Monday, July 30, 2012

The Sequel

The Sequel is a strange animal.  Once a book or a movie, the latter being more common, is shown to be popular, the creators try to capitalize on that success and fashion a follow-up.  But is this a kind of cop-out?  Some would argue that the sequel is just a lazy way of doing things, and that the makers simply just try to top whatever they did in the original.  Rather than go through the work of trying to find a whole new story, complete with plot and characters, filmmakers and writers just imitate their previous success.  On the other hand, it could be argued that the sequel is frequently necessary.  After all, how many stories are complete by the end? There are nearly always several ends left loose.  With a sequel, there is an opportunity to tie these ends together.  So what is the sequel? Mere imitation, or a necessary addition?

Anyone who has ever tried to create a story, whether it be in the form of a book or a movie, knows how hard it can be.  The conceptualizing of an intriguing plot.  The search for believable characters that readers and viewers will care about.  Creating an environment in which these characters live.  Striving to make all the pieces fit together cohesively.  And then if your story is successful, why on earth would you want to start that whole process over again? Wouldn't it be easier to just use at least a few of the same elements, like the basic characters and the leftovers from the original plot? As they say, "If it ain't broke; don't fix it." And furthermore, if a system works, what reason is there to try to find another way to do things?

But how many times do we decry someone when they attempt to copy the success of another? Christopher Paolini's Eragon for example was often described as a blend of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings.  As a result, Paolini was often viewed with a kind of disdain.  As the series progressed, it became increasingly obvious how little imagination Paolini seemed to have.  He appeared to be taking elements from other widely successful stories and blending them together with new names.

Furthermore, sequels are frequently disappointing.  Rarely do they capture the true essence of the original, and even more rarely do they do more than simply add more explosions and glass smashing.  Iron Man 2 is an excellent example of this.  The original Iron Man contained interesting questions about success at the expense of others, with flashy special effects, and frequently witty banter.  Iron Man 2 held very few moral queries, instead focusing on bigger and flashier effects, with less witty dialogue.  It would seem that sequels don't work, so why do people continually try to make them work?    

That said, some sequels are a substantial improvement upon the original.  Spider-Man 2 and Toy Story 2 are proof of this.  In both movies, much of the more distasteful elements found in the originals were removed, and those elements that did work were improved upon and added to.  Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movies were also successful and excellent sequels.  They built upon each other, but didn't focus simply on upping the effects.  Why is this? Why are some sequels more successful than others? It would seem that this is due, at least in part, to the fact that the characters change.  In each of the movies mentioned in this paragraph, the main characters are found in a new situation, or quickly face a very different foe.  New story elements, and moral dilemmas, arise.  Iron Man 2 essentially just changed the villain, and threw in a couple new super suits.  The Dark Knight introduced the Joker as the new villain, but portrayed him in a whole new light, simultaneously allowing Nolan to raise several very thought provoking moral dilemmas.  So while the same characters can be used in a successful sequel, some things must change for the sequel to work.

Finally, there are times when a sequel may be necessary.  However, this is usually in stories that are deliberately intended as a single story, but told in three parts.  The Lord of the Rings is an example of this, yet The Two Towers cannot really be called a sequel, because Tolkien originally wrote the whole thing as a single book.  It could be argued that Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy fits in this category, since each film builds upon the other, particularly in The Dark Knight Rises, which combines several elements from the two prior films.

Rather than simply conclude this discussion, I would like to invite any and all readers to comment below, expressing their thoughts and views.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Purpose of Story

Having now heard from the noble Horatio on the form of the Parody, let us now change topics, to that most noble of creatures- the story.

For now, let us merely consider some generic aspects of the story, such as its purpose. Tolkien said, concerning fairy stories, the following, “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

How does this illustrate the purpose of a story, you ask? The purpose of stories is to point the reader to the higher things. Within the nature of stories we are to seek the good, taking from each those examples of goodness and virtue, learning from them the definitions of moral goodness and that of corruption and evil, so that we may learn to emulate, and ultimately come to live the virtuous life.

Now, this is not to say that virtue may only be learned through the use of stories. But this is to say that for many of us, before we are suitably developed to be able to take on those works of a far more substantial nature, we must first grow our minds. Just like one would not feed a baby steak, one's first reading should probably not be Arisitotle.

Besides, there is something great in the reading of stories- they thrill the heart and reawaken the sleeping mind. Indeed, our world would be a sad and sorry place if we had not our stories.

And just as a parting thought to ponder, "The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the "happy ending." The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Parody: Parasite or Art Form?

