Family is our home, it’s where we come from, and return to. Characters without a family, will go in search of one, or create a new one. The need to belong satisfies a deep psychological desire. It forms the basis of how we see ourselves and the world around us. Who we are. Identity.
In the novel The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), a family, the only survivors of a shipwreck, are forced to survive on an isolated tropical island. They are able to cope with their new life through personal strength, working as a team, and by following a Christian-derived ethos of hard work, prudence, faith and fortitude. The father is a good father and the mother a good mother – both are dedicated to their family’s future. The Griswold family in the 1989 comedy National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has the same caring mother and father characters, who are once again fighting to survive in a hostile world. Clarke Griswold’s nostalgia for his childhood innocence is an emotional escape from the harsh realities of the corporate workplace. Clarke wants to celebrate his family and traditions, and to protect their (middle-class) future.
In The Godfather, family is more than belonging; it denotes who a character should and should not trust. Who they fight for and against to protect the ‘honour’ of the family in their violent quest for money and power. An insult to the family cannot be tolerated, nor can an act of disloyalty go unpunished. Family members are expected to give absolute obedience to The Godfather, the criminal overlord. The mafia family in The Godfather is partly a traditional expanded family unit, and partly a violent, illegal business that trades on fear, theft, and contraband. Family is the ‘blood’ that forms the bonds of trust between its members.
When a character does not have a family of his or her own – perhaps they never truly had a family or they are the last remaining member – they must seek out a new one, and, in doing so, they will enrich their own lives and the lives of those they befriend. Usually, family is something people are born into, it’s a given, unlike an earned bond between characters that’s based on friendship. In Trains Planes and Automobiles an uptight, yuppie executive (middle class) keeps on bumping into a fellow traveller, an over-friendly salesman (working class). Their journey is the classic buddy story: initial loathing gradually turns into a friendship based on shared values. In this story there’s the literal family, the family of friendship, and the family of commonly shared values. Through their friendship the uptight salesman gets in touch with his humanity, and the sloppy salesman learns to be more considerate to others – the friendship is mutually beneficial. The salesman is symbolically allowed into the salesman’s life, to be part of his family, when he is invited for thanksgiving. Another friendship-based family group forms in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy befriends the Cowardly Lion (who wants courage), and the Tin Man (who wants a heart). Through the experience of their shared journey their wishes are granted, and Dorothy finds her way home back to her real family.
The traditional family unit faces many challenges in the contemporary world with changing lifestyles, shifting cultural values, single parent families, economic uncertainty, gender politics, and social disenchantment. In American Beauty Lester Burnham attempts to keep his family together, to survive in a corporate world, and rediscover a sense of who he is. To achieve this, he must break with convention and free himself from the prison of his own making – his life – and reconnect with the real Lester Burnham. Family has become an unfulfilling trap which robs all its members of their identity. The monstrous family in The Adams Family are oddballs bound together by their strangeness, and social alienation from conventional society, and yet they are just a ‘regular family’ with the occasional squabbles, sibling rivalry, and fits of jealousy. By working together as a team, they can solve their problems. The single parent family is explored in I, Daniel Blake. When a mother struggles (and makes sacrifices) to look after her children in a ruthless, dystopian bureaucracy, she befriends Daniel Blake, and his support for her and her children forms a wider extended family circle.
Happy families rarely make for interesting stories: something dramatic must happen to upset the balance of things, to create conflict and provide the motivating goal the characters need. Balance can only be restored when arguments and differences are resolved, and when the family is safely protected from harm. The family in Cape Fear must be protected from a psychopath; the work / life balance and sense of identity must be restored in RV; and suspicion and personality conflicts harmoniously resolved in Meet the Parents. The darker side of family life is explored in Festen, and Dogtooth. These are stories where parental trust has been obliterated, the family is riddled with lies, hypocrisy, and terrible secrets. It’s a place where male power has run riot, leading to a grim world of immorality, perversion, and abuse.
Whether it’s the traditional family structure of The Swiss Family Robinson, the absolute power of the mafia family in The Godfather, the struggling modern family of American Beauty, the single parent family of I, Daniel Blake, a friendship-based substitute family (a band of heroes) of Star Wars, The Hobbit, or Toy Story, or the darkly dysfunctional family of Festen, the family – of one sort or another – remains a critical theme in storytelling, and a cornerstone of identity.