I just came out from watching Hellboy 2 (which, by the way, I felt wasn’t as good as the first one). This however, is not a review but is instead a semblance of a mini-essay, or a rant, or a collection of semi-coherent and hopefully linked observations.
As I watched the final act of the movie, it became more clear to me that there’s a fusion of technique and narrative devices (and the types of stories being told) between the following media: television, comic books and graphic novels, andÂ movies. All are inherently visual and all are increasing being used to tell and retell speculative fiction, and the same stories are increasingly being re-framed in each medium (although primarily the transition is from comic to movie-screen).
Less this seem a more trite observation than I mean it to be, it not just my assertion that the stories are being recycled (to the detriment of new narratives, that have to prove themselves against the established ones). Its also that there’s a melding of narrative form within the overall plot.
In one instance, there’s the idea of serialisation. Television – for instance, Doctor Who or Buffy – uses an on-going set of stories, from which we can be fairly certain that, once the current plot-line is resolved, new adventures will ensue. Based on that, the audience has certain expectations, and accepts that certain elements of plot may be left unresolved from episode to episode.
Movies now take on that device; we can accept (and have accepted for some time) that characters will walk off into the sunset before the closing credits with unfinished business, expecting to see them again in a sequel. Given, however, that movies are multi-million dollar affairs – orders of magnitude more expensive than any television series or comic series, we accept this premise at our peril. We have no guarantee that we will ever see the unfinished threads woven together.
Writers do their best to plan for this: each season of Buffy was concluded as if it would not have a following one; Joss moved medium from television to the big-screen to comics in an attempt to keep the narrative thread of Firefly alive, and moved from television to comic book for both Buffy and Angel. Doctor Who was kept alive (or resurrected) by moving from television to book and audio forms. However, it requires great effort and skill to adaptÂ successfully and we have to accept that not all stories will survive.The writer needs to ensure that the current story can suffice on its own. While I felt that the first Hellboy did, this one left me less sure of that; it felt more like a single tale abstracted from a voluminous collection of them; more like the comic than a movie.
Another big idea is the increasing sophistication of the audience and how to please them. How do writers capture the attention of a jaded audience who have seen the same basic fight scene or space battle or plot in a hundred previous stories? It’s a problem worse for serialised stories than for (sort-of) one-off tales like Star Wars.
Of course, we all know that George Lucas is a talentless hack who hates actors, and who pinched the story of the original movie from Kurosawa, and we’ve seen how the series has devolved into farce. However, we all walked out of that first film knowing that, while we’d seen something that was a recycled story based upon classic themes, it was one solid piece of fiction and it worked. Bring back those characters again, however, and you can’t just have them fly spaceships, shoot things and save the heroines. They have to grow into people – into real characters rather than cardboard cut-outs that are a vehicle for a Jungian archetype (or what have you).
The first of the new series of Doctor WhoÂ (which I’m re-watching with much enjoyment), was able to capture the attention of the audience for more than being Doctor Who. The idea of the time-travelling hero and his companion is fun, but it did get a bit “monster of the week”, and to have brought it back in that form alone would have killed it, in my opinion.The brilliance of Russell T. Davies was that he made it “domestic”; the companion became a character in her own right, rather than a narrative foil. More interesting and realistic stories result from this change. The stories are more sophisticated, complex and more engaging, and audiences can be challenged to engage with them again.
Of course, comics and SF movies benefit from this evolution. Richer and deeper veins of human experience can flow into the stories told via these media as well. More cross-fertilisation between genres can occur, as sit-com meets horror, meets fantasy, meets science fiction, meets drama meets crime meets… The only criterion is that the writing must be good. Does the narrative appear “genuine”? Do we feel satisfied with the dramatic ebb and flow? Are these real people on screen, regardless of how many heads they have, or the locations in which act?
Of course, it’s harder to make successful SF now, if it isn’t just “monster of the week”, or “young hero saves damsel in distress” anymore. A story can turn into an emotional morass, or into a clichÃ©. Each genre has its pitfalls and tricks of the trade. Not all stories work effectively on all levels. I like the idea of a primary creative mind – Russell T. Davies or Joss Whedon – employing a team of writers (guests or regulars) who may each be proficient in differing styles, as a solution to this. Given a solid basis of characterisation, the whole can be stronger than the parts, and more enduring – more worthy of being added to the canon.
It’s wonderful that we now have literature in several forms, none of which (at its best) can be said to be defective. We have added to the breadth and depth of human story telling, by taking the elements of disparate forms and combining them in new ways. I can’t wait to see where we go next.
You forgot the grand-daddy of the shows, and genres, and stylistic issues you mention here – Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek – he was hiring writers like Robert Bloch, Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon to give the show that extra something, to bring fresh perspectives to a classic monster-of-the-week show.
It’s been a standard device for quite a while now to mix up MOTW episodes with longer story arc (‘serial drama’ or ‘mytharc’) eps – Chris Carter’s X Files (which has spawned two movies and a comic series, not to mention a Ken and Barbie edition) is a good example.
Then there’s the movie-become-soap-opera (I’m looking at you, Star Wars, but more Battlestar Galactica – I’m sure there are others, but I can’t think of them at the moment), and the curious comic/TV series hybrid that is Heroes – a foot solidly in both camps (not sure where its other foot is…)
I think the producers of all these shows/spinoffs/merch don’t really concern themselves with the suitability of the medium – they just know that in general the more outlets they have the more money they can make from different market segments. Which employs more actual content creators, and hopefully hones their talents to make something great and new of their own (if it doesn’t mire them in corporate-minded crap and break their spirits.)
I wasn’t aware that Roddenberry hired such writers. in fact, I was never into ST. The original was before my time (so to speak), and there was such a stigma attached to Trekkies and fandom (not to mention that the commercial networks fucked us around when it came to scheduling) that I never got into STtNG. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I borrowed them all from Raif at work. I’m sure that no writer wants to generate crap material, so it makes sense that Roddenberry turned to the classics.
I guess it’d take a serious dissertation to look at the role of narrative in serialised stories, but I guess that the very first radio dramas would be a good place to start. Not all listeners can tune in each week, so the writers have to keep each episode as basically standalone. However, radio and newspaper serialisations were new forms building from “serious literature”, so they would have probably come from a standpoint of long-running character development. It’s only people looking back who might think of story arcs being bolted onto MoW stories (as I guess I sort of did, late last night).
Hellboy felt a bit like the hybrid, or sport, that bolts drama onto horror onto comedy in some strange accretion. Think of Heroes, I bought S1 on DVD since I wanted to rewatch that and see if it was as good as I recall, or as bad as I recall and to watch it as one body of work. It had so much promise, but I didn’t manage to quite manage to catch it all on TV (fuck you very much, channel 7).
The abortive Heroes S2, and the pilot episode of S3 have screened here. I’m not sure if the network will screen the rest of S3, as it did the pilot just before the olympics. Unfortunately, I think that the soap aspect is wining out.
You’re probably right, in terms of the money men wanting it all. The creative people behind the actual narrative would more likely welcome the challenge of adapting the stories to new media and telling their tales to more people.
Are you remembering that Dickens’ stories started out serialised in newspapers? I think others did, too, but can’t call any to mind just now.
I wasn’t recalling Dickens (definitely a bit before my time 🙂 ), but I’m sure I’ve read something similar somewhere. I was thinking more about radio serialisations.
I just remembered another movie that famously made it into TV serialisation – Buffy!
Sshh… no-one mentions the abomination 🙂
Comments are closed.