Sometimes, even in the middle of a good book, I will wonder why I read, especially novels. As open-ended as the novel can and is supposed to be, there remains an Aristotelian formula at work: beginning, middle, end. Rising tension, peak tension, released tension. Maybe a denouement, maybe not. And then there are the plots themselves, which ought to mirror the limitless panorama of life as we know it—and perhaps more of life as we don’t know it—but too often contain the familiar and predictable. Boy meets girl, girl meets world, world meets boy and girl. Obstacles are overcome, losses are mounted and mourned. Successes are real, but fleeting and qualified. The
movie novel never ends it just goes on and on and on.
Predictability is not necessarily crippling, even for the arts. There is, for one thing, broad appeal in knowing (in general) what to expect. There is also how the art is created, as opposed to the story it is telling. Style matters. Finally, there is something refreshing about a work of art that is not simply different for the sake of being different. If there is a correlation between “different” and “good,” it’s not universal.
With that in mind, years ago I had a screenplay rejected from DreamWorks because, among other reasons, it was “too predictable” and “too much like … ” (That I received feedback at all was incredibly rare, made possible only because I a connection at the studio who could get the script read.) I would have rather been told, flat out, the script sucked. The film industry is as predictable as the weather is unpredictable, and movies are more derivative than most art forms. So for my “spec script” that I sent cold to agents or studios, I took no chances; I delivered what they wanted.
Part of this is understandable, of course. If I’m investing millions of dollars in something, you can be sure I wouldn’t want to take too many chances and would fall back on successful formulae. And thus, seemingly every movie released is a Marvel, DC, rom-com, chick flick, or a buddy picture. If a risk is taken, it is often based on a real-life event, one where everyone knows the outcome in advance. In other words it’s predictable, no matter how dramatic or rebellious its theme.
To return to the beginning and the book I referred to—it was one of those books about books that I tend to avoid, The Girl Who Reads on the Metro, by the French writer Christine Feret-Fleury. It had its charms and worked as a nice escape, but I could not suspend my reality long enough, so I found myself all too often not in admiration of the words but in thinking how forced and predictable it all was. What is interesting is not that this book triggered those thoughts, but why all novels (and movies for that matter) don’t. Why this book and not another? They are all contrived, forced, an element of unreality pervades every work of fiction, every work of art. (I do find it curious that the last time I felt this was with another translated book, The Memory Police, by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa.)
If this did happen to me every time I read a book or saw a movie, I would ascribe it to cynicism on my part. The curse of reading too much, seeing too many movies. Knowing everything, in other words. Gad. What a dull state that would be. But because, as I said, it happens rarely, I can breathe easier knowing I have not reached such an advance state of enlightenment (read: cynicism), that I am not, as yet, All Knowing.
But I know enough, and so do you, about how many, if not most, novels and movies are going to end. A hero may indeed have a thousand faces, but the stories attached to those faces tend toward a direction that will not surprise us much in the end. We just know the boy will get the girl and vice versa, the planet will be saved, the beloved lost pet will return. Yes, along the way someone close to our hero will die, a planet may not be saved, another animal will die—but they will all be regarded as heroes in their own way. Their deaths cannot and will not have been in vain.
It all gets a little tedious after a while, this praise of sacrifice, of noble deaths. As good as they are, for example, the Harry Potter books follow this formula almost precisely. You find yourself yearning for a different ending, like so many movies from the 70s, or an Emile Zola or Thomas Hardy novel, where things end badly, often very badly. It’s not enough to read an entire book of bad things—a dystopia, for example—because all things are bad, even as we are told to look on the bright side by well-meaning authors. There’s a bright side to The Road, is there? Though you are possibly reading or going to the movies to escape, you find yourself wanting the deaths to more closely resemble real life—to mean nothing, to have loved ones left clutching the vapors of the lost, to reveal the grand narrative of sacrifice as fraudulent.
On the other hand, how closely do we want art to imitate life? I have recently begun to re-read Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, and while taking a glance at the back jacket came across a quote from the New York Times. “Richard Ford is a daring and intelligent novelist [with an] extraordinary ear for dialogue and the ability to create everyday life with stunning accuracy.” It’s possible if I had read that quote before I had first read the novel I would have moved on to something else. Certainly today I mostly try to avoid a novel with that kind of “recommendation.” Why would I want to read something that “creates everyday life with stunning accuracy”? We’re over our ears in everyday life, thank you very much.
It’s no mystery why Marvel and DC movies are so popular, then. It’s not only their predictability, their lack of mystery, but there isn’t a lot of so-called realism to be found. The escapism is not always pure, but if there are messages to be found they are dumbed down or so subtle they are lost in a pretty explosion. Or the preaching is so obvious and pandering we are left rolling our eyes and wishing the movie would stay in its very narrow lane. (There are a few such cringeworthy moments in Justice League, for example.) To summarise the oft-quoted saw for writers: if you want to send a message, call Western Union.
And yet. Maybe we should turn to fiction, even movies about superheroes, for genuine messages of hope and inspiration. While not overtly inspirational or hopeful, Black Panther offers both without preaching. And it offers many more “real” characters than your typical story, let alone a fantasy one. Much more than the Harry Potter series, for example—another story rooted in myth and fantasy—Black Panther contains compelling characters we can study and can do so without the manipulation too often present in Harry Potter. There is a complexity in Black Panther that is mainly missing in Harry Potter, and though much of that can be explained away by pointing out that that J.K. Rowling’s masterstroke was written for children, a character like Professor Snape proves there’s room for some complexity in the Potterverse.
What is interesting about Black Panther is that the focus on the movie is often not on how good it was but on how a film with a predominantly black cast can succeed in Hollywood. While technically true and worth noting, it mainly serves to diminish the brilliance of the movie. The more important, point, I think, is how a popular movie—even a superhero movie!—can make us think without resorting to overt didacticism. Yes, T’Challa’s speech at the UN in the end credits is probably unnecessary, despite the basic power of its truth—that “more connects us than separates us.” Compare that, however, to the end of the movie, when T’Challa fatally wounds Killmonger. As he is dying, Killmonger relates how his father had promised to show him Wakanda, and how much the young boy had wanted to see his true home with his dad.
Do you believe that? A kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales.
Or a moment later, when T’Challa offers to heal this kid from Oakland.
Nah. Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.
It is not clear why those scenes work so well while the one at the UN did not. All three speak to the presence of darkness in our world, and all three are trying to say something. Maybe you have to be an American, burdened as we still are with a fractured racial history, to understand, as best as we can, the power behind an expression like “a kid from Oakland.” Even more broadly speaking, there is our experience with the African slave trade, lending more power to Killmonger’s words. Maybe I’m reading too much into it and it could come down to taste, which will of course vary from person to person. As for novels that purport to have messages, it’s similarly not clear why To Kill a Mockingbird or Invisible Man or The Bell Jar are more successful at avoiding didacticism than others. Comparing movies and novels and their use of didactics is a worthy topic for further discussion.
What is clear, of course, is that I keep reading books (and, yes, seeing Marvel movies)—not because I know what will happen but because I don’t. I’m not talking only about the trajectory of the story necessarily but also the trajectory of my own thoughts, my reactions to the story. Will it move me? Will it change the way I think? Will it reinforce other beliefs or teach me new ones? Will it supplement my own writing? All good questions. But the truth is, when I am asked why I love this book or that novel or poem or painting or picture, sometimes I find the best answer is not to give specifics, though I could provide any number of them. The most honest and truthful answer I can come up with is that I don’t really know, and that mystery is part of the beauty of art. In an age where everything is discoverable, it comforts me to know some things can’t be explained.