The Words: Stories from the Abyss

“This film deserves to be structurally, emotionally, and thematically analyzed.” – Chris Pandolfi

the-words filmThe Words (2012) tells its story through frames and flashbacks, which are usually better used in novels. Two excellent exceptions are The Princess Bride (1987) and Birdsong (2012). The Words is a third. Its frames highlight the emotional and chronological distance between the three narrators and focus each plot on their words. This onion-like film also questions the relationships between writers, narrators, and audiences. It blurs the lines between truth and lies, fiction and history.

The Story

“Like a Russian nesting doll, this film tells a story within a story within another story, playing around with fact and fiction, as well as the nature of creative inspiration and integrity.” – Rich Cline

This film begins with Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading his book The Words to a public audience. In its opening scene, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) and his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) are traveling to an awards ceremony in honor of Rory’s first novel The Window Tears. Unknown to them, an old man (Jeremy Irons) is watching in the shadows. After Rory receives his award, Clay takes his audience through the previous five years when Rory decides to become a writer, drafts his first novel, and experiences the pain of rejection. Only later does he discover the manuscript in a writer’s satchel, which Dora purchased during their honeymoon in Paris.

This manuscript tells the story of a young man (Ben Barnes) from Philadelphia who joins the U.S. army in Paris near the end of World War II. Having worked as a butcher in America and now repairing ditches in Paris, he learns about literature from a fellow soldier. The young man reads Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and tries his hand at writing. Returning to Europe after the war, he learns about love and loss from a Parisian waitress named Celia (Nora Arnezeder). They marry and have a daughter. However, the baby’s constant crying disturbs the young man’s ability to write. She then becomes sick and dies, plunging the new parents into grief. Celia refuses to eat, while the young man gets drunk. After she returns to her parents’ home in rural France, he writes the story of his life in Paris during and after the war.

Fifty years later, the young man’s manuscript so grips Rory that he types it on his laptop to savor each word. Yet Dora thinks Rory wrote the manuscript; so does his publisher. Seeking acceptance, Rory claims authorship. After it is published as The Window Tears, Rory becomes the darling of the literary world. Only after the awards ceremony does he discover the real author, the old man, who tells Rory that Celia read his manuscript and returned to him in Paris, but lost it on the train. Angry, he sought the manuscript and rejected Celia. They divorced, so he returned to America.

the-wordsRory decides to tell his wife and publisher that he did not write the manuscript, but they reject his claim. Dora realizes that this lie has ruined their relationship, while his publisher fears the cost to his credibility. So Rory visits the old man in New York. The latter tells him to remain a famous author rather than come clean. He also says he saw Celia again in the States. She had remarried, had a baby, and seemed happy. Relieved, the old man says he had learned the cost of his mistake, choosing words over the woman that inspired them, but that people can recover and move on. The old man suggests that Rory do the same.

Clay ends his public reading by saying that Rory decides to live with his lie, claiming authorship of The Window Tears. However, the future of Rory and Dora’s marriage is unknown. So are the nature and purpose of The Words.

The Abyss

“The narrative is constructed like a small set of Russian dolls. … The three layers combine organically to serve its story of plagiarism and consequence.” – Liam Maguren

Most film reviews discuss the physical and emotional consequences of plagiarism. Critics think that the film’s moral is living with oneself after telling such a lie. They also consider Rory the main character. However, I think it is the young man. In an on-set interview, Ben Barnes said that his story was “written from an abyss” – a bottomless pit or Verne-like journey through earth. This abyss, the lowest moment in a life filled with joy and pain, is the key to the film. It produces the emotional power of the manuscript that first heals the grieving young man and then captures Rory’s heart.

Ben-barnes the-wordsThat Rory does not experience this man’s abyss is the key to his ethical violation. Calling “the words” his is more than plagiarism. It is stealing a man’s life. Only after Rory falls into an abyss by learning about the manuscript and trying to make things right can he write his own story with emotional power. He still leaves it a shadow of his former self, his marriage shattered, because he never comes clean publicly. The old man, meanwhile, leaves his abyss knowing that people are more important than the words they inspire. At least Rory’s act of plagiarism allows the old man’s manuscript to see the light of day.

