For years, Hollywood has found inspiration in books. While not all film adaptations do justice to the source material, many expand on the original in ways that create new and compelling experiences of their own. Pay It Forward is such a film — and book.
Although the concept of doing good deeds or doing nice things for others without expectation of return has been around forever, the phrase “pay it forward” only entered general use (especially in the United States) with the 1999 publication of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel. The film alters some particulars from the book, but each tells a coherent story and develops believable characters. Take the time to look at both.
While Hyde’s name is not frequently associated with the concept in public (except, perhaps, during the initial book tour, and, of course, in credits for the film), she started the Pay It Forward Foundation to inspire young people to realize they can change the world. The Foundation also offers educational materials to teachers who want to encourage students to develop their own ideas of how they can “pay it forward.”
No matter what the detail or format, the nexus of the story remains the same: 12-year-old Trevor McKinney, as played in the film by Haley Joel Osment, still looking like the youngster who stole The Sixth Sense from Bruce Willis.
Living in a single-parent home and just starting seventh grade, Trevor encounters Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey), a new social studies teacher with a badly scarred face. Whether or not the disfigurement helps this teacher empathize with these not-quite-teenaged middle-schoolers, he treats the students with respect and challenges them beyond the usual. Their year-long assignment is to “think of an idea that will change our world — and put it into ACTION.” Each student must explain the idea and outcome to the class.
After looking around his home, his neighborhood, and the school, Trevor’s idea takes form: to do something big for three other people, something that they couldn’t do by or for themselves, who then must each do something ‘big’ for three more people (not ‘paying back’ but ‘paying forward’). When Trevor draws his idea on the chalkboard, Mr. Simonet sees the plan’s potential to expand good works tremendously in a very short period of time. Although Trevor’s classmates are skeptical, that doesn’t deter him from putting the plan into action.
The rest of the story deals with Trevor’s attempts to find three people (including Mr. Simonet) for whom he can do something. Because he seems to be initially unsuccessful, Trevor gets discouraged. The idea, however, seems to take on a life of its own. Ultimately, word spreads and the impact is enormous, but the story’s end is unexpected and one you should see for yourself.
At the Pay It Forward website, you’ll find many resources for making your own difference in the world, including links, message boards, and communities.
Yes, you’re just one person. But as this story demonstrates, actions have consequences… and you can change the world. Start now.
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, Jon Bon Jovi,
Angie Dickinson, Jim Caviezel
Director: Mimi Leder
Theatrical release: 2000; available on DVD