11 Food Items that Altered Character Arcs

It’s amazing what can set a plot in motion. For instance, as was detailed recently at filmhaze, The Godfather was set in motion by Sonny’s question during the meeting with “The Turk” Solozzo. “You mean to tell me the Tattaglias will guarantee our investment?”, he asks. This sets everything else in motion that leads Michael, the protagonist, into becoming Don Michael Corleone. But these events don’t just happen for the protagonist. Most (all?) primary characters have a character arc that takes them from point A to point B and then point C. And in several cases, food is what sparks them along in their character arc. Here are some examples:

A hot dog, Field of Dreams (1989)
While watching yesteryear’s baseball players go nine innings, Karin Kinsella (daughter of protagonist Ray Kinsella) invokes the ire of her uncle, who accidentally knocks her off of the bleachers while amid a delicious bite of a hot dog. This causes Karin to begin choking. The only person who can save her is Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, a precocious 17 year old on the field who had grown up to be “Doc” Graham as an adult. He is the lone person who can save the choking child. To do so, however, he has to leave the diamond (the field of dreams, as it were). Ultimately, he does so- transforming himself from Frank Whaley into an elderly Burt Lancaster- effectively ending his chance at re-living his one chance to be a professional baseball player. And none of it would’ve happened without that hot dog.

An apple, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Snow White has supplanted her wicked stepmother as the fairest in all of the land. Even the sycophant mirror admitted it. To regain her place as the fairest, the nefarious stepmother poisons an apple and hands it to Snow White. The poison makes her lose consciousness lest she be rescued by love’s first kiss. Eventually, she’s rescued by a prince who kisses her (which is pretty sketchy when you get right down to it). Snow White’s leap from second to third act happens because of an apple.

White Castle burgers, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)
Two guys desperately in need of some stress relief get baked out of their gourds and venture out for White Castle burgers. The restaurant is closed but they will not be denied their greasy meal, and they embark on their mission to find a White Castle that’s open. Highjinx ensue. Not only did the White Castle burgers spurn them on from the first act to the second, it kept them going throughout the film. Ergo the title.  

Cornbread muffins, True Grit (2010)
Rooster Cogburn’s drinking problem has filled him with pessimism and hindered the search for Tom Chaney, potentially ending it before its completion. To prove his competence and power over his drinking problem to Mattie Ross and LaBoeuf, Cogburn orders their food- cornbread muffins- to be used as skeet while he happily shoots away. He does so poorly. It was in the resulting shame (along with Mattie’s kidnapping at the hands of Chaney) that Cogburn gains enough of his faculties back to rescue Mattie and complete the job.

Hard boiled eggs, Cool Hand Luke (1967)
The confident but soft-spoken convict Luke Jackson hasn’t gained acceptance from his fellow inmates. Just as he’s starting to sway them in his favor, he takes on an outrageous bet that he can eat fifty hard boiled eggs in one hour. After he accomplishes the nearly impossible feat, he is left in a crucified position (and ripe with hard boiled eggs) by his fellow inmates. By chowing down on fifty hard boiled eggs, Luke has completed his transformation from soft-spoken outsider to idolization and Christ figure.


Raw fish, A Fish Called Wanda (1987)
Otto (Kevin Kline) is a douchebag to the highest degree. He loves to push buttons and cause issues. Seeing an opportunity to torture Ken Pile (Michael Palin), a devoted fish lover, Otto begins eating his prized aquatic possessions. This launches Ken into a series of vengeance-fueled events. It doesn’t end so well for Otto. I imagine in the end, he had great regrets about eating those fish.  

French toast, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Robert Benton’s powerfully thorough look at divorce and its impact featured Dustin Hoffman (as, um… Kramer) trying to cope with his child, who misses his mother. One way that he breaks barriers and gets through the awkwardness is by bonding with his child by making french toast. At first, he falters, making the breakfast product the most incorrect way possible. But by the end of the film, he’s mastered the art of making french toast “the way mom did”.

Twinkies, Zombieland (2009)
The entire reason for Tallahassee’s existence, the entire reason anything happens to him at all in Zombieland, is his intense desire to eat another twinkie. Without Tallahassee’s twinkie lust, that entire movie doesn’t exist. And sure enough, his full character arc comes to completion… when he finally sinks his teeth into a twinkie.

A wafer-thin mint, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
Mr. Creosote is a memorable, yet minor, character in the film. And yet his whole existence hinges upon a mint. And monsieur, eet eez only wafare theen. It makes Creosote explode, ending his meal with a wide open chest cavity (and stomach), and forced to pay the check. Does going from a closed chest cavity to a wide open chest cavity count as a character arc? In a sketch comedy, I say it does. 

Rabbit meat, Repulsion (1965)
Carole Ledoux is left alone over a holiday while her flatmate (sister Helen) is away. As her isolated holiday continues, the simple annoyances of household noises and activities push her further and further into her own insanity. Chief among them is a rabbit carcass, intended to be a meal, which sits in the kitchen throughout, growing more and more rotten and fetid. It aids greatly in whipping her character into her murderous furor.

