In film and television, characters asking questions are a good way to explain the basics of a story's mythology. These questions establish the journey that the characters must undertake over the course of the film. These questions and their resulting exposition are used at the start of a story -- most of the time. Some filmmakers delay the asking of these basic questions until the end of the plot, making them climactic epiphanies and late-in-story twists. A character merely asking these cardinal yet delayed questions hinge the story. They oftentimes contradict the entire journey taken by the characters thus far.
In a film's story, characters find the impetus to start a Hero's Journey as detailed in Joseph Campbell's monomyth. They charge through obstacles (physical travails, personal growth, etc.) Unfortunately, filmmakers intentionally withhold the guidance of a mentor: a character that sends them down the correct path. As a result, these characters wander an erratic trail, developing their own assumptions and prejudices. They miss the primary objective of their journey. Late in the story, they find a mentor character and ask a hinging question. The act of asking the question itself serves as both the purpose of their journey and their revelation. The question and its answer shatter the characters' assumptions and beliefs. It also concludes the film by offering the characters the one piece of their story that they are missing.
Characters attempt to find reality by trying to discover the truth; however, they sometimes go about this task the wrong way, ending up far off course. The hinging question and the tardy mentor bring the characters back on the right track: determining the benevolence (or malevolence) of humanity in the eyes of the characters. When a character finally asks the revelatory inquiry, the mentor frequently states, "All you had to do was ask."
In the 1993 film The Sandlot, a group of young children in a 1962 suburb undertake a journey of personal growth and discovery over the course of their summer vacation. They while away their youth by playing baseball in an empty property filled with high grain grit. One of these "sandlotters" is a child named Scotty Smalls, the film's protagonist. Scotty is an awkward child that seeks to make friends. He ingratiates himself with the baseball-playing children by finding them a baseball with which to play. Within a short time, a child hits a homerun, driving the ball over the Sandlot's fence and into a neighbor's yard. The ball is lost as a seemingly vicious Mastiff, nicknamed "The Beast," guards the yard. Rumors swirl about the dog's dislike of children and the dog's owner Mr. Mertle. Scotty admits that the baseball is his stepfather's and that it is signed by Babe Ruth. This admission shocks the group, and they vow to retrieve the valuable ball.
At this point, the protagonists start their journey. They believe that the objective of their trial is to vanquish "The Beast" and retrieve the ball using cunning, guile, and athleticism. The children lack a mentor and develop their own direction and mythology. Children learn through storytelling and play, leading the isolated group to self-perpetuate assumptions and prejudice. Their rumors about "The Beast" grow until he is evil incarnate. He becomes Darth Vader, feared by infamy and renown. They feel that their mission is to defeat this villain. They believe that what they are doing is right and just.
The children spend the entire remainder of their summer attempting to retrieve the baseball. Committing a variety of crimes (trespassing, destruction of property, animal cruelty), the children fail to recapture their talisman. The group stumbles around their journey, completing a variety of side tasks and distractions. Earlier in the summer, they achieve childish victories like playing a night game under the lights of Fourth of July Fireworks, defeating a rich Little League team, and kissing a female high school life guard. In their minds, they are fighting to complete their quest by any means.
Director David M. Evans along with writer Robert Gunter attempt to convince the audience that this journey is the correct one. Through the use of music, shot composition, and narration, the film is told from the children's perspective, lending weight to their interpretation of their journey. The film plays on a nostalgia of childish dreams and a lack of responsibility. In his review of the film, critic Roger Ebert points to the seduction of memory to convince the audience of the importance of the children's quest. In the story, the children only have a vague sense of reasoning behind retrieving Scotty's baseball. They also are extremely sure that it is the correct course of action. Audience members are sure of this truth as well because they once were (or still are) children. In the context of children, belief is certainty and righteousness.
All of this child-like revelry and triumph is scattered around the actual objective of their hero's journey. In the end of the film, the children cause damage to Mr. Mertle's property and nearly injure "The Beast" in a last attempt at recovering the ball. This catastrophic operation results in Scotty confronting Mr. Mertle. In reality, Mr. Mertle is a kind, blind man, and his dog is gentle when children are not trying to prod it with Erector sets. Scotty explains the situation and asks for forgiveness. Mr. Mertle is gracious, stating that they could have just asked for the ball from the beginning.
