The opening line of any novel is incredibly important to help set the tone of the story and orient the reader. But many authors can achieve this same effect before the reader even reaches the first page. Open many novels and you will find a short quote or poem printed before the start of the story. It’s called an epigraph, and authors use them to set the tone of their story, to emphasize a theme, or even to hint at the plot to come.
Filmmakers employ epigraphs for similar reasons, though far less frequently. More often than not, when a movie opens with a printed message, the intention is simply to set the date and location of the story. The intent behind an epigraph, on the other hand, is less utilitarian and much more creative. Filmmakers who employ a quote from another artist to open their movie tend to do so with a touch of playfulness. Much like their literary counterparts, these directors are setting the stage for their stories, and in doing so, giving a peek at the their intention and inspiration — all before the plot even begins. Here are five epigraphs that start films off right.
Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.
– Joan Didion
Filmmaker Greta Gerwig used this quote in the opening of her 2017 film Lady Bird, the story of an artistically inclined teenager growing up in Sacramento who longs to move to New York where the “real” artists live. Though Gerwig insists that the film is not autobiographical, she did grow up in Sacramento, and was quoted in a Vanity Fair article as saying that, as a young woman, she clung to the fact that the famous essayist Joan Didion also hailed from California’s capitol.
The Breakfast Club
And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They're quite aware of what they're going through...
– David Bowie
Anyone who grew up loving the 1985 film The Breakfast Club can thank actress Ally Sheedy (who played Allison Reynolds in the film) for that opening epigraph. In an interview, Sheedy told the Daily Beast that "I was listening to that song and was really obsessed with David Bowie. I asked [director John Hughes] if he knew it, and he said no, and then I gave him the tape of it and said I thought it would be a really cool quote." Thanks to that little exchange, Bowie’s words were later employed to introduce a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
– Dr. Samuel Johnson
Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas opens with this striking quote. It is actually the final line in an exchange that took place between English writer Dr. Samuel Johnson and one Mrs. Williams, who was complaining about the behavior of drunken men. “I wonder,” she said, “what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves.” To which Johnson replied: “I wonder that you have not the penetration to see the strong inducement to this excess; for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” The line offers a compassionate perspective, suggesting that addictive behavior (such as the kind the film explores extensively) may be motivated by deep existential pain.
The Hurt Locker
The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.
– Chris Hedges
Director Kathryn Begelow used this quote in her 2008 film The Hurt Locker, which follows Army Sgt. William James as he spends his days defusing IEDs in 2004 Iraq. Though the epigraph displays at the opening of the film, it foreshadows the end. After returning home (spoiler alert), Sgt. James finds himself unable to settle back into his civilian life and signs up for another tour of duty. The quote was originally penned by Christopher Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who has reported from war zones in Central America, the Balkans, and the Middle East.
The wicked flee when none pursueth.
– Proverbs 28:1
So opens the 2010 Coen Brothers film True Grit. After the epigraph, a simple song plays on a piano and we’re shown a figure lying dead in the street. A moment later, a man rides by on horseback and the voiceover tells us that this is Tom Chaney, who shot and robbed the dead man and then raced off. “He could have walked his horse,” our narrator says, “for not a soul in that city could be bothered to give chase.” Thus the one who runs away is marked as wicked and our narrator, who will track him down, is placed in a position of virtue within the first few moments of the film.
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