Is The Words the story of Clay’s abyss? Is he Rory, the famous writer he always wanted to be and has now become but without a soul because he’s living a lie? Grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde) thinks so. So do some critics, seeing Clay’s mental image of Dora as the unconscious admission that he is Rory and wants reunion with his wife. Or is The Words a work of fiction that questions a writer’s ethics, which Clay tells Daniella is the book’s only reality? That the latter conclusion seems possible is disturbing. If Clay’s book has only symbolic truth, it loses emotional power. It means that he has done through The Words what Rory does through The Window Tears – tell another man’s story and not his own.

As the screenwriter notes, the ending is not tied up neatly in a bow. However, I think a film of this nature needs just such a bow. Art is not life and should not mirror it. [I am not referring to any historical work of art here.] People should be lifted up morally through art, even if its path goes through an abyss. Only the conclusion or moral matters. Most readers and audiences want solidity and justice in art, especially when they do not experience it in their own lives. That the film’s ending produces neither robs them of emotional satisfaction. There is no catharsis.

The Power

“Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of all who are appointed to die. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” – Proverbs 31:8-9[1]

pianist poland warsawMany films have takes audiences through an abyss. But few can equal the emotional power of Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001), The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (2009), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Hiding Place (1975), The Pianist (2002), Sarah’s Key (2010), Schindler’s List (1993), or War and Remembrance (1988). Most of these World War II films are based on first-person narratives that describe both the tragedy of loss and the triumph of survival. Some made me weep. Others stunned me into silence. The reason is simple. These films are stories of personal abysses and the characters’ endurance lends them emotional power. The same is true of films that portray recent cases of genocide: Beyond the Gates (2005), Hotel Rwanda (2004), The Interpreter (2005), etc.

People have also experienced and described the abysses of sin, prison, sickness, and death. King David took Bathsheba as his wife and killed her husband in battle (2 Samuel 11). After listening to the prophet Nathan, he repented (chap. 12). Psalm 51 records his prayer of repentance, which St. Augustine read often. Paul’s letters to Timothy and the church in Philippi were written in prison. So was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress (1678). Missionary Amy Carmichael wrote her books on a sickbed in India. Lettie Cowman wrote the devotional Streams in the Desert (1925) while tending her sick husband. C. S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed (1960) to describe his feelings after the death of his wife Joy Davidman. By describing and finding God in their abysses, these Christians helped many readers.

Outside personal and national tragedies, how often does a work of art take an audience through an abyss? The lack of one explains the deficiency of power. The King’s Speech (2010) and My Sister’s Keeper (2009) are two exceptions. The former film tells the story of King George VI’s (Colin Firth) abysmal struggle with his speech impediment before his final triumph in his first public speech. The latter tells the story of a teenage girl with leukemia seeking emancipation from her parents so they will not use her younger sister (Abigail Breslin) to keep her alive.


The power of one’s words is an exponential result of the depth of one’s abyss. So, from the abyss comes the power. Let us not shun it. We must embrace our abyss experiences instead, regardless of the pain. Only when we have learned its lessons and gone through the other side will our words have the power to inspire, heal, and help others.

dorothea-lange depression photographySome artists have portrayed the abysses of people without access to a camera, pen, or paintbrush. This truth explains the power of Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica (1937), which describes the horror of the Spanish Civil War; Dorothea Lange’s 1930s photographs of Great Depression sufferers in California, and the Afghan Women Writers Project. Each writer who listens to a prison or war narrative is giving its survivors a voice.

The Bible is no exception. “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6). Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, was tried in the fire of the cross (John 1:1, 14). He jumped into the bottomless abyss of death and hell for us (Ephesians 4:8-10). Yet the Lamb of God was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). So, from Jesus’ abyss comes the Bible’s power to save and heal.

If I want my words to have power, then I must experience an abyss – all the while trusting God with keeping my soul. I want to describe other people’s abysses too, using my words to give a voice to the voiceless and sight to the blind (Job 29:15, Isaiah 42:7, 61:1).


[1] New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise noted

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