Noah And Messing With Mythologies

March 2014 saw the release of director Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, to much controversy and discussion. For many Christian members of the audience, the fact that a story from the Bible was being presented by an avowed atheist did not bode well.

Let us consider again the term “myth.” Many people use that word in a derogatory fashion, to mean made-up stories about non-existent supernatural entities, stories that do not deserve credulity or belief. They might be engaging as stories, but not as anything of genuine value. This outlook presupposes no supernatural entities, and also dismisses much of the power of meaning in storytelling. But myth is always about meaning. The point about a mythic story is not usually whether or not it is also historical fact, but rather what it means. For Christians, they hold that the stories of their myth are also historical fact. So, when someone plays fast and loose with a Biblical story, they have problems with that.

But it’s just a movie. Will it really make that much of a difference to the “real myth”? Probably not. So let’s step back and just consider the film story as a story in itself. In fact, let’s first look at a couple of other instances where a filmmaker made changes to a myth.

In 2004, director Wolfgang Petersen released Troy, a version of the story of Achilles and the Trojan War, adapted from Homer’s The Iliad. We can assume that there are not many alive in the present who are invested in the reality of the gods of Olympus. In Homer’s story, Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes, can make or break the war of the Greeks against Troy.

troy-pitt

Petersen’s film stays pretty close to the nature of Homer’s tale. It respects the source materials and its point about the cost of heroism. However, the director presents the story without any overtones of the supernatural. Which makes for an interesting choice regarding Achilles himself, mainly because he is the son of a goddess.

Troy-Thetis

Thetis is a sea goddess. In the mythic story, it was predicted that her son would be greater than his father. So, even though Zeus was enamored of her, he feared the prophecy and married her off to a mortal. Achilles was the child of that union.

Petersen’s film skims over this divine heritage. Although we first see Thetis wading in water, collecting shells, nothing is done to indicate that she is anything more than a mortal woman. And it is in a conversation with his mother that Achilles hears the declaration of his future as hero: he can refuse to go to war, live a long life with love and family, die and be forgotten or he can take part in this war, fight gloriously, and die soon, but his name would last forever. He chooses the latter.

Troy-Thetis-Achilles

Petersen dismisses the supernatural element of the story of Troy. But he leaves the piety of the characters intact and respected. Achilles’ attack on the temple of Apollo appalls his men. In the script, Achilles is given a single line that implies personal knowledge of the true natures of the gods. That is as close as the film gets to referencing any possible supernatural elements.

Petersen keeps his vision of the story focused on heroism and its nature, on the price of glory. Although he stays true to the meaning of the original myth, he has stripped it of the supernatural, without warping the piety of the characters.

Another film that makes changes to an established myth is 2007′s Beowulf. In a script written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, the filmmakers present a version of the story that runs counter to its source material.

Beowulf-1

I have to admit to being personally invested in the source material. I did my Masters thesis on the poem. I feel very strongly about what the story is about: the portrayal of the ideal hero.

However, the filmmakers chose to take a different approach to the material. In their hands, Beowulf is not quite the hero the source material makes him out to be. He lies. Additionally, King Hrothgar is a drunken fool, not a wise but indecisive lord.

Beowulf-and-Hrothgar

Even more, Grendel is presented as a pathetic monstrosity, and his mother a magical seductress instead of a homicidal slayer.

She's a shape-changer and naked - but she needs fetish heels?

She’s a shape-changer and naked – but she needs fetish heels?

Now, although I may disagree with the film as a faithful adaptation of a story I love, and although I’m not keen on stories where heroes turn out to be anything but heroic, I will admit that these storytellers stayed consistent with the story version they were telling. They kept their world-building true to itself.  World-building means the elements that make up the setting and context of a story: the beliefs of the characters, the issues that matter to them, the rules they live by and the rules that are the declared values of the story. The film Beowulf does that. I didn’t particularly care for the choices, but the filmmakers played fair with their choices.

Noah-water

So what of Aronofsky’s Noah?

Part of the problem with Noah is that it does not clearly define the rules of the world of the story. Instead, it coasts on the audience expectation of a traditional definition of what this mythology presents. He shows us Eden and the temptation of Adam and Eve.

Except….

We are shown Paradise at a distance. We are not engaged in its nature by being brought close in to experience it. Secondly, the Edenic pair are luminous beings with indistinct features. How are we to identify with them?

