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Happy Death Day
Narrative Analysis

By Teodora Nikolova PTG 2

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Christopher Landon’s 2017 film Happy Death Day tells the story of college girl Tree Gelbman
(Jessica Rothe), who gets stuck in a time loop and has to relive the day of her
birthday, at the end of which she gets murdered, over and over again until she
discovers the identity of her killer. Despite having almost the same plot as many
other films, Happy Death Day manages
to maintain its originality, which will be proven in the following analysis. Adding
plot twists to the narrative, the film manages to successfully keep the
audience interested. The following analysis will take a closer look into the narrative
of the film, including a thorough description of the plot, in order to properly
address all points.

Happy Death Day has
a mixture of ‘restricted’ and ‘unrestricted’ narrative, meaning we either know
more than the character does, or just as much as the character (Bordwell, Thompson and Smith, 2017,
p.87). At the beginning, the narrative is ‘unrestricted’. Tree does not
understand that she is reliving her day. She thinks she is having déjà
vu or that she is simply going crazy. However, we know that she is sane and
that she is stuck in a time loop. However, as the film progresses the narrative
can be referred to as ‘restricted’ too. This is due to the fact that Tree comes
to understand that she is living the same day over and over again. As she tries
to reveal the identity of her killer, we know just as much as she does and we
also find out the killer’s identity at the same time as her.

the film has taken inspiration from the ‘forking path narrative’. Cameron says:
“Forking-path narratives juxtapose alternative versions of a story, showing the
possible outcomes that might result from small changes in a single event or
group of events. Examples include Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run.” (Cameron,
2008) After being killed on her birthday, Tree gets a little cautious with her
encounters during the next day. However, when she passes through the path,
where she was killed, without problem, Tree lets her guard down and ends up
being killed later at a party. On the next day she skips the party and stays at
home but is killed again. Every time Tree does different things but the outcome
is the same, until she reveals the identity of her killer in the end and the
loop is finally stopped.

Happy Death Day is also a great example for Tzvetan Todorov’s
3-act structure. According to Todorov, narratives begin with an equilibrium,
which is the balance, before things go wrong. Then an action or character
disrupts the equilibrium, which results in a disequilibrium. The story
continues with a ‘quest’ to restore the equilibrium and ends with the
resolution of the problem, when the equilibrium is restored (Todorov, T. 1966
1980, pp. 3-36). Even though the theory can be applied in many films, Happy Death Day provides a different
approach to its application.

Many people
might apply Todorov’s 3-act structure in films like Happy Death Day, where a character is stuck in a time loop and
relives the same day over and over again, in the following way. Each loop is
analyzed as a separate narrative, which gets in the way of the proper
application of the theory. Analyzing the film in that way means we can only
apply Todorov’s structure into the last loop where there is a resolution,
taking into consideration that all the other loops are ‘unfinished’. This stops
us from having a more in-depth look into the narrative of the film. However,
taking the film as a whole, without separating the loops into different
narratives adds to a more thorough analysis of the structure and the film

The story
begins with the protagonist Tree waking up with a hangover in a stranger’s dorm
room. She hardly remember anything from the night before and assumes something
happened between her and Carter (Israel Broussard), whose dorm room Tree wakes
up in. She hurriedly takes her stuff and leaves, walking through the university
she has a few encounters with different students, who she ignores. Going into
her sorority house she receives a cupcake as a birthday present from her
roommate, but she throws it away and heads to class. Later on Tree heads to the
university hospital, as she is a medical student. She gets a call from her dad
but ignores it and goes to her lecturer, who is also a doctor, and they start
making out, but his wife interrupts them so Tree leaves. By now, we have a clear
sense of Tree’s personality. She is arrogant and could also be described as
self-absorbed. At night, Tree gets ready to go to a party. On her way there,
however, she is attacked by someone. Despite her attempt to run away, Tree is
killed, but only to wake up the morning of her birthday again. Up until the
point of her awakening on the same day, all of these actions are the
equilibrium, the balance.  At the point
of Tree’s death is where the unrestricted narrative begins, seeing as for us it
is obvious that the day is repeating itself. Tree, on the other hand, takes
this as a strange déjà vu. Here is also the moment of the equilibrium’s
disruption. She goes about her day in the same way, but with slight changes.
This time she manages to go to the party without problem. However, while she’s
hanging out with a boy in his room, the killer appears and kills both of them
and Tree wakes up on her birthday yet again. In that loop however, Tree starts
believing that she is reliving the same day over and over again. Here, the
unrestricted narrative becomes restricted again, seeing as we no longer know
what is going to happen. Tree decides not go to the party but rather lock
herself in her room in order to avoid getting killed. This, however, proves
pointless, as the killer somehow manages to get into her room and kill her. The
next loop is where the journey to the equilibrium’s restorations begins. Tree
confides in Carter, telling him everything that has happened. To her surprise,
he believes her and they start devising a plan in order to break out of the
time loop. That is also one of the moments of the film, where its originality
is proven. Unlike other films that have the same concept as this one, in Happy Death Day the supporting character
believes what the protagonist is saying. This not only distinguishes Happy Death Day but also manages a
smooth progression of the narrative, which keeps the audience intrigued. Tree
and Carter come up with a plan, in which Tree uses the time loop to her
advantage. Making a list of suspects, Tree begins investigating different
people. Meanwhile, she also experiences a change in behavior. Influenced by
Carter’s presence, Tree starts acting a little bit nicer and not so arrogant
and self-absorbed. At one point she starts having fun. After multiple loops,
however, Tree collapses and is admitted to the hospital, where she is discovered
to have multiple traumas, cause by the different killing methods she is being
put through. This again speaks for the film’s originality, in comparison to Before I Fall (Ry Russo-Young, 2017),
where the female protagonist dies each night without any health problems and
also Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis,
1993), in which the protagonist kills himself on multiple occasions, having a hard
time reliving the same day.

