This post was written by regular Friday blogger Annie Reid.
This summer I’ve been striving to write both a first draft of my novel, and attempting to finish up a commercially viable screenplay. This, it seems, is not only a recipe for schizophrenia, but for stupidity. Why are my novel characters racing after tornadoes in luxury cars and having tawdry, uncomplicated sex? Why does my screenplay character sit in darkened parlors contemplating the proportions of a flower pot and unraveling the end of a long sweater?
Then I read Joseph Epstein’s longish commentary on (among other things) David Thompson’s book The Whole Equation. Thompson, as Epstein notes, cannot avoid the fact that movies do not do what books can do:
As a form, he writes, movies are “most acute when fixed on what happens next; whereas literature, sooner or later, is about the meaning behind events.” This explains better than anything else I know why it is that the finest movies seem to have been made not from first- but from second-rate fiction: The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett), The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain), Farewell My Lovely (Raymond Chandler), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (B. Traven). In all these books, plot takes primacy over style and penetrating observation.
Hmmm. Could my novel be the stuff of a great screenplay? What a triumph/disaster! Then I remembered again Jonathan Dee’s excellent take on “transgressive” fiction ( “Ready-Made Rebellion”, from the April Harper’s magazine – not that I agree with everything he says here, but some of those skewers hit just the right place – ahhhh). Here he talks about what makes those wacky, dildo-slinging, arsonist, serial killing characters of transgressive fiction do what they do. Nothing, as it turns out.
Here, too, the Emptiness of Modern Life is presumed to take the place of character development, and even the most egregious acts of violence are carried out not for some terrible or exotic reason but, much more simply, for no reason at all… Small wonder most of these books have a hard time ending. “Incident,” E. M. Forster once advised novelists, “springs out of character; and having occurred, it alters that character.” But characters who experience no resistance and who act for no reason cannot be altered by events; they don’t develop, they just intensify.
That’s it, I figure. I’m having a motivation/incident problem. Intensity isn’t the same as complexity. Back to the drawing board.
Worrying about these issues, in the middle of the night, I pulled out the Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar’s excellent annotated translation. There I found the perfect antidote to character development, the delightful and little known, “A Fairy Tale About a Boy Who Left Home to Learn About Fear”.
What with zero character development, increasing intensity, humorous interludes with dead people and one single clear motive, it’s the perfect summer blockbuster. Seriously, Burton or Gilliam could do a number on this one.
The titular hero of the story is a young man who is essentially so lacking in intelligence and common sense that he becomes a great hero. The boy realizes that other people seem to feel something – let’s call it the creeps – that he does not. This irritates his family to no end, and the boy goes off into the world, desperate to learn how to get the creeps. Here, a traveler sends the boy off to the gallows in hopes of earning a quick buck in exchange for a lesson in the creeps:
Around midnight the wind was blowing so fiercely that he couldn’t get warm, even though the fire was burning. When the wind started buffeting the hanged men so that they were hitting against each other, he thought: “If you are freezing down here by the fire, the guys having up there must be really cold.” And because he was a compassionate soul, he got a ladder, climbed up, untied them one after another, and brought all seven down. Then he blew on the embers, stoked the fire, and set the men all around so that they could get warm. But they all just sat there and didn’t stir, even when flames started licking their clothes. The boy said: “Be careful or I’ll string you up again.” The dead men didn’t pay attention, remained silent, and let their rags go on burning. Then the boy got really mad and said: “If you don’t listen to me, then I can’t help you at all. I’m not going to go up in flames with you. And he hung them back up, one by one.
Eventually we do get to the enchanted castle and the princess and our clueless hero must contend with obstacles and challenges — all of which he overcomes winningly via his helpful stupidity. In the end, however, it is this very quality that annoys his wife, leading to some interesting bedroom hijinks. She teaches him how to get the creeps, oh yeah, baby! Really, I don’t know what else you’d want in a movie. Maybe I’ll write it myself, then do a movie tie-in book version. That could solve all my problems.