Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Tarot of Terror - Danse Macabre

I recently finished Stephen King's book about horror in film, television and novels; Danse Macabre. it was a great read and filled with some interesting perspectives from a man who's changed the world of horror fiction (it's hard to deny his influence even if you don't enjoy his stories).

One of the points that King brings up in the book is that there are essentially four types of horror stories or combinations of those types. They are: the unknown thing, the vampire, the changeling and the ghost story. His examples of these stories (in novel form) are as follows - The unknown thing: Frankenstein, The Vampire: Dracula, The changeling: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the ghost story: The Turn of the Screw. He then goes on to show how many horror films, television series and novels fit into these types. Now the book is a bit dated - the version I have shows a copy write date of 1983.

So I went ahead and put some of my favorite horror stories into these types...
Pickman's Model - The unknown thing
The Blair Witch Project - The Unknown Thing/The Ghost story
Perfect Blue - The Changeling
Audition - The Changeling
Cabal - The Changeling/The unknown thing
Salem's Lot - The Vampire
Lost Highway - The Changeling

Three of my favorite TV series incorporated all of these stories into their mix: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-files, Boogiepop Phantom.

I began to wonder if horror stories could be so easily confined so easily to these types. Did Mr. King hit the nail on the head, or did he miss something? In a way its interesting to be able to categorize the stories, but at the same time it seems confining. One of the things I love about all types of fantasy fiction is the ability to unleash the imagination. Any type of categories seems to be constrictive. At the same time King has not let these ideas hold him back. His "Dark Tower" has plenty of great fantastic moments.

What do you think? Are there any horror stories that don't fit these categories? Do they constrict horror writers?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Disney’s Ultimate Fairytale Princess - The Little Mermaid

When it comes to animation there are few that can top Walt Disney in his skill to create an entertaining story, brilliant animation and music. Over the years the quality of Walt Disney's animation has waxed and waned. We've seen some cinematic triumphs and some stinky duds.

The story I wish to focus on is 1989's, "The Little Mermaid". It was the culmination of a type of story that Walt had been struggling with since his first animated feature: the princess tale. Obviously "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was his first crack at the story and while the movie is a classic and a marvel of animation, it looks a bit rough compared to his later works. Disney returned to the idea again with "Cinderella". What is interesting here is that the movie is really less of a showcase for the princess as it is a highlight for the supporting cast. The prince barely gets any screentime and there is little chemistry between them. This was improved with Disney's final attempt "Sleeping Beauty". Here the Princess Aurora seems to be a bit flat, but Prince Philip (the first prince with a decent name) is fleshed out pretty well and we get a great villain with Maleficent. The music and animation are wonderful, but the story seems a bit too familiar. Maybe it's because it's the third crack at it.

"The Little Mermaid" manages to give us a solid princess with Ariel, a good leading man with Prince Eric, and one of the best modern Disney Villains, Ursula. The animation is pretty detailed but lacks the polish of "Aladdin" or "The Lion King". But the movie has it's own look, one that works completely in it's own world. The songs and score are classic and fit well into the story. As it stands this is the best showing of a princess in a Disney movie and the best telling of the classic Princess tale. Sadly Walt wasn't around to see this version of the film. However it did usher in a new age of Disney animation and bring a lot of little girls back to the grandeur of the Princess story. It also showed everyone the potential to tell a great entertaining story in a medium that had been in decline in America.

Do you agree, or do you think Disney actually told the best version of the story later or before?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tainting our Youth - The Chronicles of Narnia

There has been a recent stink raised about the upcoming film version of "The Golden Compass". According to some Christian groups the film is a gateway to atheism. They fear that once watching the film, the christian youths will want to read the books. Then after reading these novels they will be tainted with the desire to denounce Jesus and God. It will be a one way trip to hell for these unfortunates.

This is silly. First off, this big ruckus is only going to make more people read the books and watch the movie (see how well this tactic worked for "The Divinci Code" and "The Passion of the Christ"). Secondly if a person's faith is strong (because to paraphrase a classic Christmas film "faith is believing when common sense tells you not to") these easily swayed youths will resist the siren song of "The Golden Compass" and it's sequels.

Here's a flip example for you. I was raised in a primarily Catholic household. We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but didn't really go to church, although my mother did send me to Sunday school on occasion. I knew who Jesus was and his basic message, but I wasn't well versed in the bible.

