A common technique used to create conflict, especially in children’s film, is killing off the protagonist’s parents. This happens in many superhero films and Disney movies, including The Lion King, Frozen, Batman, and Superman.
This technique is used for many reasons. For one, it isolates the protagonist. They must now navigate in an unfamiliar world and no longer have a support system. The protagonist must not only overcome the grief of losing a parent, but also solve their own problems as opposed to getting the answers from someone who knows more than they do.
Though killing off a protagonist’s parent does create conflict within a film, I would like to pose a question. As opposed to killing off a parent, is it more effective to include a flawed parent whose actions are toxic to their child?
Including an estranged parent is a more effective way to create both internal and external conflict in any plot. Often times an estranged family member will have chosen something over or instead of the protagonist. Though the family member is still present, the protagonist is in a constant state of doubt as to whether or not the family member actually cares about them. This creates a much deeper internal conflict for the protagonist. When a parent dies, often times a protagonist knows that they were loved before the parent’s death. It is obvious that the parents did not choose death over their child. However, when parents choose as drugs, money, or their own selfish wants over their child, the conflict becomes more intense. Keeping an estranged parent also helps to create character vs. character conflict. The protagonist must not only struggle through internal conflict, but also stand up to their parent or family member and confront them.
In Million Dollar Baby, Maggie’s parents don’t care about her health or her dreams, but only the money she will make from boxing. This takes a toll on her and causes her distress throughout the film. Not only does she not have the support system that she needs to be successful, but she is also taken advantage of by her family, making it clear that they only associate with her for the money.
In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Gilbert’s mom, Bonnie, spends her time wasting away in front of the television and letting herself be overcome by her misery. Gilbert is forced to be the man of the household and take care of his siblings. This puts him under a great deal of stress and pressure and it frustrates him to see his mother not doing anything to help her family or herself.
Although many children’s films use the technique of killing off the parent in order create conflict for the protagonist, it is much more effective to write a movie with an estranged parent, creating greater internal and interpersonal drama within the film.