Let’s Talk Spoilers

It’s been a long time since I wrote something specifically about spoilers. After coming across this article at Tor by Sarah Kozloff about “spoilerphobia” I got to thinking about them some more. I still maintain that any story that can really be “spoiled” by knowing what happens probably isn’t that great, anyway.

A good point that Kozloff makes is that spoilers are more than just what happens in a particular story. They can be signifiers of social standing:

Knowing about the hot new book or movie can embody a certain cultural “one-upmanship” and indicate class privilege. Those with the money, time, freedom, and motivation to stay on top of current releases or buy new hardcovers may obtain an experience denied to those who have to wait for library copies or cheaper venues. So, the power to “spoil” lies disproportionately in the hands of those with elite access—like the critic—while anxiety about being deprived of an “untainted” experience affects people with less access.

I think my attitude toward spoilers is what it is because I first experienced them in the context of sports.

That said, I tend to agree with Kozloff’s ultimate conclusion:

I understand that revelations and endings do matter. I just don’t think they matter as much as people think they do or for every story. What I object to most about admonitions never to reveal plot is the implicit evaluation that surprise is everything, vastly more important than every other element of the work.

I think it’s important to think of spoilers as being linked to good manners. There’s a comment to the Tor piece about someone reading an Agatha Christie book on a plane:

Imagine reading an Agatha Christie novel on a plane and the guy next to you saying ‘That’s an awesome novel – I never would have guessed that she faked her death and burned her maid in her stead.’ (example made up, of course!). I don’t know how you would feel but I would be livid.

I’d be livid, too! Now, from a technical standpoint, whatever book that person’s reading has been out for decades and, really, they can’t expect it to be unspoiled. On the other, more relevant, hand, however, this person is obviously reading it, probably for the first time (people reread books, of course, but one has to think that of all the “book reading” going on in the world right now an overwhelmingly high percentage is people reading something for the first time) and there’s no reason to spoil it for them right now! That’s just assholery.

But the opposite situation is a different kind of assholery. Over the Xmas break my wife and I watched a couple of older movies – not ancient, but old enough to drive. As I often do, I went over to MovieChat to see what people were saying about it. On one of the forums, someone was complaining about the discussion spoiling the movie – a movie that had been out for 15 or so years. This person had come to a place where people talk about movies they’ve seen and bitched about spoilers. That’s assholery, too.

Thus, I think worrying about spoilers should be more about policing your own behavior rather than demanding what others do. I recently wrote a post inspired by watching Wonder Woman 1984 that, uncharacteristically, I put a spoiler warning on. Not because I think spoilers should be off limits, but because I knew the movie had just come out and people were still flocking to see it in the first rush. Six months later I might not have done the same thing, but who knows?

“Don’t be a jerk” is solid life advice. It applies to spoilers just as well.

When “It’s Fantasy” Isn’t Good Enough

A few weeks ago I was extolling the freedom that fantasy as a genre provides – the answer to almost any “can I do this?” question is “it depends,” so long as you can make it work. That said, you do still have to make it work and some things are beyond the ability of fantasy to change. This was driven home over the holidays watching Wonder Woman 1984.

I don’t normally do this, but the rest of this post contains big spoilers for WW84. If you want to go into it fresh and not knowing what’s going on, bookmark this and come back later. Otherwise, let’s press on . . .

The main plot-driving MacGuffin in WW84 is an ancient stone that grants the bearer any wish. It’s a classic fantasy/horror trope (think the monkey’s paw) and fits well within your basic superhero universe. Two things happen with this trope that are great examples of what “hey, it’s fantasy” can’t whitewash bad writing.

The first is how the MacGuffin is used to bring back Diana’s love interest from the first movie (that happened decades before, remember), Steve Trevor. That she wishes him back is fine – you’d have thought maybe she’d moved on in the ensuing years, but it’s believable – but they way they do it is so odd that it causes problems. Rather than have Trevor just materialize in 1984 D.C., he winds up taking over the body of a person who’s already there, to the point that only Diana actually sees him as Trevor.

This way of doing it raises all sorts of issues, both practical and moral. The guy Trevor takes over presumably has a life – a job, family, maybe a significant other – how do they play into this? Is he missed at all? Are there things he normally has to do in a day that aren’t getting done, causing problems? Beyond those complications are serious questions about consent and what not, given that Diana and Trevor sleep together and Trevor puts this guy’s body at risk while chasing bad guys. What would have happened if he died or was seriously injured? All and all, it’s pretty fucked up.

