Film Realism and the Possibility of Using Cinematic Characters as Moral Examples


  • William Pamerleau University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg


Narrative, Narrative Identity, Virtue Theory, Realism, Moral Example


Can film characters serve as moral examples? Virtue theorists suggest that even fictional characters can provide ethical instruction and inspiration, as Martha Nussbaum has illustrated with her analyses of literature. Whatever one’s views on the merits of virtue ethics, the claim that we can learn about moral character by way of fictional narratives is intriguing, particularly when applied to film and its ability to provide concrete depictions.
But if we think these characters should influence how we actually think about our lives, then it would seem we want them to depict real possibilities for how one might live; and in that sense, we would want the depiction to convey a certain amount of realism. However, contemporary theorists largely reject the sort of naïve realism that theorists like Bazin embraced – that the camera can just show us how the world really is. Rather, the very nature of film narration compromises its ability to be realistic, because film narration typically leans heavily upon filmic conventions, which may be very different from aspects of actual persons. For example, as David Bordwell explains, spectators make sense of narrative films by employing a variety of schemata, which they learn from exposure to other films, familiarity with film genres, and expectations based on stereotypes from the cultural at large. In short, films are narratives, which are based on learned expectations established by narrative conventions. Narrative plausibility, it could be argued, has little to do with what happens in the real world.
Or does it? While I largely agree with these observations, I argue for an alternative approach to film realism that explains why cinematic characters can indeed provide moral examples. Hugo Münsterberg claims that film “tells us the human story by overcoming the forms of the outer world” and instead “adjusting the events to the forms of the inner world.” The emphasis here is on how we experience the world, and if it turns out that experience is itself essentially a form of narration, shaped by the same sorts of conventions that influence film narration, then films are realistic portrayals of how we live.
David Carr puts forward a useful version of narrative identity, showing that we effectively tell a story in relating the events of our lives. In creating that story, we make use of various social scripts, which are themselves the results of cultural conventions. If this is the case, then, the process of creating a narrative for our lives is not so different from the process of constructing film narratives. Yes, film characters may be the product of stereotypes and conventions, but our own narratives are chosen from among similar schemata.
So if we understand our own identity in narrative terms, the concern with cinematic characters being narrative constructions evaporates. We learn from and are inspired by narratives because we are in the process of thinking about our own narratives. This position shows why, then, cinematic characters can indeed serve as moral examples.




How to Cite

Pamerleau , W. (2019). Film Realism and the Possibility of Using Cinematic Characters as Moral Examples. Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, (11), 12–26. Retrieved from