Then the snake comes along, shedding its skin before approaching Eve. We see the Adam figure bend down to pick up the snakeskin. Why? We’re never told. And that is a problem in the storytelling, because that snakeskin becomes an important Maguffin later. It apparently becomes a magical talisman of the “righteous” line of Seth, used in a blessing ritual. Why? We’re not told.

It looks like a cross between a pomegranate and a red bell pepper - and it pulses like a beating heart. Why would anyone touch it let alone pick it and eat it?

It looks like a cross between a pomegranate and a red bell pepper – and it pulses like a beating heart. Why would anyone touch it let alone pick it and eat it?

The audience, who have not been clued in on the meaning this talisman is supposed to have to the characters, is left to make their own interpretation of what they are seeing – and they are likely to go with the traditional story. In that version, the snake and the temptation of Adam and Eve are evil events, leading the pair to be cast out of Eden. So why is the skin of the Tempter a precious talisman? We are not told. And because we are not told this crucial bit of information, we are kept a crucial distance from our main character. Why should we care that the talisman is stolen from Noah’s family?

noah-2

Early in the story we see Noah confront men who have been pursuing an animal to kill and eat it. He stands up to them, beating them. One of them asks the man who is about to kill him (Noah) what he wants. Noah says “Justice.” The problem with this is that these men have no apparent connection to the men that killed Noah’s father, so killing them has no connection with gaining justice for the murder of his father. Instead, we are to assume that Noah wants justice for the animal that was killed.

This is the key to Aronofsky’s story. Human life is not what is of value: it is the animals and plants that are of primary value.

Okay, fine. If that is how the world of the story works. But again, that distant visual we were given of Eden is not enough to engage us emotionally in the devastation of nature. We are promptly plunged into desolate landscapes, where there is little vegetation, and it has to be carefully protected. We see Noah scolding one of his young sons for plucking a flower because it was beautiful.

Noah-4

But here’s where the world-building of the film fails. If animal life is so precious, why do Noah and his family have leather footgear? And if vegetation is so scarce, what feeds the animals enough to produce coats for shearing to make the yarns that are so finely woven and knitted for their wardrobes? Where are those sheep?

Check out that weaving - and that's just his over-coat! How many sheep did it take to make that?

Check out that weaving – and that’s just his over-coat! How many sheep did it take to make that?

The filmmakers fail to convince the audience because they haven’t worked out these key logical points. The only animal we see clearly and might emotionally invest in was the one killed early in the story. Unfortunately, it looks like a cross between a whippet dog and a pangolin. We don’t know what it is, so other than its pathetic wound, we’re disconnected from it. That and the little meadow flower are all that are used to engage us in the stakes the movie says are important: that plants and animals are more important than other human beings. Unfortunately, they are too slight for the burden, so the script requires that Noah say this time after time after time. It thus breaks one of the earliest rules every screenwriter is given: show, don’t tell.

So, what have these failures in the basic storytelling to do with the changes in the mythology? It’s possible that with a bigger visual imagination, Aronofsky could have convinced the audience (for the duration of the film at least) that plants and animals are more valuable than humans. But instead, for the crucial plot point of saving the animals, Aronofsky shows us that the story’s god sends Noah a magical seed that sprouts instantly into a growing forest. This lush forest, however, gets no protection from Noah, but instead, a chunk of it is cut down to build the Ark. So, it’s apparently okay with this wrathful god that protecting one aspect of nature (the animals) may be accomplished by destroying another aspect (the forest).

That lovely green forest behind the lovers? It's being cut down to build the Ark.

That lovely green forest behind the lovers? It’s being cut down to build the Ark.

You lost me there, Darren.

The story is not consistent with its own mythos.

With Beowulf, I did not like or agree with the story changes made, but enjoyed the film as a thing in itself because it was at least consistent with itself. With Troy, dropping the supernatural from the story was made to work, making it entirely human without denigrating the piety of the characters. But with Noah, we’re not given a compelling experience of the value we are expected to root for: the protection of nature. Instead we are dragged along with an obsessive man who possesses only meager charm.

Noah-yelling

I don’t have to worry about what Noah does or does not say about faith in a supernatural deity It fails to communicate the emotional power of the stakes it declares to be important. If the audience cannot feel and experience the stakes (and we don’t in Noah), we’re not really invested in the hero’s success or failure – or the film’s. We’re just along for the ride.