Then one day at school, our teacher read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" to us. Now, the Chronicle of Narnia were written by a devote Christian, who was creating these stories as a new way to introduce Christian ideals and values to a younger audience. I first read these back in the early 80's so people weren't as PC as they are now, or I'm sure some of parents of students in our class would have complained. But no one did and we read the story in class.

I loved it. I thought it was a great story filled with magic, heroes, villains, talking animals, and warfare. I was so excited I wanted to read more and soon was devouring "Prince Caspian" and "The Silver Chair". Never once did I associate Aslan with Jesus. Never once did I see Christian values and ideals in these stories. I just liked the stories for the adventures they took me on.

Guess what? I did not grow up to be a practicing Christian.

Speaking for myself, I think my love of mythology put things in perspective for me. I saw "The Chronicles of Narnia" to be a good story, just like "Lord of the Rings" or "Clash of the Titans" or "Star Wars". In fact all these stories have similar themes and ideals. Later in life I discovered the work of Joseph Campbell and his analysis of storytelling and mythology and it really opened my eyes.

But back to the point here. "The Chronicles of Narnia" were not a gateway for me to Christianity. They were just good stories I enjoyed reading. My parents were there for any questions I had about the stories, or faith or god. They did their best to explain their views and always say "But that's just my opinion. There are others. Find out more." I really respect them for that.

I think its unfortunate that some people see books and ideas as an attack to their faith. Most of the time it's not. It may be a challenge, but if you are secure with your faith, you should welcome the challenge. Welcome the questions the work may bring. You should be comfortable enough to say, "I'm not afraid to have my children experience an opposing view point. It will only make their faith stronger."

What do you think? Should books with agendas be kept from children? Does this tactic do anything other than raise the profile of these books an films?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Kick that chair out from under them - Psycho

I'm going to be discussing the story structure of Hitchcock's classic horror film, "Psycho", so if you haven't seen it, don't read any further. Go watch the movie! Enjoy it. Then come back and give this a read.

*** Spoiler Alert***

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The film "Psycho" is based on a novel, and I'm curious to see how close to the book the movie turned out. I'm especially curious about the story structure. Does the novel follow Norman Bates, or does it follow Marion to her rendezvous at the Bates Motel, and then carry on with the other character's unraveling the mystery of her murder.

The reason this is so intriguing is that it was a daring move to have what is essentially the film's main character (Marion) die about 40 minutes in. The movie starts with Marion and we are with her so long, watching her every move (sometimes in great detail) that we fall into the comfortable idea that she is our lead, the damsel who will face darkness but come out on top. We don't see that she'll end up at the bottom of a bog sliced up and wrapped in plastic. Hitchcock pulls it off and still manages to keep the movie moving by passing the mystery of Marion onto the mystery of Norman Bates and his mother. It works great on film and in the hands of a skilled director.

Can this be pulled off in a book?

It's a tempting experiment to try, but I don't think that readers would enjoy the idea. If you spend roughly one third of a book getting to know a character only to have them brutally murdered, I think the reader is going to feel punished and cheated. It would be almost impossible to keep that momentum going, instead it will be like a brick wall in the story, one that will stop all but the most determined reader.

Now, I've read some series that use the death of a main character (usually around book three or so), and that's fine. A series usually has such a large cast that this kind of thing is expected. But in a one shot story, I'm not sure it can be done. (And killing your character off at the end is a different thing all together. That's makes the story a tragedy.)

What do you think, can story structure like "Psycho" only work on film?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dumbledore’s Big Secret

***Spoiler Warning***

I'll be discussing some of the plot points of the later Harry Potter novels. At this point, these books have not been made into films, so those of you who have only watched the movies and want to keep some of this knowledge hidden... wait for my next entry about classic horror films.

*** ***

This weekend J.K. Rowling said something to the effect of, "I've always envisioned Dumbledore as being gay". This little statement made the news. Its pretty telling that the sexual orientation of a fictional character made headlines in many major websites. Fans of the Harry Potter universe were abuzz. Hell, this is my first official Blog entry! The adventures of Harry Potter have really captured peoples imaginations. Children and adults have been devouring these books, propelling Rowling into the upper echelons of fiction writers. I admire Rowling's skill and her stories. I think she's created a memorable series and enjoy reading and listening to it (Jim Dale does a spectacular job reading the audio books).

