THROUGH “War of the Buttons”
Discussion of Major Characters: Before having students write the paragraphs set out below, teachers should conduct a class discussion about the three major characters, Fergus, Geronimo and Marie. The teacher can simply ask questions or the class can be separated into groups of two or three students who are assigned to complete attribute webs or simply to list the attributes for the characters. Students should be reminded that characterization is delineated through (1) the character’s thoughts, words, speech patterns, and actions; (2) the narrator’s description; and (3) the thoughts, words, and actions of other characters. When students analyze character, they should be reminded to have these three sources in mind. Adapted from California English-Language Arts Content Standards – Grade 7, Reading 3.3 Groups should then share their results in class with the teacher guiding the students in a discussion of the characters and, if necessary, modeling the process of drawing out attributes of the character.
Write a Paragraph About a Major Character: Have students write a paragraph about Fergus, the central character in “War of the Buttons”. Students should begin their paragraphs with a general statement that identifies Fergus as, say, the leader of the Ballydowse boys. This sentence is neutral. Then they must describe how Fergus appears. How does he look? How does he dress? How does he carry himself? They must write about the kinds of things he believes; these will be revealed through dialogue. What does he say that let’s us know what he is like? Finally, students must write about what Fergus does, what action he takes. Feelings are easily revealed through what a character does. Students can judge a character only after all of the details are given that support the conclusion and enable the readers to make these judgments for themselves. The last sentence in the paragraph, therefore, will be a judgment of Fergus. This sentence allows expression of an opinion whereas in the first sentence in this paragraph, a neutral statement introduced the character. Using this organizational pattern leads the readers to accept the opinion and, if done well, to agree.
Teachers may want to have their students characterize Geronimo, the leader of Carrickdowse, in the same pattern used to describe Fergus. One might well understand why these two boys become good friends by the end of the film. In many ways, the boys are alike.
Detect and explain how characters drive important subplots: Assignments requiring students to analyze the relationship between main and minor characters and even ancillary characters are valuable at any grade level. “War of the Buttons” can be used to exercise a student’s ability to detect motivations and influences that affect characters and drive the plot. Often a character’s motivations and influences play a role in subplots or backstories. In this film, there is an important subplot involving Fergus’ family.
Have the students write paragraphs in which they explain the situation with Fergus’ family. Be sure that they show how his concerns about his family drive some of the action in the film. The difficulties Fergus experiences with a cruel father who actually denies paternity leads to a caring relationship with the teacher and motivation for running away from the wrath of the townspeople rather than facing the consequences of his actions. Without the backstory involving troubles at home and having to face the thought of being sent away, Fergus would not keep our respect as the other boys go to face the crowd.
Analyze the value of relationships between characters: Marie is an important character in the film because of her special relationship with Fergus. Students can be assigned an essay in which they must show Marie’s role as not only the story’s narrator, providing the voice-over at the film’s beginning and end, but as someone who serves to draw out the character of Fergus. In their relationship lies an adolescent love story.
Analyze how characters reveal values, morals and theme: Theme is often the backbone of a story, whether it is written or filmed. Students learn values and morals by watching characters relate to one another and by seeing how they handle situations and solve problems. The characteristics required to fix a problem and thus reveal theme include honesty, perseverance, discipline, intelligence, and loyalty. These are usually brought out by behaviors and dialogue of characters, sometimes of minor characters.
Students should select a character and show how a particular value is revealed through his or her role played in the film. This can be a one paragraph assignment. A full essay on this topic may require students to select three characters to illustrate how their characterization illuminates values. The depth of the assignments and the parameters of such assignments can vary considerably.
Students may want to consider once again the importance of Marie in her role as someone who gives moral direction to the other characters in the story. The students can be assigned to write paragraphs in which they note the scenes where Marie is important and then comment on the meaning of these scenes. In one scene Marie points out the cruelty of killing the fox. In another, she gathers buttons for the boys so they will not have to struggle to earn the buttons they feel are of great value and she later rains the buttons like jewels down on the upturned faces of the smiling boys. At one point Marie calls Riley out for his immature behavior and helps the audience to understand this character’s willingness to betray his friends. Each of these scenes shows Marie to be an important character linking the ideas in the film to the action.
Analyze how characters reveal values, morals and theme: Another character who is important in helping reveal values is the teacher. Ask the students to write about what he represents to the boys, especially Fergus, and how his brief history lessons give the boys ideas. It is important that students begin to recognize how subordinate characters are used to clarify the values and intentions of the protagonists and antagonists. Students may want to write about parents in the film or the priest at the story’s end.
Protagonist/Antagonist Identification and Transformation: An important concept the students can learn from “War of the Buttons” is the role of the antagonists. The good guy, bad guy distinction is often vague and of little value in understanding conflicts faced by protagonists. In this movie, there are what may be called good guys and bad guys on each side of the warring groups. There are good adults and bad adults. Ask the students to write a paragraph in which they show which characters fit into which category. Students must justify their choices with specific reference to the film. They may want to show how roles shift; the character of Geronimo, at first Fergus’ main antagonist, becomes his friend by the film’s end. When does the shift occur? Why? Was this transformation foreshadowed, and if so, where?
Assignment: Informally Illuminate Universality of Theme: Assignments that encourage students to find connections between the ideas generated in the film and universal themes are always of value when it comes to teaching literary analysis. Rather than assign students to write a formal theme analysis, however, ask them to re-tell an episode in the film and then find the universal theme that may be derived from this episode. For example, the desire for revenge coupled with the unwillingness to accept defeat causes Geronimo to take the war too far when he drives the tractor into the Ballydowse HQ. Students can write about this event and then reflect on the feelings that may have pushed Geronimo over the edge. They should think about incidents in history or current events or in their own lives when someone simply went too far. By analyzing episodes in this way, students can gain skills in determining the themes suggested in the story. Many students find it difficult to make connections between what they see in film or read in literature books and what occurs in real life. By allowing students to write informal paragraphs, teachers can help students gain the confidence necessary to draw conclusions and to risk a guess at what idea may be suggested in a scene or in an event. Informality frees young writers to think more about what they have to say than what grade they might earn on the essay. It enables them to take risks.
- Write a new ending. Rather than a rock climbing episode with a helicopter rescue, what might work to pull Fergus and Geronimo together and have them work cooperatively?
- Add an adult woman character to the film, either as protagonist or antagonist. Be sure to show what she adds to push the story forward.
- Write a new scene into the film. Be sure that it adds to the story and takes nothing away.
- Change the setting altogether. Might this story work in New York City, rural Alabama, a small town in Idaho, or Los Angeles? The importance of place may become an issue here.
Offer students the opportunity to work in groups when appropriate while they are pulling together these writing assignments. They should be able to help one another with developing ideas and smoothing out any glitches in their writing. Students enjoy reading and hearing the creative assignments; provide the time for students to share their best work.
BEYOND “War of the Buttons”
Reflection on Childhood Rivalries Ask students to write a reflection on childhood rivalries and the dangers involved when these rivalries go beyond the fun they may at first seem to be. Ask them to look back into the film and see if they can spot bullies or the kind of personalities that can turn a game or a competition into a serious problem. They need to get personal here: ask them to narrate a time in their own childhood when they either participated in or heard about a war game played by kids. For some of your students, this may bring up neighborhood gang activities. In some communities, gang warfare is deadly and it is not about buttons; it is about turf and drugs and various criminal enterprises.