And this ride is no fun at all (except for some disconnected humorous moments with Anthony Hopkins’ Methuselah). Iceland (where they shot it) is starkly beautiful, though.

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A World Of Meaning

I recently sat in on some discussions about world-building. It was geared primarily toward world-building for fantasy and science fiction worlds. When you are creating a totally different world, you have to account for the culture of that alien people. And that means creating a “mythology” of some sort. In fact, that is one thing that most fantasy novels do build in.

"The Shadow of Sauron" by Ted Nasmith

“The Shadow of Sauron” by Ted Nasmith

Many authors create some sort of apocalyptic confrontation that their story will lead up to, a clash of powerful, almost cosmic, figures.

In cases like that, “mythology” is treated as meaning “stories of gods” or at least god-like beings. So the authors try and create entities and structures that have that sort of significance.
But just throwing in god-like figures who go through the motions of cosmic conflict don’t work if you forget to include meaning in the mixture. The conflict has to have meaning not just to the characters in the story but also to the writer and the audience.

In the science fiction series Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski created a cosmic conflict between the alien race the Vorlons and the mysterious race known as the Shadows.

shadowandvorlon

In this clash, the Vorlons represented Order (which most consider to be a “good” force), while the Shadows advocated Chaos (usually considered “evil”). Humans and other space-faring races got caught between the two powerful forces. The point is that the clash has an understandable meaning, not just for the characters in the story. It’s a conflict that makes sense to the audience as well. Which is better: Order and chosing actions that service all or Chaos and each individual looking out for him or herself? We are engaged. It matters to us.

But many series create a “mythology” that engages only the characters in the story. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories fail. It just means that the storytellers have to pull it together for the characters.

Black-Oil

With The X-Files, various “mythology” elements were introduced that didn’t ever quite connect to a unified whole. There were shape-changers, alien clones of humans, and an “alien oil” that took possession of various characters. But how all these belong together was never entirely made clear.

Oil-eyes

The storytellers eventually tried to sort it out, but it was a “make-do” type of solution. This undercut any sense of meaning for the audience: it was just an entertaining hodge-podge. The characters behaved as if it made some sort of sense to them and so the audience went along with it.

The meaning of a mythology in storytelling does not have to rely on external powerful figures, however. Aspects that are “fantastical” on a cosmic scale do not have to be the only basis for a story “mythology.” In the series 24, for instance, the “mythology” is centered on the character traits of its main hero, Jack Bauer.

Jack-1

The key in season after season is that Jack is by nature a patriot who will do anything in service of a righteous cause, even to the point of death. An internet joke claimed, “Killing Jack Bauer doesn’t make him dead, it just makes him angry.” This unrelenting steadfastness in the mythology carried audience through many implausabilities. Jack’s determination had meaning to the audience, valuable meaning.

As you construct the world of your story, consider what is important to your central character. Is it family? Patriotism? Truth? Power? Whatever that key element is, it will become the core of the “mythology” for your world. It doesn’t matter if the setting is a fantastical cosmic conflict or the daily life of a family of police officers. The focus of the deepest meaning for your characters will become the heart of the story’s mythology

(The “Shadow of Sauron”, by Ted Nasmith, copyright by Ted Nasmith)

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Evil versus Not-Evil

A couple of years ago, for Mythcon, I wrote a paper that discussed tendencies in apocalyptic fantasy fiction (that is, fantasies that deal with ultimate conflicts of cosmic powers). The theme of the conference was “War in Heaven.” In the paper, I looked at the dichotomies that appear in Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, in Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, and in J. Michael Straczynski’s television series Babylon 5. The point in the paper was the trend to find a pair of exposing forces that could be called something other than “good versus evil” and that seem to have equal power. For some reason “good” leads to too many religious implications that many want to avoid.

For the fall 2013 television season, a new series was launched called Sleepy Hollow. The premise was Icabod Crane, a former British soldier during the Revolutionary War awakens from a magical sleep in our modern world. He had switched sides to fight with the colonials, and had just beheaded a bizarre, seemingly impossible warrior before being cast into the sleep.

head-loss

In the modern era, Crane learns that he is the destined warrior who must prevent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from gaining power and destroying life as we know it. The Headless Horseman, the supernatural warrior Crane beheaded, is apparently the Figure of Death from the Book of Revelation. Crane learns that in Sleepy Hollow there were (and apparently still are) two covens: an evil one aiding the Four Horsemen and one that opposes the evil circle, trying to preserve the world.