All this is rich fodder for the movie to explore, but it doesn’t even nod at it. This is fantasy done poorly. There’s nothing that says you can’t have someone come back from the dead like this, but what are the consequences? If you don’t want to explore the consequences, then why bring him back in a way that creates so many questions? It’s sloppy and not very thoughtfully done.

An aside on the topic of Trevor – it annoyed me greatly that he’s overwhelmed by seeing an escalator and a subway, both of which existed during his lifetime, but he has no trouble whatsoever jumping into a (conveniently unlocked, unguarded, and fully fueled) jet and flying it to the other side of the planet. Hey, he was a World War I pilot, right? Planes hadn’t changed in six decades! He can be either a wide-eyed dope or a man ahead of his time, but not both.

WW84 goes big when the bad guy basically allows people all over the world to tap into the wish-making power. This causes lots of problems and leads to the film’s biggest issue, in my book. To save the day, either the MacGuffin has to be destroyed (which it sort of already has) or everyone who was granted a wish needs to recant it. This works well for Diana’s arc – she has to let go of Trevor – but simply doesn’t work as the big finale. Why?

20-Fucking-20, that’s why. Actually, it’s not even that. I’ll show my cards, here, and admit that I generally loathe the “manufacture a happy ending by believing hard enough” trope, so I would not be on board with the way WW84 ends, anyway. But after a year full of selfish political idiots who buck at the idea of wearing a mask to help contain a global pandemic, the idea that everyone who made a wish would take it back for the greater good is just laughable. It doesn’t help that lots of the wish examples we see in the movie are fairly petty and nasty. These people would suddenly do the right thing?

What does this have to do with writing fantasy? With some fantasy the world you’re dealing with isn’t our own, even hugely modified. The world of The Dark Crystal does not include human beings, for instance. Neither does The Water Road, for that matter. But if your fantasy is set in our world – with regular people, for the most part – then you can’t just hand-waive issues with them with the notice that “it’s fantasy.” Human beings have to behave like human beings, at least to the extent they haven’t been magically made something else. See also, this scene from Dogma. That the world can be saved just by everybody being nice for a change just doesn’t work.

So, there, is perhaps a pair of caveats to my prior advice on how you can use fantasy to do pretty much anything. First, you have to think about the consequences of your fantastic world. Second, humans still have to behave like actual human beings. Still leaves a lot of room to have fun, right?

On Fictional History and Fictional Places

Fiction is fake, by definition. Otherwise it would be nonfiction, right? Any character you create doesn’t exist in the real world if you’re writing fiction, even if you’re writing about a historical figure. Still, a lot of fiction takes place in what we think of as the “real” world. What happens when the real world isn’t enough and you decide to create enclaves of pure fiction within it? Well, then things get interesting.

I had a chance to ponder this recently thanks to a couple of things I consumed that leaned heavily into fictional history and fictional places. Neither quite worked and I’m not sure if all that non-existent history or fake places weren’t part of the problem.

As for fake history, I finally had a chance to see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the latest Quentin Tarantino epic. I’m a fan of most of his stuff, and while I found a lot to admire about Once Upon a Time . . . (Brad Pitt, in particular, is as good as everybody said he was), there’s some interesting alternate history in it that didn’t really work for me.

Hollywood

Sitting alongside the story of a TV star on the downside of his career (Leo DiCaprio) and his buddy/stunt man (Pitt) in 1969 Los Angeles is the story of Sharon Tate. Tate, as you’ll recall, was married to Roman Polanski at the time (hilariously portrayed as looking almost exactly like Austin Powers and not yet a rapist) and would be brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family that August. Spoiler alert, I guess – in the world Tarantino builds, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the would-be murderers go to the house next door, where Dicaprio’s character lives and Pitt’s is on acid, and are violently dispatched with a combination of the world’s best pit bull and a flame thrower (which somehow makes sense). The movie ends with everybody else getting on with their lives, the spirit of the 1960s not yet brutally ended.

The odd thing about all this is that it seems backwards. Usually when we’re talking alternate history the pivot point – where it diverges from our reality – is at or near the beginning of the story. The rest of it is exploring the “what if this happened?” question. For a timely example, the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America begins as Charles Lindberg runs for, and wins, the presidency in 1940 on an isolationist platform bolstered by anti-Semitism. What happens next is what we’re going to find out in the next few weeks.