Mr. Mertle is the tardy mentor. The children are late in seeking him and asking him the hinging question. He provides them with end of story guidance. He also replaces their rather chewed Babe Ruth ball with a ball signed by the 1927 Yankees' Murderer's Row. The children are surprised that Mr. Mertle is not evil. Surprise: Altruism. The world is not as terrible as they fear. Overcoming this fear allows the children to make a new friend in Mr. Mertle. The group agrees to meet with him on a regular basis to discuss baseball and life in general. Mr. Mertle reveals that the childish distractions, assumptions, and prejudices held by the children led them astray. The filmmakers remove all pretense that childish assumption of glory is the point of their journey. The entire point of the film, through its meandering plot, is a quest for maturity. Mr. Mertle forces the children to confront this truth.
Asking a hinging question of Mr. Mertle changes the context of the journey and reveals its true ending. Some of what the children do over the summer is towards maturity, but the majority of their activities are in avoidance of taking responsibility. Peripherally, they know that the quest to retrieve the ball is a metaphor for growing as a person. They also reject this interpretation and delay as much as possible by making it a mythical quest about heroes and legends. Scotty has a dream where Babe Ruth tells him: "Heroes get remembered, but legends never die."
The plot of the film and the quest for maturity is truncated greatly if the children's assumption of truth and unfounded fears had not prevented them from asking a hinging question. All they have to do is ask.
The Sandlot places the protagonists' perspective behind the characters that are befuddled by the unasked, hinging question and tardy mentor. From the opposite perspective, these characters are seen as antagonists with their missteps into criminal activity. Taking the wrong path into a journey places characters in conflict with other characters.
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "11001001," the protagonists' perspective is placed with the tardy mentors -- Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Commander William Riker. The malformed quest takers are shown (briefly) as the antagonists. The USS Enterprise docks with Starbase 74 to receive required supplies, repairs, and upgrades. On the top of the checklist is an overhaul of the Enterprise's main computer. This upgrade is intended to increase processing power, storage space, and simulation capabilities. The technicians performing this work are androgynous Bynars named One One, Zero Zero, One Zero, and Zero One. The Bynar are a computer-minded species that are apparently named after bit settings (hence the title of the episode). These Bynars also seek to steal the Enterprise.
The Bynars enact a daring and nearly completely successful plan. Using the main computer, they fake a warp core breach in order to evacuate the Enterprise crew. They distract and kidnap Captain Picard and Commander Riker using a Holodeck simulation of a New Orleans Jazz bar. To entice the officers, a simulation of an alluring, intelligent woman named Minuet is included. With the Enterprise under their control, the Bynars set a course for the planet Byanus. They are sure they are doing the right thing.
From the perspective of Picard and Riker, the Bynars are hijackers and hostage takers -- criminals. The two Starfleet officers figure out the deception and formulate a plan to retake the ship. They also note that the entirety of the Enterprise's computer is filled with data. The episode's music, the lighting, and the dialogue indicate that something is amiss. From Starfleet and the audience's point of view, the only explanation offered by the plot is that the Bynars are villains. Picard and Riker retake the ship by virtue of One One, Zero, Zero, One Zero, and Zero One being disabled and dying. Through a remarkably accurate series of deductions (and exposition from Minuet), Picard and Riker guess the Bynars goals.
The Bynars seek to save their planet from a deadly supernova. The planet Byanus is a computer moderated consciousness. The planet's main computer helps the Bynar live. The supernova threatens to destroy the computer with an Electro-Magnetic Pulse. The entire planet (the consciousness of Byanus) is backed up in the Enterprise's main computer to survive the EMP. Picard and Riker decide to not allow genocide by inaction and reactivate Byanus's computer, saving the Bynars.
In the aftermath, One One, Zero Zero, One Zero, and Zero One ask for forgiveness and accept any punishment that is to be meted against them for stealing the flagship of Starfleet. Picard, like Mr. Mertle, is gracious in the situation. He states that the Bynars could have just asked for help. The Bynars respond that they are too afraid that the answer may be negative. Their assumptions and fears, like The Sandlot children, prevent them from truly finding the objective of their quest. They secretly seek to be saved, in more ways than one, by the Federation.