In spite of the fact that the show has built its premise on the Book of Revelation, it otherwise avoids most direct references to Christianity. In one episode, a certain magical sequence takes place in an abandoned (protestant, apparently) church using a huge stone baptistery. Although such properties are usually sold off (hey, it’s real estate!), the story makes the implication that there are no longer believers to sustain the church.

It strikes me as bizarre to build a story premise that relies on a Scriptural mythology, but avoids the very heart of that mythology. Surely the conflict of good versus evil is the most dramatic one known to the human race.

Do these storytellers avoid the explicit naming of “Good” in order not to offend believers of various faiths? They might say so, but they have already degraded the effectiveness of Christianity as a combatant in the conflict of the series. In the pilot we saw a priest (apparently garbed in a formal Roman Catholic cassock) who is, by implication, a member of the local “not evil” coven. A minister practicing magic? Why?

chapel-banner-3

There is a definite choice to avoid explicit Christianity. In one scene in the episode “John Doe,” Abbie goes to a hospital chapel. At the front of the chapel is a banner of religious symbols, but the normal Christian cross is hidden in shadow at the top of the banner.

The show focuses on the horrific nature of the “bad guy” — heads cut off, torturous treatment of living bodies, people following the hostile spirits for unspecified reasons. The supposition apparently is that people choose the “evil” side, that of the destructive Horsemen, in order to have power in whatever new world will follow the destruction of this one in the Apocalypse. It’s all surprisingly vague.

The result is that Sleepy Hollow has an undefined aspect to its central conflict. Crane has to stop the Four Horsemen from gathering their bits and pieces and getting all their power together in order to destroy the world as we know it. Crane and Lt. Abbie Mills are simply declared to be the Two Chosen Witnesses who are charged with preventing the Horsemen in reaching their goal.

Crane-Abby

Are they actually up to this job? What are their qualifications? Crane appears to be a moral and ethical man. The Lieutenant has a more ambiguous past. As a law enforcement officer, we are inclined to define her as “good.” But in the past, she has lied about things she has seen and experienced: her qualifications for this conflict are a bit more dubious.

the-sisters

In particular, Abbie lied about an early experience which resulted in her sister being confined in a mental institution.

How is the audience supposed to invest emotionally in this series? Supposedly, none of us are interested in seeing the world as we know it come to an end, so we would be inclined to root for Crane and his compatriots. But what then is the attraction of the opposing side? Why are the “bad guys” drawn to this power? Without having a stronger emotional hook, the episodic clashes take on more of a horror-of-the-week aspect. Our heroes have no positive goal to work toward, rather only a reactive, preventative one.

Fighting to preserve this world presumes that this one is the best possible option. But that still does not give “our heroes” a truly positive goal to fight toward. They can celebrate that they have defeated this week’s bad guy, but their only goals are preventative. They have been given no key toward a goal that would insure full out victory for them, something other than eliminating the Four Horsemen. They know (now, eight episodes in) that a demon named Moloch is the force driving the Horsemen and the “bad” coven.

SH-Moloch

But they are given no indication that there are equivalent supernatural entities supporting their side that they can access. Apparently, the supernatural realm is almost entirely ruled by evil.

This goes back to the theme of that Mythcon paper I had written. Apocalyptic fantasy usually embodies supernatural forces that are split into two equal sides. The usual non-”religious” choice is to designate the forces as Order versus Chaos, with Order being the preferred (ie, “good”) side. But if the forces are equal, then why is one preferred over the other? Why choose one side like Order over the other? The problem for our human nature is that we do not actually believe that “good” and “evil” are equal.

We do believe in an absolute Good, no matter how it is defined, and thus that things like flat-out murder are wrong. We do choose sides and believe that Evil, although powerful, is not in the final end, greater than Good.

Where that leaves the series, I’m not sure. From a strictly psychological standpoint, our main characters will quickly fall into battle fatigue, because there is apparently no relief available to them. Their resources are inadequate. The show is fortunate in having a very appealing cast to carry this awkwardly designed conflict.

SH-ad-net-spread

They have been renewed for a second season. But the storytellers will need to start deciding what “the end of the world as we know it” will look like, because that is a very vague emotional stake. What it would mean to the individual, other than death (which though not desirable might be an escape from the conflict), is not clear and it needs to be.

But… the show does give us a nicely produced story and the characters satisfy.