The closer comparison with Once Upon a Time . . . is Tarantino’s prior bit of historical revisionism, Inglorious Basterds. In that one a group of Jewish American Army soldiers during World War II put Hitler down in a bloody, fiery way. It’s clearer wish fulfillment, in my opinion, since everybody knows Hitler was a monster. It also leans heavily on the speculative fiction trope of time travelling to kill Hitler, so it makes more intuitive sense. There’s certainly some wish fulfillment in Once Upon a Time . . . – of course it’s a better world where murder victims aren’t actually murdered and the would-be killers get instant justice – but the way it comes about makes less sense. There’s nothing explaining why the Manson kids go to the wrong house and neither the DiCaprio nor Pitt characters do anything other than react to a home invasion – they aren’t heroes who intentionally foil a plot. I just don’t get the point of the exercise.

It’s easier to see the point of using completely made up geography in fiction, but even that can be tricky. Full disclosure – I’ve done it myself (Moore Hollow is set in a fictional West Virginia county), so I’m not against the idea. It does honk me off a little bit when it comes out of nowhere, though.

One of my great finds of last year was Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, a darkly funny book about a guy trying to conquer death by bringing people back from it. In that book the titular hero (I use the term loosely) has to obtain 100 souls for Satan in order to win his own back, with the devil providing a nightmarish carnival train to aid in the process. As I said, it’s funny in a dark, sarcastic kind of way (in some ways it puts me in mind of a horror version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and, so far as I can remember, takes place entirely in our world. Not our real world, obviously (see, bringing people back from the dead, Satan, souls, etc.), but at least it looks like ours. It all happens in the UK, with Cabal’s family coming from Germany.

Imagine my surprise when I dove into the sequel, Johannes Cabal the Detective, and found out that it takes place entirely in a pair of made up countries somewhere in Europe (with a third thrown in for good political measure).

CabalDetective

I understand why the author did this – the story requires particular political and military maneuvers that don’t fit established history and it’s hard to manipulate real places to do your fictional building. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a shock to have these made up places thrown at you without warning. Had the first book mentioned them or been set in them it would have been different. That neither Cabal nor his sidekick have any connection to these places doesn’t help the story, but that’s a separate issue.

Of course, there are entire genres of fantasy that take place in worlds that have no relation to this one. The Water Road trilogy takes place on another world entirely (with no human beings!), as does Gods of the Empire and its sequels. But with those you know going in what you’re getting into. Changing the game midstream seems like a miscalculation to me. The question with everything, whether it’s fake history or made up locations, is what works best for the story? What best serves the character? Sometimes the answer to both is something completely new and unexpected. But sometimes it’s not.

The Mobster and the Mediocrity

The movie begins with a long tracking shot, weaving in and out of the locale in which the story is set. The soundtrack plays out tunes appropriate to the historical setting of the story. The opening sequence comes to an end with an old man in an institution in a wheelchair. He wants to talk to you. He has a confession to make.

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s latest then you know this describes the opening of The Irishman, his latest epic mob opus. The old man in this case is Frank Sheeran, a real person, playing by Robert DeNiro.

Sheeran

But if you think back several years, it might sound like the beginning of another movie. In that case, the old main the wheelchair is Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. Rather than being in a nursing home in New Jersey, he’s in an insane asylum in Vienna.

Amadeus

The move, of course, is Amadeus, directed by the late great Milos Forman.

What could these two films have in common, made decades apart with settings separated by centuries and an ocean? More than you might thing (or maybe less than I might think).

Much has been written as to the historical accuracy of The Irishman. It’s based on a tell all book, where Sheeran admitted to his lawyer all the horrible things he’d done for the mob. As particularly relevant to the film, those include the murder of New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo in 1972 and, most spectacularly, Jimmy Hoffa.

As this lengthy Slate article explains, all of that is pretty much bunk (one FBI agent quoted about the book upon which The Irishman is based called it “baloney, beyond belief”). Nobody involved in the investigations into the Gallo slaying and Hoffa disappearance think Sheeran did it, although he might have been tangentially involved with Hoffa. (The publisher of the original book responds here).

Amadeus isn’t the most rigorous piece of history either. There’s no evidence to support the takeaway most people have from the film (and the play upon which it was based), that Salieri killed Mozart. Mozart, of course, died penniless and kind of disdained, but it was due to some kind of infection (a “severe military fever,” according to records), not murder.

What’s interesting in the Slate piece of Sheeran, and what made me think of Salieri, is his ability to escape saying specifically “I did it”:

another quick digression about something you may have noticed earlier—the weird way that Sheeran phrased his confessions to both murders. Specifically, his use of the passive voice. ‘Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range.’ ‘Crazy Joey got shot about three times outside of the restaurant.’