We've all encountered them.  Many of us have laughed, some have frowned with disapproval.  Some of us have even fashioned a few of them ourselves.  What are they? Parodies, also known as satires.  Each parody or satire mimics, often in a mocking fashion, an existing work or theme.  But, one may argue, is this not simply a form of plagiarism? Are not satirists merely mocking the genius of others, feeding parasitically upon the essence of the original? Or perhaps is there something truly brilliant about parodies? Might there be a special vision by which the satirist grasps the essence of that original and is able to cleverly play upon it? Is the parody a parasite, or an art?

Parodies are indeed somewhat parasitical by nature, in a sense.  Every parody necessarily requires some work of art to be the subject of its satire.  It would thus seem that parodies could not exist without another work from which to draw life.  Pope's Dunciad built off of many conventions of the epic poem, and Weird Al based his songs upon a multitude of musical styles.  But by taking these themes and conventions, essences even, of other works, does not the parody demean the original? After encountering a parody of a song for instance, can anyone take the original as seriously as they once did? The parody seems to steal something away from the original, something that can never be regained. 

On the other hand, why do we tend to find parodies so funny? Is it because they crack amusing jokes, or have some witty banter? Sometimes, perhaps.  But there is a broader aspect to it.  Parodies are amusing because they grasp something essential about the original.  A truly brilliant satirist sees the essence of that original work, and fashions it in a humorous way.  It is the contrast, that more light-hearted view, between the two that makes us laugh.  It is how the satirist incorporates the original themes into his mimicry that we find so amusing. 

A true parody must grasp the essential themes of the original work, but yet give them a clever and humorous twist.  The How It Should Have Ended videos are an excellent example of just this.  Each video takes the viewer through various scenes of the movie, poking fun at various plot holes and the like.  Although sometimes the clips fail to truly capture the essence of the plot, the artists do an excellent job of caricaturing the characters.  Parodies are like caricatures; there must be some recognizable identity between that which is being satirized and that which is the satire itself. 

Now granted, parodies do take away a sense of seriousness from the original, and rarely can the latter be seen in its former glory.  But sometimes a satire can breathe new life into an something which is dying.  The great radio comedian, Stan Freberg, (the Tim Hawkins of the Age of Radio) wrote a spoof of a song, fairly common in that time, and later the artist whom he had lampooned told Stan that he thought his career lasted longer because of that spoof. 

So parodies could be considered as parasitical insofar as they require an original work upon which to draw inspiration, and even life.  But for a parody to be truly brilliant, the author or artist must grasp the essential characteristics of that which he is satirizing.  The parody requires that recognizable identity between the original and itself in order to achieve its proper end.  Parody is, in fact, an art form.    

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Childhood and Madness: Modern Inventions?

The other day I came across something rather interesting.  I learned that a number of people had propounded a theory that certain realities we take for granted, did not in fact exist in years past.  For example, these people argued that in the ancient and medieval world childhood did not exist, and neither did madness.  Their justification for this is that the connotations which we associate with "childhood" and "madness" and all the ways in which we think of that are so different than they were in the past, that they have only recently come into existence.  For these people, calling ancient behavior that we would describe as "madness" is somewhat like calling an abacus "the calculator of the ancient world."  This sort of appellation does not work, because a calculator is so much different than an abacus and in many ways, and both carry different connotations.

However, it would seem that these people are suggesting the realities of childhood and madness themselves changed.  But is that possible? Why do we associate what the medieval world saw as "foolishness" with our current notion of "madness"?  It would appear that there is a fundamental reality upon which these notions are based.  Rather, it is the perceptions of and reactions to, childhood and madness that have changed.  The traditions and customs in regard to these two things have differed throughout the ages.  Yes, childhood did not exist in the ancient world, as we think of it today.  However, that does not mean that there were no children.  True, those who were considered to be mad were not shut up in an asylum during the Middle Ages.  But that does not exclude the fact that people did lose their wits.

There was a similar question in the 13th century, which queried whether or not things that we gave the same name had anything truly in common besides their appellation.  Why do we call each individual wooden, leafy thing with branches a tree? As it turns out, each of these trees has a common nature.  It is separated by designated matter, but still shares the same properties as other trees.  There is an objective reality which is shared by all trees, and all men, every squirrel and so on.
Now apply this same principle to the previous issue.  Why do we call something madness, or childhood, though it viewed quite differently in separate eras? There must be some objective reality which is seen by each age.  Yes, societies change, and so do the reactions to many realities.  But the realities are still there.

So no, childhood and madness are not different things in different eras.  They are certainly treated differently, but the objective reality is the same.  There has to be something to be treated differently.