Find out how a character eats reveals more than you might think…
Have you ever paid attention to how movie characters eat? We mean really paid attention? We dive into how the way our favourite characters chow down is a surprisingly deep art form, and how it can reveal more than we first realise.
Have you ever paid attention to the way people eat on screen? Not how much they eat or what they’re eating – people have already highlighted that the specific food characters eat can tell you a lot about their character. I’m talking about the specific way they eat their food. You know, like this. Because she’s a cat.
I may unreasonably fixate on this kind of thing because I’m one of those people that hates eating sounds, like chewing or speaking with your mouth full. Hell, I meticulously edit my videos to remove as many mouth sounds and breath intakes as possible because hearing it in headphones is pretty much torture.
But eating has got to be a pretty deliberate thing in film and TV. After all, you’re going to have to do multiple takes, and you don’t want to devour a thousand buttery biscoff snacks like Chris Evans in Knives Out. Not only that but you’ve got to act and say your lines in and around mouthfuls, chewing and swallowing. So if you’re going to be that deliberate about eating, there’s going to be some thought put into how they do it.
Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way, because there are a couple that are really surface level stuff – like they tell you something about the character, but only as a means of reinforcing what’s already been stated about them.
The most common that you’ll see is a character eating a large amount really obnoxiously, usually with other characters looking on in awe or horror. In heroic types, it’s usually a sign that they’re going to act typically ‘male’. Think Thor chowing down in his first movie, Dean stuffing his face to the point of bursting, or Ron straight double-fisting his drumsticks. Yeah, that paragon of masculinity, Ron Weasley. But you get what I mean when I say he acts like a stereotypical boy, and the way he eats reinforces that idea.
If it’s not a typical man boy male character, then it’s a sign of arrested development. Buddy in Elf combines what appears to be spaghetti in tomato sauce, with chocolate syrup, several different kinds of candy, and several pop tarts, smushing everything together with his fingers and shovelling it into his face. In Logan, Laura, who’s likely never learnt table manners on account of being a laboratory experiment, grabs at the mashed potato with her tiny fists and looks at Wolverine like she’s about to throw claws when he takes the corn away from her.
Of course on the flip side, obnoxious eating also means total villainy. Jabba the Hutt is always shovelling small beasties in his face with his grabby little Donald Trump hands, usually while it’s still alive, and slobbers all over the place. Penguin in Batman Returns eats this goopy raw fish like the trash man that he is, spitting and slurping it all over the place. Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs had the mayor, who literally inhales food like an ultra-capitalist Kirby, in the purest expression of corporate greed.
The pinnacle of this kind of eating, the shining hill to not strive for, the ultimate anti-ASMR, is Denethor in Return of the King. His gross mouth chomping on meat and vegetables serves to demonstrate his cruelty and heartlessness as he sends his only remaining son Faramir to certain death. In a couple of instances juices drip down his mouth like blood, and this little tomato spurt is just the worst. Thank god for Pippin’s beautiful singing and the knowledge that David Wenham was screwing a barrel to get us through it.
Moving on, the ability of a character to eat in dire situations crops up a lot. See, people tend not to want to or be able to eat if they’re in a state of anxiety or they’ve recently witnessed something horrific. So when characters are in either of those two states and someone doesn’t have any trouble eating like nothing’s happening, it tells you a bit about who they are.
Take Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction for instance. To summarise their morning, they’ve just carried out a hit on three men, miraculously survived a shooting, accidentally killed their friend, and raced against the clock to cover it up. What’s the first thing Vincent says when it’s all over? “I could go for some breakfast.” Desensitisation to violence in a Tarantino movie, whaaat?
When Thor goes for breakfast with the Earth gang, he’s not at his lowest point but he is like one scene away from it. He’s just failed his big plan, lost his superpowers, had his hammer taken away, been banished from his home, and may have just lost out on becoming king to this pointy bitch. And yet, he noshes down a couple of breakfasts and seems to be in the highest of spirits. As if it wasn’t obvious already, Thor’s a devil-may-care guy who’s used to things working out for him in the end, and he’s possibly a little too stupid to realise the gravity of his situation.