From the perspective of the Bynars, their quest is clear and just. They must save their species at any cost. They are sure of their objective and develop an elaborate project to reach it. Picard as the tardy mentor explains their true objective. The Bynars need to overcome their fear and prejudice against Starfleet, the Federation, and humanity in order to survive in a friendly galactic community. Picard and the audience know the truth already: humanity is at its core magnanimous. Surprise: Altruism!
Captain Picard as the tardy mentor waits around the entire episode for the Bynars to ask a hinging question for help. Being a mentor and savior is what Picard does (if the seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation are any clue). The question does not come until late in the episode when Picard has to explain what the Bynars actually seek. As Picard points out, asking for help is more efficient than designing an detailed heist to indirectly achieve it. Still, asking the question early in the episode contradicts the assumptive journey, making the episode much shorter. If the Bynars simply ask for help, the escapade becomes one of the days on the Enterprise that is not made into an episode of a television show.
Completely distinct from the journey correction of The Sandlot and "11001001" is the contentious journeys of two characters claiming the mantle "hero." In these instances, the tardy mentor acts as a mediator, assigning value and appropriateness to the competing heroes' journeys. The hinging question is still the catalyst that reveals the truth. An example of this type of journey mediation is in the 1992 Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin film A Few Good Men. The story describes the journeys of two men and their presumptive quests for honor.
In A Few Good Men, Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) Danny Kaffee is a Navy JAG officer defending two Marines accused of killing another Marine during a hazing ritual. During the course of an investigation, Lt. Kaffee travels to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Kaffe is surprised to discover a far reaching cover-up headed by Colonel Nathan R. Jessep. Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep immediately begin to conflict because they realize they are on antagonistic paths (with similar objectives). With or without realizing it, Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep both seek honor.
Lt. Kaffee thinks that the Navy and the JAG corps are for his personal gratification and career advancement. A court-martial tribunal victory benefits himself. He believes that the concept of honor is a selfish one with individual consequences. He has a vague desire to find honor, ostensibly as a way to remain in good standing with the Navy (but secretly as a way to grow as a person). Lt. Kaffee's journey is to find honor in defeating Col. Jessep's version of "honor."
Col. Jessep also seeks honor as a selfish device. He believes that his experience and position make him the sole proprietor of "honor." He assumes that it is his to accumulate and distribute, thinking himself nearly a god. He flaunts his malformed definition of "honor" as a weapon to defend the freedom of the United States. Col. Jessep purports that the ends justify the means. Defending the United States by indirectly ordering the death of a Marine under his command is justified by "honor." As the self-proclaimed owner of "honor," Col. Jessep believes that it is malleable enough to fit any situation he deems necessary. Col. Jessep's journey is completing his cover-up, competing with Lt. Kaffee, and maintaining his dominance over "honor."
Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep conflict in military tribunal. Lt. Kaffee gathers evidence that Col. Jessep is guilty of manslaughter (Lieutenant Colonel Markinson's testimony) and then loses said evidence (Lt. Col. Markinson commits suicide). Yet, Lt. Kaffee still calls Col. Jessep to testify. Through a heated exchange, Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep lay out their arguments for the claim to honor. Col. Jessep describes his military career and the difficulty of defending the United States. Lt. Kaffee cites the law and accuses Col. Jessep of criminal behavior. These two characters' journeys intersect with two hinging question. Col. Jessep asks if Lt. Kaffee wants answers. Lt. Kaffee bluntly asks if Col. Jessup ordered a Code Red, the hazing ritual that resulted in the death of the Marine. Col. Jessep angrily admits that he did. He wants everyone to understand what he has to do to defend the country and wants it validated.
These overlapping hinging questions determine whose journey is correct. The tardy mentor in this case is the judge at the tribunal: Colonel Julius Randolph, USMC. His course correction of the misguided quests for honor is implemented by ruling which is more correct. He decides that uncovering dishonor masquerading as honor is more valid than justifying manslaughter with it. In this instance, the missing piece of the journey is not direction but rather justice. Col. Jessep is remanded into custody by the military police to be tried and reformed for his disfigured quest to control honor. Lt. Kaffee technically loses the court-martial because the accused Marines are dishonorably discharged (for not defending honor).
