Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A few meandering thoughts about storytelling

I just recently finished watching Season 2 of Legend of the Seeker, a show based on a series of books called the Sword of Truth. The novels, written by Terry Goodkind, were some of my favorites during high school when I was reading a great many 800+ page fantasy books. Indeed, I read so many books during that time that one can't help but wonder what it is that distinguished these in particular from all the rest. Many of the others had similar stories, similar characters, along with all the typical trappings of fantasy novels: wizards, enchanted swords and trinkets, strange creatures, mystical prophecies, etc. I can't even really say that Goodkind's writing was any better or worse than the other authors'. However, after watching Legend of the Seeker, I now have a much clearer picture of what set Goodkind's works apart.

About half-way through watching the first season, I started to wonder how much of what was going on actually corresponded to the events in the novels. While the characters and the general outline of events seemed to be as I remembered, it had been so long since I had read the first book in the series that I couldn't rely on just my memory. I was surprised to discover, as I skimmed through a few of the chapters in Wizard's First Rule, that a great many things were different, and not just in small ways either. Many scenes in the book did not appear in the TV show, and vice versa. However, what was more surprising was that this did not bother me in the least bit. As I continued to watch the show, I tried to determine why this was and, now that I've finished with what's available (and most likely all there will be, seeing as a third season is unlikely at this point), I think I know.

The producers, directors and, for the most part, the actors in Legend of the Seeker have succeeded in capturing the spirit of the books. While many of the intervening events may be different, the overall structure remains and the complex relationships between the characters, the moral dilemmas, the deceptions and betrayals, etc., are all there. The characters were cast well and the actors do an excellent job at playing their respective rolls, and yet Richard appears differently, both in appearance and personality, than I imagined him. However, this too failed to bother me.

As the last scene of the final episode faded out and I wiped the tears from my eyes I realized why, despite all the changes made, the TV series still seemed identical, at least in spirit, to the novels that had been etched into my memory years ago. The reason, as corny and trite as it sounds, is love. Time and time again, Goodkind's stories evoked in me a strong emotional response, and this came in particular from the dynamics between Richard and Kahlan, the principal characters of the novels and of the show. Their relationship is the crux of the Sword of Truth novels and The Legend of the Seeker was so successful in capturing the emotion and the spirit of it that, even had the writers and producers deviated even more than they did from their source material, I think the show still would have seemed a faithful adaptation in my mind.

Having gone through this train of thought and other similar ones, I've come to realize that, to me, good storytelling involves characters, relationships and ideas. The overall "feel" supersedes the details. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, while undoubtedly memorable and well-written, is difficult for me to re-read. There's simply too much detail -- it gets in the way of the characters and the flow of the story. (A number of other fantasy and sci-fi authors are guilty of this as well.) Because of this, I consider Peter Jackson's film adaptation of the books to be as much of an achievement as Tolkein's original work. Goodkind's stories don't suffer from this -- despite being many hundreds of pages each, they're quick reads. Granted, the language isn't highly elevated, but flowery words get in the way of communicating ideas more than they help.

One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. Stephen King, the man who wrote the story the movie is based on, is often criticized for not being a good writer, but when it comes down to it, being a good storyteller is far more important, and Shawshank has one of the best stories I've seen on the big screen. (I also thoroughly enjoyed King's Dark Tower series despite all of its supposed flaws.) One could say it's a story about escaping from prison, but really it's more about the idea of liberation. And more than that it's about a man and his friend. Did Tim Robbins really kill is wife or was he innocent? Does it matter? No, it doesn't.

Another, more recent favorite of mine is Inception, which has been a hot topic among moviegoers and critics. Sure, there are a lot of flashy, imaginative ideas about dreams and reality, but if you strip all of that away, it's a movie about a man and his guilt. In the high school literature classes that we've all taken, we've been taught to analyze everything, which in some instances can lead to a deeper understanding of the story, but I think that in doing this we often forget how to appreciate, at face value, what's right in front of us. I've seen tons of interpretations of the movie, some of them exceedingly complicated, but in my mind, the simplest and most logical explanation is often the best one. Did the top fall over or is Cobb in a dream where everything worked out in the end? From Cobb's point of view, it doesn't matter, and I can't help but think there's something brilliant about this.

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