I wondered about that, too.

Near the end of the book, Brandt tries to get Sheeran to confirm, one final time, all that he confessed before.

‘Now,’ Brandt said to Sheeran, ‘you read the book. The things that are in there about Jimmy and what happened to him are things that you told me, isn’t that right?’

Frank Sheeran said, ‘That’s right.’

‘And you stand behind them?’

And he said, ‘I stand behind what’s written.’

Which means that even in his deathbed confession, Frank Sheeran never actually says the words, ‘I killed Jimmy Hoffa,’ or that he killed Joey Gallo, or anybody at all.

Let’s assume that Sheeran’s unwillingness to come right out and say “I did it” is less trying to shirk responsibility for crimes he personally committed. What if his confession is less about what he did personally, than what he was a part of? Likewise, what if Salieri’s is not about his personal guilt for murdering Mozart, but for the unprincipled role he played in the world that led to his death?

Sheeran, by all accounts, was in the mob. Even if you’re not a contract killer for the mob, if you’re in the mob, you’re in a world where violence and murder is part of the lifestyle. It’s sort of like being a football trainer – you’re not actually out there causing brain damage, but you’re part of a world where that kind of things happens all the time. Just being around that kind of milieu must take its toll psychologically. Is it so odd that someone adjacent to so much horrible shit feels guilty about it, even if he didn’t pull any triggers?

Salieri’s world, of course, was quite a bit different, but there’s no doubt the way the musical tornado that was Mozart changed it. Keeping in mind that Salieri was already the court composer and thus entrenched in a position of power makes his eventual “confession” all the more powerful. He had plenty of opportunities (so the film argues) to aid, or at least not actively hinder, his young counterpart as he spirals into debt and drink. Not only does he keep pushing him in ways that aren’t likely to help Mozart’s health, Salieri actively fucks with his career. None of this is the same as sticking a knife in his back or poisoning him (a once-popular theory), but neither is it precisely good behavior. Much like Sheeran, Salieri was an asshole in a milieu where assholes could get away with stuff.

There was more personal animosity to the Salieri/Mozart relationship than there was anything in The Irishman, of course. To the point that, at the end of the film, Salieri declares himself the patron saint of mediocrities. Sheeran at the end of The Irishman is more inward looking, guilty about a life not well spent. He’s not making bold proclamations (and, obviously, he’s not nuts).

In my legal work I deal all the time with people who confess to doing bad things, but mostly they’re doing that on their own. If they’re coming out of some particular environment it’s not usually because they’ve chosen that life. Sheeran, by contrast, chose to be a gangster. That he didn’t personally embody the worst of what that means didn’t mean he couldn’t struggle with guilt about the worst aspects of that life. Likewise, Salieri chose to be the shit he was, even if he didn’t go so far as to murder his rival.

But I also know that people confess to things they don’t do. Sometimes it’s because cops force them into it. Sometimes it’s because they feel guilty personally, even if they aren’t guilty legally. The human psyche, and memory, can be an odd thing.

Guilty Pleasures

This, floated recently in the New York Times, I can fully get behind:

We know them when we see them: The TV shows and movies we love, even though we just know they’re bad. The trashy books we simply can’t put down. The awful earworms we hate to love.

Yes, these are our guilty pleasures — what some people consider the junk food in our media diets. But if we enjoy them, why should we feel guilty? We should be free to enjoy whatever we like! And as it turns out, these so-called ‘guilty’ pleasures can actually be good for us, so long as they’re enjoyed in moderation.

I really loathe the term “guilty pleasure,” since it makes a value judgment about the kind of art or entertainment that grabs you. As I’ve said over and over, reaction to art is personal and what thrills one person will bore another. Think of the most popular thing on the planet (say, Avengers: Endgame) and consider that as popular as it is it hasn’t been seen, much less liked, by a majority of the population.

Don’t get me wrong – I have what others might deem guilty pleasures, I just refuse to feel bad about it. In particular I seem to have a particular fondness for “bad” movies with Max von Sydow in them – Flash Gordon, David Lynch’s Dune, Strange Brew, Victory. None of them were critically praised and at least two of them are loathed by portions of the fandom of the originals upon which they’re based. Those folks are entitled to their opinion, but they’re not entitled to feel superior to me because I enjoy that stuff (while recognizing I’m in the minority).