I find two things very interesting about Rowling's comment. Up till this announcement I had never once thought about Professor Dumbledore's sexual orientation. Even the person who asked Rowling the question wasn't even asking if Dumbledore was a homosexual. The question was something to the effect of "Did Professor Dumbledore ever find true love?" For the entirety of the series sexuality is kept to a minimum (these are children/young adult books after all), and it certainly doesn't come up in the case of the teachers (what kid or teen wants to imagine their teachers having sex?).

This boils down to a simple fact: Dumbledore's sex life is immaterial. It has nothing to do with the plotting of the series. It has nothing to do with Harry's destiny. It has little to do with Dumbledore's character. That last statement may seem strange, but think about it. Its safe to say that up to this moment few people had even considered this aspect of Dumbledore. He was defined by other characteristics.

This is what makes Rowling's work so effective. She has mastered the art of show, don't tell. Almost all the characters in the Harry Potter universe are defined by their actions and reactions to others. While Rowling does give us some brief visual descriptions of characters, she does not simply tell us characterizations. She doesn't say "Hermione loves to study and is a bit of a nerd." She shows us Hermione answering every question in class. She shows Hermione always doing homework and going to the library.

In the same way she treats Professor Dumbledore. She shows him being friendly to Harry, looking out for him and defending him (even going so far as to shield Harry from the truth up to "Order of the Phoenix". She shows him facing down Voldemort and doing his best to fight the rising evil. All these actions and deeds define Dumbledore, and since they are viewed by Harry (and by us through Harry) we have a vivid picture of a great wizard. We don't think about Dumbledore's sex life because it is not relevant to the story and the actions the story requires. It took a direct question to the author to reveal this.

This tells me that Rowling has a vivid fully developed character sketch for her characters (and she has said as much in interviews). However instead of burdening the reader with every last detail of each character she has created, she let the actions reveal that character to us. She puts the characters in a situation and lets them react to it. To keep the character true (and this is the important thing) she has to know things about the character that may never come up. This is where small elements of the story may be affected. Why does Dumbledore treat Grindelwald the way he does? Rowling knew that Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald. This choice directed Dumbedore's actions and moved the plot in a different direction.

This seems obvious now, but after first reading it I didn't immediately think that Dumbledore loved Grindelwald. I saw a strong connection between the two young men, but I attributed this to Grindelwald's charisma and ideals. Dumbledore was obviously caught up in his friends fervor and I think most of us have experienced a friendship of that kind before. With the information that Rowling provides this is not an incorrect interpretation. Dumbledore being gay only changes the relationship between them slightly. The end result is the same.

Did Rowling choose to downplay Dumbledore's homosexuality? Possibly. No one would know except for her. Obviously she's aware that many people would have a problem with a character in a "children's" book being a homosexual. At the same time, it doesn't really affect the plot, so it could be easily left out. It doesn't have an immediate affect on Harry's story. If the book had been all about Dumbledore, this bit of characterization might have come up.

In the end I think this little piece of the puzzle is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as much of the other background information we learn in "The Deathly Hallows". Instead it allows me to appreciate Rowlings skill as a writer, and especially her work with characters. It is one of her great strengths, that she can create characters that the reader cares about and becomes deeply involved in. It's that skill combined with expert plotting and pacing that made her final Harry Potter novel such a intense, emotional and powerful read. It's that skill that puts her on my list of favorite authors

Monday, October 22, 2007

What's in a Blog

It was a bit difficult to come up with topic that would make my blog interesting to read. I decided to talk a bit about storytelling in all of its facets. Each week I'll pick either a specific work of fiction (novel, story, television series, movie, anime) and go over it. In a way it will be review, but my focus will be on the way the story is constructed and how it works most effectively or how it doesn't work.

In addition I may focus on one aspect of storytelling. This could be something technical, like plotting or characterization. It could be something broader like types of stories and why I feel they work.

So I hope you find the subject as interesting as I do. Who knows maybe I'll expose you to a story you've never encountered before or showed you a different take on something familiar. And feel free to comment and challenge my views, I always appreciate a good debate.