the itch of night.


8. American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998)

American History X (1998)

What it can teach you: Gradual changes make a transformation far more interesting.

Derek Vineyard is fucking his girlfriend. There are raggedy strips of light sneaking through the window, moonbeams and raw stamps of nightfall luminosity. Everything that glows menacingly and stingily is filtering into the room. No toxic colors, just deathless black and white.

The sex act nearly heretical, more of haggardness movements underneath the sheets than something coming out of desire, never mind love. Though, it is love, in its own acrid manner.

Danny sighs sorrowfully in the corner, behind the door, waiting for the appropriate moment to interrupt his brother. He finally does. What follows has all the random brutality of a devouring plague, maybe something like falling frogs, or something out of a mystical poem, because again, this film is poetic in an implausible way.

Danny announces that two black men are trying to break in. With oceanic rumble, Derek puts on his underwear, grabs his gun, and steps out. If you haven´t seen the movie, all you need to know is that this sequence does not end well.

Derek is a neo-Nazi, white supremacist from Venice, L.A., who believes his neighborhood is a tribal, undeclared war zone between every ethnic group in existence. He will be imprisoned for murdering one of the black men that tried to break into his house, in a deconsecrated, almost outlandishly, childish act of horror (he smashes his head against the sidewalk). From that moment on, his transformation is set in course.

From the beginning, we know that American History X will not be a gelid ride, nor it will stern benevolence. On the contrary, it admonishes a story quietly consumed in pain, the kind of pain that declares its full scope, and flattens out intimacies. Derek was not always a murderous ramping machine; neither will he be one for the rest of his life.

In fact, he was never truly a man with inherent hate. His racism is not as destructive and teetering as one may believe, if you drill deep enough into the psychosis of this character, you will find out that the core of his racism, is plain confusion.

Derek is not a man with ideals of natural acrimony growing inside him like fungal smear. He is just a testimony of corrupted, social nascence.  He used to be smart, he still is, and he is an incredible spokesman of veiled threats. But before, he used to be a smart, curious, open, eager to feast his hunger for knowledge adolescent.

Much like his brother Danny. Yet his hunger was hostilely stricken down by dinner conversations and tutorials of hate imparted by his father.

The beauty of Derek’s transformation is that it tragically closes an idealistic cycle. He passes from being a smart-curious boy wanting to be a knowledgeable man, to a confused-smart boy pretending to be a knowledgeable man, to finally being a smart-knowledgeable man, haunted by the consequences of the boy’s curiosity.

His own home, the streets, the gatherings with his neo-Nazi mates, jail; all are collective twitching cathedrals administering churning sermons for his life. All are gradual stems of time, chopping his life into small intolerable increments.


9. Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

What it can teach you: Show the moment of change.

“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”-Declares Scarlett O´Hara despondently, with her unladylike passions and her immaculate crinkling of instinct.

She lays sprawled on the burned grass, outlined in the skimpy silhouette of a flamboyant sunset. Her spirit, rundown by the destruction of her precious Old South, but yet, she transforms, mutates into a vibrating scream of pride dissolving in the air.

Loyal to her miseries, Scarlett O’Hara will never be hungry again. From that day on, the little, buoyant girl was waxed away from her whimsy vigor, and the brawling woman she needed to be, was summoned like a ghost among curling halts of smoke.

Gone with the Wind has the piercing sense of a melodrama, yet one that administers a total sensory immersion, thanks to the engrossing landscapes the film paints through its unworldly Technicolor and headstrong cinematography.

Also, because it leaves you breathing heavily, as a result of the hovered, emotional hemispheres, Scarlett and Rhett transgress, by tormenting each other´s lusts and desires, as if acting and going on dumb hunches. Both of them genuinely sweep their inner monsters under a rug of supercilious and insolent ladylikeness.

With their games and their dander, they make the world feel as if it was shielded by soft skin, where dark purple welts of forbidden passions are free to be invoked in secret rituals.

The film has been referred to, as a movie of its time, a portrayal of feminine incipient force, race segregation, and studio grandiosity. However, this is a short statement, the film is actually a movie for the times, a canon of encapsulated beauty for the centuries to come.

The movie and its characters exude a gripping sentiment of forgotten epochs and rebirthing eras, a sentiment that is eternal.

It admonishes the same essence and quality that myths and legends do, and it is all because, we are able to inhale the change of a reckless character, from being a southern nymph to becoming a violent, passionate Goddess. Scarlett gargantuan transformation is packaged in small, sting-like, specific scenes, cluttered with drama, class, and desperation.

The scene where she defies God himself, is the moment we realize as an audience, that we are still watching the same film, but a completely different heroine.


10. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

The Searchers

What it can teach you: There must be a resistance to the transformation.

Martin Scorsese, on his review about The Searchers, called Ethan Edwards – “a poet of hatred.” Never has a protagonist been so terrifying with his monotone buzz and his angry blasts. Never has a hero be so counterpoint with the fever dream of heroism. And so on point, with demolishing the underbelly of American psyche.

There is an open question regarding this character: By the end of the movie, does he really transform into something else beyond the outspoken, racist loner who shambles away his personal portrait of obsession? Another cinematic personality once endorsed this same wavering issue about this same character: “Can the actions of the character in one scene, redeem an entire film?”-Asked Roger Ebert.

Ethan Edwards has been on a night roamer mission for the last 5 years. He is hunting down his granddaughter, Debbie, who was kidnapped by the Indians after massacring her whole family. He is not looking for her to rescue her, but to kill her, because in his own paraphrased words-she has been tarnished. Living life as an Appalachian is not living at all.