I think part of why we like to label things as “guilty pleasures” is that it allows us to like what we do without actually copping to it, so we can still think we’re cool. That’s why we come up with ideas like reading something ironically or hatewatching to cover the truth – we just enjoy what we’re reading/watching/listening to. I mean how stupid is “hatewatching”? If you watch something that you hate so often you’re just in denial – you’re enjoying it, even if in a different way than the creators intended.

After all, it’s not like a bad movie or book is the same thing as an artery-clogging meal:

Guilt can be a healthy motivator to push us to change behaviors we don’t like, while shame — the painful feeling that our behavior makes us horrible people — is never productive. But when we disparage our reality TV viewing habits, for example, we typically aren’t describing a behavior we hope to change, nor are we saying we’re terrible people.

‘When you feel guilty, but haven’t harmed anyone, then you’re just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism,’ said Dr. Neff, the associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

So throw down your chains of shame, brothers and sisters! Give not a single fuck about what other people think about your entertainment preferences! We all need brain candy sometimes – might as well admit it and move on with our lives. I’m with Loki:

GuiltyPleasure

Irony Meter Cleanup On Aisle Four!

Rarely do I come across a piece of legal history I know nothing about that is so steeped in irony it almost hurts.

I recently saw, for the first time, The Ox-Bow Incident. I’d heard about it before and it was on one of the high-numbered pay cable channels we get and figured it was worth checking out. Released in 1943 (and based on the novel of the same name published in 1940), it’s the story of a mob in a small western town that forms to track down and lynch a trio of cattle rustlers who apparently murdered a local rancher. Of course they didn’t – the whole thing is a taught psychological study of mob justice and how inflamed passions can lead to horrible outcomes. In this case, the three men and hanged and only later does the mob learn they were innocent.

OxBow

The movie struck me as the kind that law profs like to write about (there’s a thriving trade in analyzing how lawyers are portrayed in media), so I went looking for any scholarly discussion of The Ox-Bow Incident. I found a couple of interesting articles, one of which had an astounding tidbit in it that I had to follow up on.*

As I said, the movie came out in 1943. The author of the article expressed amazement that such a movie got made in the middle of World War II, given that it took aim at the traditional Western narrative of rugged frontier exceptionalism. Whatever else it is, The Ox-Box Incident is an unflattering portrait of the American West. It could never have been made during the First World War when, he writes:

[when even a patriotic epic celebrating the American Revolution became a target for federal seizure and prosecution on the chance that the film might excite anti-British sentiments.

What the holy hell? I followed the footnote and saw the same of the film was The Spirit of ‘76 and off to Wikipedia I went.

Ad_for_1917_silent_film_The_Spirit_of_'76

Released in 1917, just after the United States entered World War I, it was, as you’d expect, about the American Revolution. It’s the tale of Catherine, a woman of mixed heritage (French father and Native American mother) who, somehow, becomes the “morganatic wife” (I had to look it up) of King George III. Honked off at George and by the treatment of the American colonists, she returns to become a hero of the American Revolution.

Pretty stirring stuff, right? I mean, hugely melodramatic, but still, it makes you want to stand up and waive a flag, doesn’t it? So what was the problem?

The problem was that, at the time the movie was released, we had just begun to fight in the war with the British as our allies. Allies who apparently weren’t up for depictions of

[quote]multiple atrocities committed by the British side during the war, including soldiers bayoneting babies and raping unarmed women, the Wyoming massacre, and the Cherry Valley massacre.[/quote]

So when the film premiered in Chicago the head of the local film censorship board – whose name was, I shit you not, Metallus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser – confiscated it and forced edits. It showed in Chicago in edited form, but after the cuts were restored for a showing Los Angeles the producer, Robert Goldstein, was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced under the Espionage Act. He served three years of a ten-year sentence before he got a commutation from Woodrow Wilson.

There you have it – a movie about the “spirit of 1776,” which presumably has more than a little to do with love of liberty and fighting tyranny – was suppressed by the nation it celebrates, to the point that the person who made it went to prison for years. They used to say that irony died after 9/11, but I’m surprised there was enough of it left after that explosion of ironic particles for that to matter.

ObiWonIrony

Fun fact – if you’re wondering why the First Amendment didn’t protect Goldstein from going to prison, consider two things. First, the Supreme Court, in general, was bad on the First Amendment around the time of the First World War. Second, at the time the Supreme Court had held that the First Amendment didn’t cover movies. They were “a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit” not “part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.” The case was overruled in 1952, but that was much too late for Goldstein.

