Same view from the same spot, different autumn. I had to hustle down the road to get this image today because I saw the guy with the tractor out there getting ready to give the field its seasonal haircut. There must be a good reason for erasing all this stunning beauty. Given time I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I hope not. Anyway, it got me thinking….
In fiction writing, some waggish observers will tell you, there exist only X number of plots (that number varies, but the concept remains the same). In other words, same storyline, different characters/situation. In the movie business that certainly seems the case, as stories are continuously recycled to be regurgitated onto home video in a seemingly endless cycle of inanity. Though at times something good accidentally comes of it.
I remember reading The Hours in grad school and feeling increasingly irritated, especially considering that the tale, much of which was lifted directly from another story, garnered a 1999 Pulitzer for the author. This was in many ways a recasting, for the AIDS era, of Virginia Woolf’s great tale of high-society angst, Mrs. Dalloway.
So why was I bothered that someone would snag a classic tale and cobble it into another? I had recently read the original, admired it greatly, and felt a bit indignant that a writer (noble souls all…) would basically lift that icon of a story, reshape it, add new stuff, and call it original. Even though the writer, Michael Cunningham, was actually quite straightforward about his novel being an “homage” to Woolf’s work. And The Hours was pretty damned good. So maybe I should lighten up. But you’re not supposed to lighten up in blogs, right? You’re supposed to inflame, to agitate. Is that right? Am I doing this right?
Wow. I just had it both ways….
Robert Bly sketches out a somewhat parallel concept when he describes his notion of one brand of storytelling, insisting that every successful epic hero tale involves a process that is ancient and quintessentially human: there are defined steps in the hero’s journey, beginning with complacency and comfort and moving into denial and then to grudging acceptance, followed by gradual mastery and self-discovery and, eventually, triumph.
Is Bly’s rather rigid plotline so different from re-using the “beats” of a thousand existing stories? (Sure it is, you say, but I wasn’t asking you in particular, because you’ve already decided). I’ve heard there’s a script recipe widely used in Hollywood that involves plotting out each move, each change, each scene, each step, down to the page, to the minute (hero does this, then that, then on page 14 she loses hope, then there’s a shift on page 15 -1/2….)—that, if followed, guarantees! success. Is that essentially the same process?
Of course, we don’t expect Hollywood to be our arbiter of ethics or original thinking. Or do we? I sometimes wonder if the film industry, money-obsessed and so often creatively bereft, hasn’t somehow tainted the minds of otherwise original writers to the point that they honestly believe the blatant cadging of others’ ideas is a legitimate way to do creative business.
Do you have an opinion on this?
Mrs. Dalloway still resonates nearly a century later not only as a prominent artifact of an experimental movement to plumb the depths of the stream of consciousness approach, but as a reflection of the way we careen toward our tragic fates in our disjointed, rambling, in-the-moment ways, stumbling insensate with our choices to carry us through what is an essentially senseless world, making random turns and eventually suffering our wretched fates apparently at the whim of unknowable gods and/or hyper-controlling imps who laugh at us from on high, or low.
Or maybe that’s just me.
And The Hours resonates, too. So what do you think? Are there only X number of plots? Did Shakespeare really gobble up all the stories? Is it okay to take a tale, rewrite it with different characters, and sell it on the square? Is it cool to sample a Beatles song for your rap symphony? Maybe you can clear all this up. I’m obviously confused.