Toaster Pastries, Pulp Fiction (1994)
Unfortunately for Vincent Vega, Butch Coolidge had a hankerin’ for a pop tart upon returning home to retrieve his watch. Had he not gotten hungry for the toaster pastry, Butch would have gone home, grabbed his dysentery-soaked watch, and departed with the defecating Vincent none the wiser. But Butch heard the siren call of toaster pastries. Upon going to the kitchen to toast his snack, Butch noticed Vincent’s gun resting on the kitchen counter. He heard the flush. And because of toaster pastries, Vincent’s life ended.


Filed under Movies

14 responses to “11 Food Items that Altered Character Arcs

  1. Michael

    I just may have seen a movie you haven’t…”Ya just can’t get enough of The Stuff!!!”

    • Ah… I’ve seen it. Sorry. But since I only saw it recently (last year or so), you’ve got me beat on that one. I love the fake Abe Vigoda ad in there.

  2. This was really interesting, especially when I started to think about the different motivations for having each food item play such a significant role. Sometimes the small things are what the entire narrative rests on (Harold/Kumar films, or your Godfather example), where without it the story halts. Other times, the food served as an ironic form of realism, adding verisimilitude. For Pulp Fiction, the pop tarts didn’t serve a big picture purpose, it was just a sense of that character getting hungry, something that we find very likely in real life but in a film (especially in fast-paced modern cinema) we expect them to just cut around it and have us assume that these adventurers are eating somewhere along the way (think of all the films where you never see the characters eat or use the restroom). Yet Tarantino not only shows us both snack cravings and a need to relieve oneself, he uses these boring, normal acts as a way of completely screwing with our expectations. It’s great.

    Food (which is really just one example of any seemingly irrelevant bit of story in a film) can also just be a character tool, though; something funny to keep us interested. Zombieland, which I really enjoyed, could move forward without the Twinkie stuff, or maybe the Twinkie isn’t in itself vital. He could be after anything: a good hotel, a chick, water, whatever. To make it something as junk food/sweet tooth curbing as a Twinkie, though, is really funny, especially since it plays off of the well-known premise of Twinkie being capable of lasting like… what? 100 years? It adds to the comedy that Twinkie, of all things, would be able to outlast a zombie takeover of Earth. Thus, when he finally gets that Twinkie in the end (a suspenseful culmination extended even further by scaring us into thinking Eisenberg shoots up the last box), it’s both a hilarious and feel-good moment.

  3. With all due respect to all of my other readers, this is probably the most insightful comment I’ve gotten. Well done.

    Re: Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has food all over the place in that movie. Think about the $5 milkshake conversation; whether or not Jules eats swine (and the fact that the whole film is brought to conclusion by their desire to go eat after a long day full of highjinx); or the Big Kahuna burger dialogue.

    • Thanks tons, dude. Just talking about what we all enjoy (feel free to check out the blog I help write! – shameless plug). With Pulp Fiction, yeah, Tarantino is a pretty high level master when it comes to making the seemingly irrelevant really interesting. One of my favorite Fiction scenes and favorite scenes in film history is the cheeseburger discussion that goes from the car up to the hotel door. One of my ticks with film/television show tendencies is how they will imply characters drove somewhere yet all the dialogue has to wait until they’re all in a room together. I’m like, “What do these people do when driving half an hour to the hospital?” Tarantino gives an amazing answer to that. It’s a great film.

    • Kelly

      Maybe the reason Vincent was on the crapper all the time was because he eats all that swine. Has anyone but me realized that he also got to keep his wallet since he was in the john while Pumpkin & Honeybunny were jacking the diner patrons?

    • The guy who met Kevin Meany

      To add on to Tarantino’s inclusion of food and restaurants: glass of milk in Inglorious Basterds, the breakfast scene in Reservoir Dogs (that leads to the discussion about waitress tipping), the Royale with Cheese, the breakfast scene in Pulp Fiction with Jules, Vincent, Honeybunny and Ringo. Even in Jack Rabbit Slim’s, “do you want that milkshake Amos and Andy or Martin and Lewis.” It’s pretty cool that nobody needed an explanation of what that meant. Also, “do you want that steak burned to a crisp or bloody as hell.” Tarantino made ordering from a menu entertaining.

      • That milk scene in Basterds is so good but so disturbing, hearing him gulp that down with all of the tension.

        • The guy who met Kevin Meany

          Food as a Tarantino tension builder: also, the closeup of Jules eating the Big Kahuna burger and drinking the Sprite. So, if you ever end up living in a Tarantino movie stay away from people eating.

  4. Dude

    As a die hard foodie I feel the need to weigh in. Let’s not forget the whole food movie genre. Most famous of them Chocolat, Ratatouille, Sideways, & Julie & Julia. The list literally goes on and on, without food, these movies have no reason to exist!

  5. Apathygrrl

    I just thought of a couple: Ray Liotta’s brain in Hannibal and the milkshake in There Will be Blood.

  6. Dave

    I think the first one I noticed as a kid was ET and Reese’s Pieces. Not only did it get did it help Elliot find ET, it made Reese’s Pieces the top selling candy at the time.

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