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Realism And Twenty-first Century Stories

If all characters are victims of disaster, I suggest readers or viewers stop caring and start looking for the “out.” Will the character die and come back? Have a narrow escape? Have a death that only looks like death? In truth, all the arguing and betrayal and refusal becomes–predictable and boring and unrealistic. Soon the characters seem more like caricatures because none acts with nobility or courage or hope. All display their flawed selves with so little inner struggle. And this, we’ve come to believe, is realistic.
| Jan 28, 2013 | No comments |

Narnia_aslanThe subject of realism has cropped up in a number of posts of late. For the most part, all those who have written about the subject and many who commented are in favor of realism in our stories–whether in books or on TV or in movies. Who would rather replace the computer enhanced Aslan for an actor dressed in a lion costume? We want our Aslan to appear on the screen as real.

The desire and push for realism in our stories has given impetus to those who believe Christian fiction should include sex, profanity, and vulgarity. After all, those are real. What some of us point out, however, is that spiritual reality is often neglected by those who clamor for reality in fiction.

I think there’s something else not particularly real in twenty-first century stories, no matter how real the blue giants of Avatar might appear or how real the goblins of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey seem. We could chalk this up to “that’s just movies” if it weren’t for the fact that screen writing is beginning to dominate the way we write novels.

I’m not quite sure how to characterize this unrealistic phenomenon. Perhaps an illustration will serve to explain it.

TwoTowersSaturday I watched the last part of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers which was airing on TV. This was the first time I’d seen any of the Lord of the Rings movies since I’d re-read the books, which as it happened, I’d done again just this past December. Hence, the story details were fresher in my mind, and consequently the disparities between the book and the movie jumped out at me. The main thing I noticed was conflict in the movie where none existed in the book.

For example, in Tolkien’s original once Gandalf had freed Theodin, the king of Rohan, from the influence of Wormtongue, he quickly became his adviser. Théoden did what Gandalf told him to do: trusted Éomer as his new right hand, sent the women and children away to a place of protection (not Helms Deep), prepared his army to march on Isengard, sent out word to gather troops to support Gondor against Mordor. In the film version, however, Théoden fought Gandalf at every turn. He was nearly as depressed and suicidal as Denethor the Gondor steward.

There was also enhanced conflict between Arwen and her father Elrond about her staying in Middle Earth for Aragon. She finally decided to leave–an incident that did not happen in the book.

Uruk-hai_statueAnother “it did not happen in the book” example also involved Aragon. On the way to Helms Deep (rather than to Isengard, as the book had it), the people of Rohan were attacked by Uruk-hai and Wargs. In the battle, Aragon was dragged over a cliff and fell to the river. His companions presumed him to be dead.

Then, too, Treebeard and the Ents decided they would not help in the war against Saruman. Merry and Pipin tried to talk him into it, but he refused, only promising to take them out of the forest at whatever point they wished. On the way, they came to a place where Saruman’s forces had destroyed the trees, and the Ents then arose and fought. The motivation in the book is the same, but the conflict between the hobbits and the Ents never existed.

In the segments concerning Frodo, there were more of these manufactured conflicts. Frodo and Sam argued about the effect the ring had and about their disparate treatment of Gollum. Then too, Faramir insisted on taking Sam, Frodo, and Gollum to Gondor with the intent to use the ring (which they spoke of openly in front of all Faramir’s men) in the battle against Mordor. When they reached Osgiliath, they were attacked by one of the Nazgul. Under the influence of its presence, Frodo acted as if he’d been possessed and nearly put on the ring. Faithful Sam tackled him to stop him and they wrestled, with Frodo pulling his sword on Sam. None of this happened in the book.

As I thought about these differences, it seems to me that the movie was faithfully following the dictates of writing instructors who tell writers to make life hard for their characters and when it’s as bad as it can get, make it worse.

But is that reality?

Do friends always turn against one another? Does the hero always fall to his apparent death? Do the once mighty always succumb to discouragement and despair? Does doubt and fear always push loved ones to leave?

The answer is, no.

