How to “Read” Back to the Future Like a Professor
Back to the Future is the classic movie about a typical teenage boy who unintentionally travels into the past and must overcome several obstacles in order to get back. Despite its logical fallacies, it is an entertaining film that contains various frequently used literary concepts as described in Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Throughout the movie, Back to the Future encompasses the concepts of a quest, communion, and a parallel to the story of the Wizard of Oz.
From the very start, it is evident that the film will follow a quest of a young boy named Marty as he tries to reach back home. Professor Foster indicates that each quest contains a few basic components: “a quester, a place to go, a stated reason to go there, challenges and trials en route, and a real reason to go there” (Foster 3). In Back to the Future, Marty is the quester who has ended up in the past but needs to go to the future. He is young, immature, and inexperienced, everything Professor Foster says a typical quester is like. His stated reason for going back to the future is simply because he lives in that time. His challenges are rather intense, as he desperately has to try to get his mother and father to like each other, fix the broken time machine, teach his father how to stand up for himself, and prevent Biff, the bully, from interfering with all of Marty’s plans. Marty states he wants to go back to the future just because he lives there, but as Professor Foster points out, the real reason for every quest to go somewhere is self knowledge.
Marty feels he is just a young teenager incapable of affecting a real change in the grown up world. Through his journey, he realizes that he is wiser than he gave himself credit for and he does make a marked change in the lives of his entire family.
In addition to a quest, Back to the Future also contains many significant dining scenes, and each has its own meaning. Any form of dining (eating or drinking) is considered communion. One of the first few scenes involves Marty and his family eating which gives the audience the first look at how Marty’s family operates. Through this scene, it becomes evident that his father is weak and never stands up for himself, his mother an unhappy alcoholic, and his brother and sister are neither ambitious nor determined to accomplish anything meaningful. Family dinners are an act of bonding and represent function, however, this scene represents the family’s apparent dysfunctionality. Another act of communion occurs when Marty has reached the past, goes into a diner to get a coffee, and he sees his father there. He witnesses his dad getting bullied by the same man, Biff, and again his father is a coward and does not stand up for himself. The disruption of a peaceful act of communion demonstrates the severity of Marty’s dad’s situation; clearly Biff is constantly taking complete advantage of his dad. When Marty ends up having dinner with his future mother, he has the opportunity to bond with his family-to-be. Yet again, this family communion is interrupted when Marty leaves the table in the middle of dinner when they ask him to stay. Leaving the table signifies how uncomfortable Marty was with the idea of spending the night.
Lastly, Hanseldee and Greteldum, as Professor Foster calls it, demonstrates how many stories have similar plot structures to children’s stories. This can be applied to Back to the Future, which could almost be considered a parallel to The Wizard of Oz. In fact, once both stories are examined, the similarities are quite remarkable. Both Marty and Dorothy are unhappy with their lives at home and do not get along with their families. They both venture to unusual places, more precisely, places they never would have imagined going. Once they get there, Dorothy becomes enemies with the Wicked Witch of the West and Marty with Biff, both who cause a more turbulent quest. Through their journeys, they both meet other people who are very similar to those at home who they help along the way. Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man who represent Hunk, Zeke, and Hickory the farm workers from Kansas. Marty, on the other hand, meets his parents as teenagers. Most importantly, both end up desperately trying and wanting to go home. At the end, Doctor Brown and Glinda the Good Witch help Marty and Dorothy, respectively, get back home.
In the entirety of the film, Back to the Future contains prevalent literary patterns including a quest, communion, and a parallel to the Wizard of Oz. The familiarity of these patterns allows viewers to relate and understand the messages conveyed by the story. By "reading" this film like a professor, it is clear that these concepts significantly contribute to the depth of the movie's seemingly one-dimensional aspects.