Trying to escape the hospital and avoid another death, Tree
goes into her lecturer and lover Gregory’s (Charles Aitken) office, looking for
keys. What she finds is a baby mask, leading her to believe that Gregory is the
one responsible for her death all this time.  However, she is proven wrong when the killer
appears and kills Gregory. In order for the story not to be rushed, a chase
scene is included, in which Tree gets into a car and barely escapes the killer.
Unfortunately, due to her speeding an officer stops her, which gives enough
time for the killer to gain in on Tree and kill both her and the officer. By
extending the actions happening in the time loop and changing them
significantly, the film manages to further distinguish itself amongst others.

In the next loop, Tree and Carter go to a diner. While
they’re talking, Tree gets a glimpse of the TV, where a news lady is talking
about a murderer, who is being treated in the town’s hospital. Finding out the
murderer’s victims are female and blonde. Realizing that might be the reason
for her being targeted, Tree runs to the hospital in hopes of getting to the
killer before he gets to her. Taking matters into her own hands, she takes an
emergency axe to use against the murderer. Using the element of surprise,
however, the criminal disarms her using his gun. Just before he shoots her,
Carter attacks him. Tree uses that opportunity to get the gun and shoot the
criminal but the safety is on and she fails. The real showdown takes place in a
bell tower, where Carter is killed. Despite having the opportunity to end the
time loop, Tree decides she cannot risk Carter being dead, so she commits
suicide in order to save him. This decision adds more to the progression of the
film’s narrative and builds its originality further.

In the following loop, Tree is very happy. She know who her
killer is and can stop him before it’s too late. She spends her day being nice
to people and even meets with her dad, who she previously ignored. Furthermore,
she ends thing with Gregory, deciding she needs to change. That night she goes
to the hospital, threatening a cop to go and get back up while she deals with
the criminal. After a short fight, Tree shoots him and later goes on a date
with Carter, where she blows the candle of the cupcake she got from her
roommate. What we think is the end, the restoration of the equilibrium, happens
to be a ‘red herring’, something that is used to mislead us. Tree wakes up yet
again on the day of her birthday. Panicking, she hurriedly goes to her sorority
house and begins packing her bags. Her roommate, however, interrupts her,
giving her the cupcake. In that moment, Tree realizes that her roommate is in
fact the killer, and the cupcake actually contains poison, but because she has
never eaten it before the last loop, Tree had to be killed in a different way.
Tree confronts her roommate, daring her to eat the cupcake, but is instead
attacked by her. As Tree finds out the reason she was being killed all this
time, a fight breaks out between the two girls. At the end, Tree forcefully feeds
her roommate the cupcake and pushes her out the window. This is the moment of
the equilibrium’s restoration as Tree has finally ended the time loop by
revealing and defeating her killer and also becoming a better person. In
addition, the ending reflects the beginning of the film. Due to the fact that
Tree’s room is a crime scene, Tree stays over at Carter’s dorm room. On the
next day, she wakes up in his roommate’s bed, her birthday ringtone goes off
and Carter hits his head, which causes Tree to panic but Carter just laughs,
revealing that to be a joke.

The concept of time in the film is also very important. In
the film, Tree talks about things that have happened before we were introduced
to her, which are also part of the story (Bordwell, Thompson and Smith, 2017,
p. 79-80). In addition, although for us everything takes place in an hour and a
half, in the film Tree experiences multiple loops, which could mean that she
has lived through at least a week’s worth of days to as much as a month.

In conclusion, using the concept of the ‘forking path
narrative’ and Todorov’s 3-act structure, as well as a few plot twists, Happy Death Day distinguishes itself
from films with similar plots and maintains its originality throughout the
whole time. With the use of time, the film is presented in a way, which helps
the viewers understand it and enjoy it better. All this, on the other hand,
keeps the audience engaged in the story, which is really important for a film’s



D. and Thompson, K., Smith, J. (2017). Film Art: An Introduction. 11th
edn. London: McGraw-Hill

Cameron, A.
(2008). Modular Narratives in Contemporary Cinema. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Ramis, H.
(Director). (1993). Groundhog Day.
Film. America: Columbia Pictures Corporation

Russo-Young, R. (Director). (2017). Before I Fall. Film. America: Awesomeness Films

Todorov, T. (1966 1980). The Categories of Literary
Narrative. Papers on Language and Literature, 16, pp. 3–36. 

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