Tolkien got it right in his version of The Lord of the Rings–he told a realistic story. Borimir succumbed to the power of the ring, but Faramir did not. Denethor became suicidal, but Théoden did not. Gandalf fell to his apparent death, but Aragon did not.

In showing the strength of Faramir, the healing of Théoden, the prowess of Aragon, Tolkien enhanced Borimir’s failure, Denethor’s selfish choice, and Gandalf’s sacrifice. In other words, by not taking every character to the brink before leading them back, he magnified each case in which a character was taken to the brink.

If all characters are victims of disaster, I suggest readers or viewers stop caring and start looking for the “out.” Will the character die and come back? Have a narrow escape? Have a death that only looks like death? In truth, all the arguing and betrayal and refusal becomes–predictable and boring and unrealistic. Soon the characters seem more like caricatures because none acts with nobility or courage or hope. All display their flawed selves with so little inner struggle. And this, we’ve come to believe, is realistic.

Perhaps this twenty-first century version of realism is another way in which we are not addressing spiritual issues realistically. We are, after all, made in God’s image. We have within us a moral sense of right and wrong. We also have a sin nature. In essence, we are divided at our core.

We experience the truth of Romans 7 day in and day out, doing the thing we hate and neglecting the thing we know we should do. We struggle in the inner person. But Romans 8 follows, too. We revel in the freedom from the law of sin and death, we experience God’s sovereign purpose to work all things for our good, we enjoy His nothing-can-separate-us love. In short, reality is a mixed bag along the journey. It’s not all bad until the miraculously impossible reversal.

In story writing, I believe in conflict, I really do, though I believe in tension more. I wonder if twenty-first century authors aren’t needlessly creating artificial, “big bang” conflict when inner-struggle tension, more true to life, actually would make for a better story. Tolkien’s work convinces me that more external conflict isn’t particularly realistic nor is it always the best.

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Galadriel
Guest

Hmm..I don’t think I’ve noticed that before, but it’s a fair point.

Kessie Carroll
Member
Kessie Carroll

What twenty-first century books get it right, then? LOTR is half a century old. To our shame, people don’t write that way any more. But how, then, shall we write?

R. L. Copple
Member

Good points. I’ve always heard that the goal of fiction writing per realism isn’t to make it realistic (that would be boring), but to give the appearance of realism.
 
I like your point about conflict and tension. 20th examples? Star Wars, at least the originals, you have OWK and Yoda. Many of these types of “hero journey” books have a mentor, who usually dies at some point, that seems to “have it all together.” That contrasts against the failings and growth of the protag. The success of Eragon probably points to that type of story as still able to make it in today’s literary world.
 
Uniquely, even though he goes through struggles, my protag in Mind Game and Hero Game is a teen with some old-fashioned morals, and if the reviews are any indication, still well liked. Still far from a best seller, but who knows? 😉
 

Paul Lee
Member

Hmm… forget discussing controversial content like vulgarity.  It seems books  can be spiritually “gritty,” with or without any reference or use of any particularly kind of content.
 

Do friends always turn against one another? Does the hero always fall to his apparent death? Do the once mighty always succumb to discouragement and despair? Does doubt and fear always push loved ones to leave?
 

When I read this, I answered “yes” in my head.  Then I realized that you mean literally.  Not everyone literally dies by falling.  So, I agree that it was cliché and overly dramatic for the movie-makers to have Aragorn nearly get killed by taking a literal “fall.”
 
I think this may come to down to melodrama.  We don’t need excessive melodrama about secondary issues.  Too much melodrama takes away from the characterization and therefore the realism.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

The best stories have external conflict that mirrors internal conflict — or makes the internal conflict worse. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings (books and films), the most gripping and poignant moments come when external events drives inner turmoil. Troops move in Mordor — Frodo is driven to despair. Despite mockery from Sauron’s emissary, Aragorn charges into battle, a self-sacrifice to give Frodo more time. Etc.

People mock a newer example, the superhero film Spider-Man 3 (2007), but it tried to follow this same motif, with its poster slogan of The Greatest Battle Lies Within. Where it failed was only in over-complicating this wonderful central theme.