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To Be or Not To Be

One of the most over-worked verbs in the English language is … well, “is.” The “to be” forms show up all over the place. We think in terms of present existence.

The problem with this simple, much used verb is that when it gets used in narrative pieces, it tosses the prose into a more passive voice. When we say “X is Y,” it captures a static moment, not one in motion or reeking with passion.

In non-fiction prose, “is” runs rampant. In narrative fiction, the narrative post tense, “was,” sweeps its way into every corner.

Why do writers so easily fall into the use of the “to be” forms?

Part of it comes from the way we think when we want to explain things. To do that we have to hold things in a static state. And that tends to show up in our word selection as we describe things. It is so easy to say “Things are so,” or “It was thus.”

Writers need to be aware that this happens, and accept that it comes naturally to us. The thing we writers should keep in mind is that once we have the first draft down, we can freshen up the words to make them more active.

If we are to make the most of the “to be” verbs, we need to treat them as very valuable, instead of being as common as dirt. We should work to keep the “to be” verbs focused on descriptions of actual identity instead of just “states of being.” By that, I mean the difference between saying “the sun is rising” and “the sun rises” should be something of which we are always aware.

By statements of identity, I mean where you want to declare that one thing really does equal another. There are occasions when such statements are very important, either in a non-fiction piece or a fictive one. But if we have been using “to be” verbs all over the place, who will notice the important occasion?

Mind you, because we do use the “to be” forms naturally, I don’t think any writer should be concerned if they find it scattered throughout the first draft of the work.  But I do feel that after that point, once the time for review and revision arrives, the object should be to remove as many of the unnecessary “to be” uses.

Of course, I could go back through this post itself to take out the unnecessary “to be” uses. But I won’t, because I want to show how easy it is to fall into using them. But in general, take out the static, frozen uses and select more active verbs.

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Evergreen Writing

I went to see Joss Whedon’s film version of Much Ado About Nothing, and enjoyed it a lot. It’s worth seeing, even if you think you would not be into Shakespeare. But I’m not writing this as a review of the movie. Instead, I want to pursue a lone of thought the film inspired.

Even though the play is about five hundred years old, there is something timeless about the story it tells. Love, misunderstandings, fidelity, these matters persist as part of human nature. Whedon set his production of Shakespeare’s play in modern times, and it works. Human nature does not change so much that a transplantation of setting wounds the emotional impact of the story.

The secret to this durability, of course, is that Shakespeare wrote about what is primal to human nature — our relationships.

Setting in time and space may affect our initial perception of a tale. Whedon’s version is set in a modern, urban landscape of wealth and power.

Whedon-Ado-2

Branaugh’s is set in a pseudo-early 1800s, apparently.

Branagh Ado 2

The Joseph Papp stage production in the early 1970s looks Victorian.

Papp Much Ado

And yet the story continues to have a similar impact on the audience.

So, how do writers achieve that sort of effect?

Blake Snyder used to urge writers to keep their stories “primal.” By that he meant that stories should be driven by basic human emotions first and foremost. Emotions are the first thing we bring into a story.

You may have a cool idea for a science fiction story set in some fantastical future. But if the story does not touch out basic emotional responses, the story will be an emotionally cool (as in “chilled”) one.

It is possible to combine “idea” driven stories, filled with intellectual concepts and yet be filled with emotional drives.

gattaca 2

In Gattaca, we get a very “idea” story: a future world structured around manipulation of human genetics. It is so structured thusly that society has become divided between the “designed” upperclass and a disregarded, inferior “naturally conceived” underclass. this story could be cold and remote (it’s very style certainly seems so), but it is in fact driven by human passion. The main character, a product of a natural conception, wants to go into space, which happens to be a profession limited exclusively to the genetically designed. But going into space is something Our Hero wants to do more than anything. So he pushes himself, drives himself, far beyond the limits of what he is “supposed” to be capable of. By contrast the genetically designed characters turn out to be far too accepting of their designed boundaries. As humans, we respond to the drive to reach beyond limits. for generations, we have responded to strivers and dreamers and the call to be “something more.”

Human nature. Basic emotions. Being primal.

As storytellers, if we want our tales to have that durability, that evergreen quality, we need to be sure that the emotions of our stories hit those marks.

Write from your own passions. You are sure to share those passions with others. Ring the bell deeply, ring it true to your own emotions and it will likely hit the same strong, sure note with others, both now and in the future.

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