A more impactful example comes up in Breaking Bad where Jesse, who’s just done a murder, seen another murder (the most terrifying murder on the show no less), and very nearly been murdered himself. In summary, lot of murder in his life right now. Yet here he is calmly eating a plate of pancakes like it’s an average morning. Walt, opposite him, eats nothing. By this point, Jesse has become so morally and emotionally stunted that he can laugh and have pancakes whilst planning out how he’s going to avoid getting imminently killed. Wait, are pancakes immoral?
Then there’s Ron Weasley again.
Sexy eating is pretty common too, and I’m gonna pass over the whole eating a banana or other phallic food thing because all it tells you is that sex is a thing, and everything looks like a sex organ if you think about it hard enough. No, I’m thinking more Ben Barnes aggressively slow-mo biting into a scone in Dorian Gray.
I could make a lot out of this scene in Firefly where Book barters his way onto the ship by giving Kaylee a single strawberry. Her reaction tells you that fresh produce is extremely scarce for people of their lifestyle, and that Kaylee herself is passionate and expressive. But we know why this scene exists. I mean, it’s a Joss Whedon show. A close second to Kaylee is Cypher eating his absurdly large hunk of chateaubriand. Who wouldn’t betray humanity for a steak that looks that good?
I feel obligated to bring up 9 1/2 Weeks, even though everything screams at me to never to speak of it again. Let me be clear, none of this is sexy. From the leering of creepily-attractive young Mickey Rourke, to the way she looks so uncomfortable with the whole thing, to the terrible food choices. The grossest thing about the whole affair though is the weirdly childlike way she eats. Stop drinking the milk. Please. For the love of god.
Hannibal pretty much takes the cake with this one, setting the bar for erotic eating. This is where we start getting into the really good examples. There’s a scene where Hannibal and Will both eat a whole bird in a single bite in a symbolic pact – specifically the endangered ortolan. The chewing is slow and deliberate, savouring the one mouthful they have. After swallowing, they’re locked in a mimicry of post-orgasmic bliss, their eyes lidded and unfocused. It’s hot as hell.
Naturally, Hannibal is loaded with scenes where people eat with feeling. Abel Gideon, for one, gets a couple of absolute gems. The look on his face as he’s forced to eat a slice of his own thigh, and it’s delicious, is something to behold. Then, much later, and lacking several more limbs, Abel is fed snails that have been feasting on his own arm. There’s nothing Hannibal hates more than rudeness and bad manners, something which the other characters respect at his dinner table. So, sick and tired of being kept alive solely to satisfy Hannibal’s sick urges, Gideon eats a snail one-handed as obnoxiously as he can in the one act of spite and defiance he has available to him.
A lot can be said through the contrasting ways characters eat in the same scene, and I need to go back to Pulp Fiction here. After their, shall we say, ‘interesting’ morning, Vincent and Jules go to get breakfast at a diner. Vincent gets absorbed in making his food as delicious as possible, spreading a pat of butter and pouring maple syrup on his pancakes. He eats big bites and talks around mouthfuls. Jules picks at a simple muffin, delicately selecting small pieces. It’s just another extension of two very well-realized characters; Vincent is an “it is how it is” guy who lives purely in the moment. Jules is contemplative, and imagines himself a wandering disciple. Of course, it could also be the fact that Jules just had like half a cheeseburger and approximately an ocean of Sprite before they got there.
We also mentioned Dean’s absurd relationship with food in Supernatural earlier, and it’s one of the many ways he and Sam’s personalities play off each other. Sam is usually seen maintaining as much of a sense of decorum as he can with their rushed roadside diner lifestyles, nibbling salads and looking at Dean making love to his burgers with judgemental eyes like he’s being personally attacked. Rather than just being an affectation, the flashbacks in the show justify the way they eat, showing that Dean used to have to prepare Sam’s food with what little they had while their dad was out hunting, and rarely ate himself. As a result, adult Sam takes food for granted whereas Dean reaches something close to orgasmic bliss with every bite.
There’s a neat little class comment through food in The Amazing Spider-Man – yeah, I know, remember that movie? Peter Parker is poor as hell in almost all continuities, thanks to the fact that Spidermanning takes up so much of his time, and he keeps putting his prospective employers in jail or outright killing them. Gwen Stacy on the other hand, being the daughter of a police captain, is fairly well-off as far as things go. When he’s invited round for dinner with the family, Peter at first struggles with eating the whole branzino Gwen’s mum has prepared, and needs to be helped by Gwen’s much younger brother. To add to the contrast, Aunt May talks about making spaghetti and meatballs earlier in the film.