Not quite so fun fact – according to the Wikipedia entry, it’s unclear what became of Goldstein after his prison term. He returned to Europe and it was thought he died in the Holocaust, but there’s some evidence he might have gotten out in 1938. Nobody’s really sure.

* Not online – Harry F. Tepker, Jr., The Ox-Bow Incident, 22 Okla. City U. L. Rev. 1209 (1997)

All Stories Are About Characters

There’s this scrappy little independent film out in theaters now, Avengers: Endgame, that you might have heard about. Without going deeply into spoilers, let’s just say that it involves what the Doctor might call some “timey wimey” nonsense. Thus I was kind of pleased when I saw this article by Michal Schick pop through my Google stream:

Endgame1

I figured this would be a good reminder of what I call the MST3K philosophy: “repeat to yourself this is just a [movie], you should really just relax.” After all, there’s been considerable ink spilled on what the time travel stuff in Endgame means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whether it “works,” and all that kind of stuff. It’s interesting, but there’s a certain amount of diminishing returns the further you dive in.

So imagine my surprise when Schick went a different direction:

Endgame2

This is a good and overlooked point when it comes to superhero stuff. Many superheroes tend to have a sheen of the scientific about them, an explanation for why they have superpowers – Spider Man is who he is because he was bitten by a radioactive spider, Superman is who he is because he’s from another planet and the rays of our sun give him powers. But let’s be honest – that’s all bullshit. It’s not as if the scientific explanations really hold up to scrutiny or are based on extrapolations of known science. They sound cool and that’s enough.

With that recognition, however, we’re clearly in the realm of fantasy rather than science fiction. That means that when there’s time travel in Endgame it’s not trying to be scientifically rigorous. Instead, it’s a kind of “just so” setup, something you have to just accept as part of that world. It may be internally inconsistent and that’s worth criticizing, but bagging on the film for not getting time travel in general “right” is missing the point.

After agreeing with the article up to this point, I took a hard turn into disagreement. After noting, correctly, that often the quick and dirty classification of things as fantasy or sci-fi depends on what they look like (the good example they use is “blasters and ray guns” equal sci-fi, while “magic wands” doing basically the same thing equal fantasy), it goes all wrong:

Far, far more important to genre are the interests and values of the story itself.

Does the story prioritize character (fantasy) or does it highlight and interrogate plot and concept (science fiction)? Do the story’s values live in the realm of emotion and experience (F), or intellect and ideology (SF)? Is the creator working with the primary interests of fantasy or science fiction, not to design their world, but to define it?

No, no, no. “Emotion and experience” are part and parcel of any story, regardless of the genre. Science fiction may be particularly susceptible to stories where the tech is more important than the people using it, but if there’s no emotional connection to those characters you might as well just read a technical manual. I’ve written about this before, but I think it does sci-fi a disservice to think it’s not about characters.

To me, the admittedly hazy line between sci-fi and fantasy comes from how the author treats the world in which the story is being told, not the characters. Worlds that look more like ours and where the element of the fantastic has some real connection to ours fall on the sci-fi side of the line, while a world whose differences from ours just are tends to fall under the fantasy umbrella. Neither classification is a marker of quality, much less determinative of how the characters are developed and how readers connect with them.

That’s the most important part of telling a story, regardless of genre. People want to care about characters. They want “emotion and experience.”

The Plusses and Pitfalls of Non-Standard Narratives

In whichever mediums stories are told – in print, on a screen, orally – they usually have a similar narrative structure. The story is presented as it is, with perhaps some limitation on the point of view of the narrator, but without any particular artifice. Sometimes creators do something a little different and impose some kind of artifice on the narrative. That can be a thrilling creative choice, but it can also pose some potential problems. I was thinking about that over the weekend when I encountered two largely successful examples of non-standard narratives.

Evil Eye, by Madhuri Shekar, is an “Audible original,” one of those short freebies offered up to members every month.

EvilEye

Although Audible is mostly known for audiobooks, in my experience these have been closer to podcasts or radio plays, for the most part. Evil Eye is a story about an Indian-American woman struggling with her mother back in India who keeps trying to arrange a marriage for her. When she finally meets a guy without mom’s intervention what begins as a light rom-com kind of thing dives headlong into a story of revenge, reincarnation, and violence. It’s pretty damned good, even if Shekar doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Part of what made Evil Eye so compelling was that it was told entirely through phone calls and voice mail messages. It takes a little while to get a handle on, but it’s used pretty effectively. For example, there a portion of the story where one character basically disappears and another frantically tries to find them. The repeated voice mail messages to a phone nobody is answering, combined with the ratcheting up of the caller’s anxiety, is a great effect.