Lt. Kaffee's opinion of honor changes the instant that he traps Col. Jessup with his question. Prior to the question, Lt. Kaffee still believes that honor is selfish. He is fighting Col. Jessup because he is challenged. He is trying to prove that he is correct. He is trying to win. In the events following his hinging question, Lt. Kaffee realizes that he is not fighting for anyone's personal honor. He realizes that he is fighting to restore honor to the system -- defeating a tyrant and restoring lost freedom.
The Simpsons episode "Sideshow Bob Roberts" uses comedy to condense the themes of A Few Good Men and succinctly present them in a series of jokes. In the episode, the Republican Party of Springfield nominate recent parolee Sideshow Bob as their candidate for Mayor. Sideshow Bob wins the election and institutes several policies that irk the Simpson family. Lisa Simpson starts an investigation to reveal electoral fraud and unseat Sideshow Bob.
Like Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep, Lisa and Sideshow Bob start journeys that rely on a risky endgame. Lisa believes that her journey is a personal vendetta against Sideshow Bob for evicting her family and meddling with their lives. She assumes that embarrassing the mayor will be a boon for her. On the other side, Sideshow Bob thinks that his journey is to be elected and manage Springfield efficiently. He believes the need for good governance outweighs the illegality of rigging an election with tampered voting results.
In a parody of the tribunal scene from A Few Good Men, Sideshow Bob is placed on trial for fraud. Lawyer Lionel Hutz asks if Sideshow Bob rigged the election, and Sideshow Bob responds that he did not (avoiding Col. Jessep's big mistake for now). Lisa and Bart Simpson eventually fill the role of prosecutor and trap Sideshow Bob with leading questions. Lisa makes a claim that political pundit Birch Barlow is the mastermind of the fraud. Sideshow Bob cannot stand the lie and admits to rigging the election. Sideshow Bob derides the Simpson children's "truth-handling abilities," but the confession continues. He removes evidence from his hair and distributes the "Machiavellian Art" to the commission, convincing everyone of his guilt and his genius at the same time. He wants the court to recognize his genius and validate it. The legal system does not find his reasoning valid and approves Lisa's hero journey by default.
Like Col. Jessep, Sideshow Bob believes that the ends justify the means. He thinks that the application of his genius justifies his breaking the law. Also like Col. Jessep, he is arrested. Although, Sideshow Bob does admit that the crimes he committed are improper. Sideshow Bob attempts to leave the courtroom after his confession, stating, "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a city to run." When placed under arrest he is surprised but admits that he is going to jail for "all that stuff I did." Col. Jessep reacts poorly to being arrested. He never admits guilt. Instead, he threatens Lt. Kaffee by shouting, "I'm gonna rip out your eyes and piss in your dead skull!" Sideshow Bob is slightly more gracious in defeat.
Lisa, like Lt. Kaffee, realizes that her quest for honor is not entirely personal. She wants revenge for her family, but restoring honor to the electoral system is a welcome bonus.
Characters in films and television are presented as being aware of their actions. Without their actions, a plot does not happen. Filmmakers explore this impetus and assumption by characters with misguided journeys. Characters in the story are missing crucial information or wisdom that is supposed to guide them to their objective. In the standard monomyth, this information is provided by the mentor. In stories where the characters meet the mentor late, characters have to guess, make errors, and eventually find their way to the end of their journey. The audience is held in an ironic suspension as they follow the more-or-less oblivious characters. The tardy mentor waits at the finish line of the journey, willing to provide a retroactive wisdom that explains the characters' actions. The mentor functions as a gate or guard to this finish line, requiring that the characters are willing to accept his wisdom. The proof of this acceptance is a hinging question: a question that the characters should have asked to start their journey but now end with it.
These types of story explore the beliefs of the journeying characters, the mentor, and the audience. Essentially, these stories are about the defeat of assumption and prejudice in favor of believing that humanity being benign on some primary level. Everything works out in the end.