Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Once Upon a Time Without a Happily Ever After: How the Eternal Sequel has Ruined Artful Storytelling

I mentioned in my last post about starting to binge-watch Once Upon a Time. It took me until two days ago to catch up to Netflix and will now wait until sometime in August or September for the next season to load. It isn't particularly great, and good performances are spotty. The premise is clever, however, and might have been quite good as a single season's effort. There is enough time to tell the story (stories) of Snow White that you have a lot of empathy for each character. In fact, by the end of Season Five or whatever it is on now, I find myself wishing that Snow White would just go away and we could focus more on the Evil Queen.

That being said, I have had some thoughts in the past few months about the never-ending sequel. This has hit me quite powerfully in two franchise-movie blockbusters as well as the aforementioned television show. How do characters ever reach resolution and closure if they must be placed in mortal peril every week? And if stories help us escape reality, does this new model effectively do that, or only mirror our own chaotic and roller coaster lives?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Disclaimer first. I am a huge geek. I loved this movie. I have probably seen it three or four times, and fully expect it to become a fantastic addition to the Star Wars Universe created initially by Lucas. Episodes I, II and III are already fading to unpleasant memories.

Having said as much, however, even as I sat in the movie I had several unhappy thoughts. "What??? Han and Leia did not stay together???" "What??? After the whole return-of-the-Jedi-thing they didn't really return after all???" "Are you kidding me??? After all the efforts of the Rebellion they succeeded in accomplishing exactly nothing???"

I remember going to see Return of the Jedi, after growing up for years on those films, and crying my eyes out through the ending (it happens nearly every time I watch it, honestly). Leia and Han were going to live happily ever after. Peace would now reign in the galaxy. Jedi would begin to grow up and train again. This was the happy fan-fiction I lived with in my brain for 30 years.

From a characterization standpoint, many of the choices made in the new film make perfect sense. There is a great line about how Leia and Han just went back to what they did best after their lives fell apart. But splitting up--divorce, troubled children and irreconcilable differences are so . . . well . . . NORMAL. So real-world. I wanted more for these characters I had invested so many hours in. I want to believe in happily ever after.

Captain America: Civil War. Hey, I already gave the geek disclaimer above. Go with it. I'm a big fan of the Avengers franchise. I've seen all of the films--usually when they come out in theater--and I'm happy to talk about them to anyone who won't look at me like I'm a little bit off. But when you choose to do a dozen films about the same collective of people, stuff is going to happen that isn't always pretty. Civil War severs loyalties and raises deep, philosophical questions about the nature of war, government and security that is deeply unsettling. It also erases so much of the fun of earlier movies when questions about the destruction wreaked by the Avengers as they "save" the planet; with the argument that their very presence creates the threat to begin with.

Congressional oversight of the Avengers??? It is like the first few minutes of Disney's The Incredibles when Mr. Incredible is subject to a lawsuit after causing horrific property damage to a train he was supposed to be "saving," among other things.

I already spoke above about Once Upon a Time. This isn't a phenomenon limited to television and movies, nor is it a recent problem. (Watch any procedural drama from any era and you'll wonder how the cops/detectives/analysts/doctors don't have PTSD for all the terrible things that happen to them.) It is much easier to publish a second novel than a first, and if a first novel has any degree of success, there is much clamor to find out what happens to those characters. Stories don't really end anymore, and, like a drug, the situations in which characters are placed must continue to escalate to continue to give the reader the same "high" they got the first time their favorite characters were put into mortal peril.

Some series get it right. Hunger Games, at three books, is very nearly perfect (though the first installment is a brilliant stand-alone). Seven Harry Potter books, particularly knowing from the beginning there would be one for each year, was likewise wonderful, with Rowling cognizant of the effects of Harry's experiences on his psyche and personality and writing it as such. And while, yes, I will read the sequel/screenplay, I cannot help but think. Really? After all he did, doesn't Harry just get a break with some well-deserved happiness??

I just fear that really great storytelling has been reduced to whatever pays the bills.


Feisty Harriet said...

This is such an excellent point! I listened to a book by Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, a few months ago, and he talks over and over again about the importance of the story. A story must be able to hold it's own, or the movie will not be successful.


Kimberly Bluestocking said...

I don't love or hate the Avengers, so I've only seen one of those films and I can't say much about the franchise, but I totally hear you about Star Wars and Harry Potter.

I giggled like a happy little kid through parts of Star Wars VII, and I'd happily watch it a third, fourth, nth time, but while the development of the old plot and characters is realistic, it's still a bummer in some ways. It's as if all the rousing triumphs of Episode VI just fizzled. It may not be realistic to expect a blissful "happily ever after" for Han and Leia, for example, but I'd at least like to see them stand by each other and face life's challenges together like they did in the original films. Sigh.

And yeah, Harry Potter--I'm curious about the new book, but I'm not sure I'll read it. I love, love, loved the original seven books (except maybe book 5), but part of me really wants to just let the poor guy settle down and be a normal dad rather than hurling him and his loved ones back into mortal peril.

Geekily Yours,