The scene Ebert refers to happens when Ethan finally tracks Debbie down, she is living in a sort of Indian refugee camp. Still raw within his yet crispy shell of racism, he runs after her mounted in his horse, ready to strike.

Somewhere between a bellow and a growl, she screams and runs away from him. She rolls into the dirt and sweat and dong, crawling, getting up and still running and gasping away from a man she does not recognize, away from a man she does not want to identify.

For him, she is a subhuman creature. She deserves an unworthy death, or so we think he thinks. He catches with her and corners her down, pushing her fragile body against the hollow mouth of a splotched cave. He is crying not ragged teardrops but sizzling sparks of rage.

Perhaps it was the glint of hopelessness in her eye what acted out on him with an unthinking lunge. Maybe it was the fact that bloodlines are stronger than contaminated lineage. Somehow, the noise of his hatred subsides, and he carries her as if lifting her to the heavens. Both melt in a hug of pure delight, and with his rollicking yet lonely voice, he pronounces: “I’ll take you home, Debbie.”

But there is no home waiting for this man. Nor there will ever be.

Every character within a storytelling structure affronts a flinch of rejection towards an imminent transformation. At the end, most of them come to terms with it. For Ethan Edwards, that struggle, that resistance will continue to belch his soul with coils of inflamed steam, long after taking Debbie “home”.

His transformation is one of hard spines, poisoned fangs, and edgy claws. His transformation is a mild version of redemption, because redemption is not a gift for cursed men. And Ethan is cursed, in this life and the other; just like the dead Indian he shot in the eyes.

He is a burning man dispatching conjuring flames on far away realms. Realms no one can reach. He is an outcast of inevitability. As Scorsese explains: “He is a drifter doom to wander among the winds.”


11. On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

On The Waterfront

What it can teach you: Transformation deepens character dimension.

Elia Kazan used to say about his work: “My camera is a microscope that penetrates into the most conceal thoughts of the characters. The actors sprout hidden emotions they did not even know they had in them.”

If Kazan´s camera is a microscope in the lookout for desperate emotions, then Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb play individuals that are ratted and messy subjects of infected failure, bacteria of an underworld, surviving only through the latching of forbidden memories and the nostalgia for forgotten loves.

Probably not even Kazan was sure and aware of what he was trying to dig out from the substratum of the characters in this film, but he ended up unearthing thrumming sensitiveness, punctuated in blood.

There is a scene where Terry Malloy (Brando) bursts into the apartment of her beloved Edie (Marie Saint). He pummels down the door as if possess by the despair of a hazy, drunken Minotaur. He looks for her, to hit her? We do not know. His unbaked ambivalence reflects dancing sparks coming and going between craze and lonesomeness, they blur the intentions of his eruption.

She backs away, first clutching herself on top of the bed like a dying embryo. She screams at him, bluffing that she wants nothing to do with him. The music rises as if pronounced by a heavy horn of venom. You can sniff the sexuality, the lingering gloom in the air.

She runs to the door. He grabs her. They struggle. And finally, unexpected hushes; so abrupt the feeling can almost lick our guts with soothing, liquid tongue. It is the radiant kiss of two lovers. The hush suddenly becomes a longed plead for silence.

Whatever dimensions Kazan was trying to penetrate into, in the middle of the experiment he finished up ripping the amber thoraxes of a million pixies. Scenes of this kind, so magical on its own momentum, made the film´s realism boil with even more crudeness and rawness.

On the Waterfront is a tale of prowess serenaded by howling mobs. The story it tells looks as if it was pass down from generations in chants of absent worship. Chants that speak the truth about a man who ravaged himself from the guilt of past sins, in order to march down, as if looking for portent upon the horizon, into the throat of the creature that used to delight on the besieging of a city, with bites of death and terror.


12. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)


What it can teach you: The achieving of a good character transformation is irremediably linked, to the process of filmmaking.

Yes. Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are way better examples of character permutation. But for the purpose of this principle, Polanski´s lesser movie, The Pianist, works at a better explanatory level.

In retrospective, Roman Polanski is a man that has feasted so long on pain and sorrow; it is difficult for him to recall sweeter taste. His heart longs for nourishment, and film, is the only medium that can have it well fed. When he decided to account the horrors of the Holocaust through The Pianist, he was well aware that such atrocities were not to be extinguished with emboli of narrative lightness. He is not a man of fleeting illusions.

Never has he been one, and his filmography can prove it. As a filmmaker, he has tumble onto the set as an enraged king that rules on the basis of detachment. Detachment as in the motion that gives voice to his desires, and calms the soreness of his heart. His movies have always been, stoic metaphors spoken from the soul.

Many criticized the film for being too paused and nuanced. There were even those, who bleated from tongue, that Polanski, being a survivor of the Holocaust himself, was betrayed by his own recollections of the event.

It is true, the lacking urgency of the film ripples in evidence with the flowing of such. However, he lubricated the film with an atmosphere of dangling hope, with an aura where the very rottenness of the air, clings to the flesh, tainting it with salty, mortal wounds.

Hervé de Luze has been Polanski´s editor for a few decades now, yet he found himself dwelled with threatening pejoratives within the character of this film. His editing plan was to confront the movie the same way the protagonist was belching forth the terrors of the Holocaust: with certain aloofness and violent instinct.

If de Luze was to survive this picture, he had to stripped himself away from misconceptions and intimate judgments, and then show, the brutal honesty of the main character´s survival crusade. He edited the film by making the transformation of the protagonist, a study of isolation. Always keeping it simple and realistic, trusting that Adrien Brody’s performance could carry the audience through this infernal journey.

Author Bio: Miguel Guerrero Becerra is a Mexican filmmaker who specializes in developing webseries. He is also a film instructor at two universities in Mexico. His favorite class to teach is writing and directing for television.