Way back in the only enjoyable scenes of The Hobbit trilogy, we get this absolute gem where Bilbo patiently seasons his fried fish and prepares to get tucked in, complete with adorable napkin. Then Dwalin comes in and absolutely destroys the thing to Bilbo’s horror.
And once again, Ron and Hermione – while Ron is noshing on his chicken like the Hound in Kentucky, Hermione is seen delicately eating with a knife and fork- actually that’s nor fair, she’s eating like a normal human being. The contrast being established is ‘boy’ and ‘girl’.
The transition from restraint to complete abandon while eating is a fun one – like they hold back at first and then absolutely go to town on their meal like Uncle Iroh here. Probably the best example comes up in the Snowpiercer TV show when Layton, having been half-starved for seven years, is presented with a grilled cheese and tomato soup. He savours his first bite almost like he’s praying, on the verge of tears, before wrecking the rest of the sandwich and chugging the soup like a freshman on spring break. They call back to it in Season 2 when this guy goes mental over some buffalo wings, but it’s Layton’s initial restraint that tells us he’s not been reduced to a mindless animal by the bizarre train society, and that he has a deep appreciation for the good things in life.
Another great one is when Elizabeth is captured by the Black Pearl in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Having been educated as a proper lady with good manners, she delicately takes a tiny bite at first, even in a particularly uncivil setting such as this. Barbossa encourages her to drop the pretence, and then Elizabeth goes to town on a chicken leg. This one is especially neat because Barbossa only wants her to dig into the food to watch her and vicariously experience what he can’t. So when he finally noshes on his apple at the end of Dead Man’s Chest, he’s genuinely laughing because he’s alive again and can finally taste something.
The parents in Spirited Away take it just a touch too far. They start out hungry, yes. Eating ravenously, yes. The dad slurps down dumplings and the mum devours roast ducks. We’ve probably all been there, there’s not much weird about that- oh my god they’re pigs now.
Some people only pretend to go that far, deliberately eating in a certain, ostentatious way in order to make an impression on someone else in the scene. This guy in Transformers whose name I’ve forgotten because I haven’t seen the movie in over a decade – he eats the whole plate. The whole plate. I have seen a Lindsay Ellis video in the last decade. Either way, his justification for doing so is that guilty people wouldn’t eat anything, kind of a reference to this scene in The Usual Suspects where Verbal points out that whoever sleeps in jail is guilty.
The Blues Brothers kills with the magnificent, ridiculous display the titular brothers put on at this high-class restaurant, to goad their old bandmate to re-join the band. They chomp on shrimp with their mouths full, chucking pieces into each other’s mouths with unerring accuracy. They slurp down their champagne at approximately the same decibels as an accelerating jet plane. And then, the bread. Beautiful.
I also love it when a character’s eating habits genuinely change to indicate growth or character development. In the good Beauty and the Beast, Beast attacks his porridge like it called him a racial slur. But then he realises he’s being a gump, and attempts to eat with a spoon as best he can. It’s his heartfelt, genuine attempt to change to please Belle that prompts her to ditch the spoon and eat like him to make him feel better.
Kevin starts off in Home Alone shovelling junk food into his mouth from an armchair like the other child-like characters, enjoying his newfound lack of oversight. By the end of the movie, however, he’s matured considerably and on the night of the robbery, he prepares himself a simple, nutritious microwave mac and cheese. He’s so goddamn precious that he’s laid out a place at the table, complete with silverware and candles.
Last, and definitely least, we have God’s mistakes. Freaks, plain and simple, that commit food crimes serious enough to be taken to The Hague and tried with more severity than people who use chemical weapons on civilian populations or people who talk in the theatre.
I’m not joking here, the easiest to handle is Michael from The Office dipping his veal in his glass of red wine. For the first and only time, I’m with Jan here. The absolute worst sinner, the Great Betrayer himself, is Will Smith in I, Robot, eating pie the way he does. I have to stop here, I’m gonna be sick.
So there you have it, the various ways movie characters eat their food, and what it signifies about their character. Jokes aside, I do legitimately enjoy seeing this done in film and TV as I think character is fleshed out so much through the most mundane things people do. The way we eat, the way we read a book, or the way we laugh – these are things we do unconsciously, revealing some of the truest things about us. Until someone points them out, that is.
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