It doesn’t all work, though. The climax involves a confrontation between multiple characters that can’t really play out in a phone call. The work around is to have one character make a call, then leave the line open while the confrontation happens (in pristine audio detail). It’s clearly a cheat, but not one I hold against Evil Eye too much.

Can’t say quite the same for Searching, a movie that came out last year.

Searching

Searching is about a widower father searching for his high-school daughter who failed to come home one night. It’s fairly suspenseful and engrossing, at least until the writer/director decided it needed a happy ending, at which point the wheels really come off.

Searching’s gimmick is that it’s told entirely through computer screens – via deep dives into emails, Google searches, and Facetime calls (it’s an Apple household, naturally). For the first half of the movie or so this is really effective. The opening segment that sets up the family dynamic and the relationship (or lack thereof) between father and daughter is really excellent, reminding me in terms of storytelling efficiency of the beginning of Up.

Things start to a little sour after that, however. While the father is digging into the digital realm the gimmick works pretty well, but when he has to interact with other people it wears thin. Every conversation between the father and the cop leading the investigation into his missing daughter takes place over Facetime. Why? Because that’s how the movie is made, not because it really makes any sense. The father has a public confrontation with a possible suspect, assaulting him, but we only see it from crappy cell phone videos. Most problematic, when the father confronts his brother about potentially explosive allegations he does so only after rigging the brother’s house with surveillance equipment. Again, why? Because of the gimmick, not because it makes any kind of sense.

Indeed, sometimes you just have to be willing to drop the gimmick and get on with the story. The most famous example of non-standard narratives in literature may be Dangerous Liaisons, which is told entirely in letters between the two main characters. The fact that it’s one of the few books that’s been improved upon by putting on screen suggests that the gimmick isn’t the important part of that story.

Using gimmicks to tell a story can be fun. It can knock your reader of her narrative feet, shaking her up and forcing her to engage with the story in a different way. It can also help you get more deeply into a character than you might in a story told in a more traditional way. But gimmicks can become their own problems, boxing you in to certain narrative choices that might not work best for the story you want to tell.

Remember, kids: always keep control of your gimmicks – don’t let your gimmicks control you.

Adaptation by Subtraction

One of the reasons novels are so hard to adapt into movies is because there’s just so much in them. Short stories are much easier to completely absorb into a two-hour film, but a book that runs several hundred pages? A real task. Often where filmmakers go wrong is in trying to cram as much of the novel onto the screen as possible, trying to please fans and make sure nothing important gets left out. In truth, that’s about the worst way to attempt an adaptation.

The best adaptations are ones where the filmmakers take the core of the novel and transport it onto the screen, maintaining the feel and ideas of the book, while jettisoning material that gets in the way. Having just read the novel on which it’s based I think the best example of that may be L.A. Confidential.

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Directed by Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote the script along with Brian Helgeland, the film was critical lauded when it was released in 1997. Nominated for nine Oscars it won two, including for the screenplay (it lost best picture to Titanic – not a choice that aged well), which was adapted from the James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name. It’s one of my favorite movies.

The book and movie both follow a trio of cops in 1950s Los Angeles as they try to unravel a conspiracy of corruption among the police, politicians, and wealthy businessmen. The events take place in the wake of “Bloody Christmas,” an actual LAPD prisoner abuse scandal, and are catalyzed by a (fictional, so far as I know) shotgun massacre of six people at a diner called the Nite Owl. Everything comes to a very bloody end.

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The film tells a tight story, hewing close to the Nite Owl killing as the driving force and covering only a few days. The cops – Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), and Jack Vincennes (he who shall not be named) – each take their own paths to the truth, which is far from convenient for any of them. They boil down into fictional cop archetypes – the by-the-book choir boy who has to get his hands dirty (Exley), the thug who wants to be more cerebral (Bud), and the glib hustler enamored with Hollywood glitz and scandal (Jack). As someone else wrote a long time ago, Exley and Bud make one good cop between them.

The book, by contrast, spreads out over several years (with huge time jumps pretty clumsily handled) and adds to the Nite Owl a huge, sprawling murder case that involves torture porn and not one but two serial killers! I’m probably biased from having come to the film first, but this part of the book didn’t work that well for me, as it was so over the top it sacrificed some verisimilitude for spectacle. It is also dark as fuck, full of language that wouldn’t pass any modern PC filter.

What’s amazing is that for leaving out all that stuff the movie still basically ends in the same place in terms of theme. Exley learns that sometimes rules have to be bent to deal with real evil (the lesson of every good fictional cop and, sadly, way too many real life ones), while Bud does his best to rise above his brutality, but winds up reverting to type in the end. Jack winds up dead in both tellings, although for very different reasons.

What the book does that no movie can touch is get us much deeper into the heads of the three cops around whom the story revolves. Bud in the book is basically Bud from the movie, but the other two get backstories that really sharpen their characters. As in the movie, Exley is a war hero, but in the book we learn he’s also a fraud – he framed the aftermath of an act of cowardice to look like bravery. The relationship with his father – an ex-cop turned real estate developer – also gets a lot of development and helps explain why Exley is who he is. The Jack of the book gets a lot more development, including a tragic fuck up in his past and a love interest that gives him more of a potential redemption arc.

Which is to say some things are lost in the adaptation, but not much. For the most part, Hanson and Helgeland got it right on what to cut and what to emphasize. But don’t take my word for it:

Ellroy approved: ‘They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes. The script is very much about the [characters’] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I’ve long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.’

That puts Ellroy in a pretty limited company of authors who are fans of the movies based on their works. Like I said – sometimes it’s not about what’s left in, but what’s left out that makes an adaptation successful.

Writers Can Do Research, You Know

You may remember last year when I finally got around to seeing Whiplash, the highly praised 2014 film about a young drummer and his abusive mentor, and that I didn’t much care for it. Based on that, when I saw a headline over at the AV Club about a “jazz musician who is not a fan of Whiplash” I smirked and decided to check it out. It actually led to a misconceptions about the nature of writing fiction that I wanted to highlight.

The review itself, which you can watch here, really isn’t as negative as the headline. In fact, the jazzer in question, Adam Neely, winds up by calling Whiplash “great,” so he doesn’t exactly take a dump on it. What he does is point out some things about modern jazz education that the movie gets wrong and laments that because Whiplash is about the only pop culture portrayal of that setting it’s likely to be what people think of it. I get it – I can similarly pick nits from just about any lawyer movie.

But before getting to that, Neely goes through a lot of stuff the movie gets right, highlighting a lot of inside details that ring true. He credits this to writer/director Damian Chazelle’s having been in a similar jazz ensemble in high school and goes so far as to say “these sorts of things could only come from playing in a jazz band.”

That’s where the writer in me started shaking his head.

It’s indisputable that Chazelle drew on his own experiences when writing Whiplash – he’s said so in interviews. However, the idea that only someone who had been through those experiences could write such a story fundamentally misunderstands what writers do. It’s a common mistake and one I blame on the one piece of advice about writing that just about everybody has heard – “write what you know.”

It’s not the worst advice, particularly for new writers. Learning the actual craft of writing fiction is easier when the story you’re telling is one you’re familiar with and takes place in the world you know. Having said that, it’s not an iron-clad piece of advice. After all, if all writers stuck to writing what they knew we’d have a lot fewer books and the genre of speculative fiction would shrink to near meaninglessness.

So writers spend a lot of time writing about what they don’t know. How? Research!

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In much the same way that an actor who’s going to play a police officer, say, will learn about what police officers do and how they do it, a writer who wanted to write about cops could do the same thing. There’s an entire section of one of the writer forums I hang out on dedicated to research and people looking for answers to questions from people who have actual expertise in that area.

That’s even true when you’re writing fantasy. As I’ve said before, one of the great things about fantasy is that you can make up anything you want, but it’s still important to have some realism about the world you’re creating. In The Water Road I had a character take an arrow to the leg. Since it wasn’t meant to be a fatal wound, I needed to know how to get it out. I did some research, found out that it’s more complicated than I thought and that the kind of arrow used could say something about the character that loosed it in the first place. Reality informed my fantasy.

So kudos to Chazelle for getting those details right, but he’s not the only one who could have done so. Any good writer would have done their research before writing a story set in a particular world. It’s part of what we do.

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I do have to say one thing about Neely’s overall impression of Whiplash. It’s interesting that he points out one of the flaws in the film I did – that nobody seems to really enjoy the music they’re abusing themselves to make – but that for him, the musician, it didn’t harm the movie. For me it did, which just goes to show that even when two people agree on what’s wrong with a movie (or book or song or . . .), it means different things to them. Such is art.