Monthly Archives: May 2013

These are our stories. . . .


I should hope that my readers are aware by now that I am a hopeless geek.  So it should come as no surprise that I should begin this blog entry with a Star Trek reference, especially in light of the newest Trek movie coming out.

In one of my favorite “Next Generation” episodes, Worf, the Klingon officer, discovers a prisoner-of-war planet where dozens of young Klingons have been held since they were small children.  None of these young people had any memory of their home and they knew nothing of their own people.  Worf, of course, must rescue them physically; but even more importantly, he must rescue them emotionally.  These lost young people, with no sense of belonging or of who they are as a culture, ask Worf to teach them what it means to be Klingon.  I suppose they expect him to begin by describing what their home planet looks like;  or their history; or their political system; or their religious customs or rituals. Worf could easily have started with any of these areas:  anyone familiar with the  Trek universe knows that the Klingon people have a rich and complex history and culture.  But Worf began teaching his new students about what it means to be Klingon by telling them the ancient myth of Kahless the Great and his evil brother.

An impertinent boy dares to interrupt Worf’s narrative. He doesn’t want bedtime stories–he wants facts.  Worf is indignant. “These are our stories,” he rumbles in his impressive bass voice; “they tell us who we are.”

Indeed.  That sentence has stuck with me for years, and I use it constantly in my literature classes.  Our stories both shape us and explain us.  Any story that has survived for decades or for centuries has stayed with us for a reason.  Good or bad, our stories, our myths, our legends, our novels, and our poetry tell us something about ourselves that we want to pass down to our progeny.

All ancient cultures told stories, but the ones which first shaped and spoke to Western Civilization are the Greek myths.  The Romans, whose own mythology was violent and fairly stark, were delighted to conquer Greece and assimilate the beautiful stories of their enemies.  That’s what we have inherited–beauty and violence; soaring ideals wed to pragmatism.  The gods of the Greeks and Romans were gods of nature, and therefore capricious, unpredictable, and self-absorbed.  It’s hard sometimes to tell the gods from the monsters; in fact, most of the monsters were children of gods and therefore under their protection. The heroes in these stories were men who could overcome, or at least survive, the intervention of the gods.  You can easily see the influence of such stories in our culture even today–our admiration of the solitary hero overcoming the odds to survive or of the impudent mortal flouting fate.  Our worship of individualism grew from these roots.  I’m not saying that individualism is a bad thing; but it can lead to bad things, including a resentment of authority and an unhealthy desire for independence from both God and each other.

What would Western culture be like if it were the myths of other people-groups that had been set down and studied, passed down as the wisdom of the ages?  The Norsemen, for example, for all their love of a good fight and their dubious regard for personal property, had gods who felt responsible for the good of mankind.  With the exception of Loki, they worked together for the common good and never exploited the weak.  They fought constantly, but with giants and monsters which threatened both themselves and mankind.  In the end, they are all doomed to die; but their moral compass points more truly north than the Greeks’.

But we are what we are; history has so arranged that we as Westerners be essentially Greco/Roman in our cultural outlook.  You can see it in our laws, in our belief systems, in our behavioral patterns, and in all of our stories.  It is impossible to read a book in the English language, for example, without finding numerous references to Greek and Roman mythology.  Our language is rife with it.  You need not have read any Homer whatsoever to know what I mean when I say I have an “Achilles’ heel” or that I am stuck “between a rock and a hard place.”  You may not know who Achilles is, or that the “rock”and the “hard place” are the monsters Scylla and Charybdis; but you certainly know how it feels to experience these things for yourself.

Down through the years, more and more stories have been added to those original myths; a people talking to themselves about themselves in order to explain themselves to themselves–if you follow me!  There are hundreds of individual stories, rich in meaning, that have entered our cultural consciousness and cut themselves a groove there.  Now our thoughts automatically run along those grooves–for better or worse.  The wisdom of Aesop; the chivalry of Malory and Tennyson; the eloquence of Shakespeare and Milton; the social conscience of Dickens and Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe; the elegance of Austen and the Brontes; the humor of Wilde and Wodehouse–you need not have actually read these works to have benefited from them or to recognize quotations from them.  For example, many of the social reforms that we enjoy in our modern civilization, policies that separate us as “first world” rather than “third world”, can trace their beginnings to stories that helped steer the minds of the people into those directions.  Our attitudes towards slavery, our work ethics, our treatment of laborers, children, and women, were all shaped by the stories men and women told and that the readers responded to and passed down to their children and to their children’s children in order to better their society.

This is why the study of literature is so important.  To know and understand our stories is to know and understand ourselves.  To learn the stories of our past is to benefit from the wisdom of the ages; or to realize where our erroneous beliefs have come from and why.  We can pick through our cultural mainstays and keep the good and discard the bad, if we realize that they ARE cultural, not Gospel.

In the end, since the only story that was truly inspired is Scripture, we must always compare our cultural stories to the Bible.  And then, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy. . . .” as Paul says in Philippians 4–read it!

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Literature as it Translates to Film


As I prepare for my literature classes for next year, searching out just the right novels, plays, and poems to present to each class, I find myself feeling more and more strongly that I should not limit myself to teaching the written word.  For the last one hundred years or so, the visual media have become more and more prominent in our society.  There are a great many people in America today who will never crack open a book, but will watch hours of television every day and see several movies each month.  While occasionally an original story is well-told on film, for the most part movies are remakes of popular or classical works of literature.  Many people in today’s society are exposed to the great stories of our culture exclusively through film rather than the written work. But sometimes,  the film intrigues its fans into actually reading the original work.

I will not say whether I feel this is a good or a bad thing.  It simply is.  Rather than wish the world were otherwise, it is time to face reality and deal with the visual media as an entity that is not only not going away but is taking over as our main source of cultural storytelling. As such, it demands scrutiny:  how well do movies and television translate the written word?

I believe that discerning the difference between a well-made film and a poorly-made one is a skill that must be taught.  It is, in fact, lamentable that it has not been made a priority in schools before now.  Americans are unfortunately content with the substandard fare offered to them and will even enthuse about the most banal and contemptible drivel, not knowing that there are truly sublime films available for them to enjoy if they would only look.  Many Americans, jaded by the constant bombardment of adreneline-producing violence and overly-excited sex, strobing through scene after scene at breakneck speed, can’t appreciate a truly well-made movie when they see one.  They simply don’t know how to process film intellectually, expecting a purely emotional experience.  Often, their attention-spans have been so severely compromised, people simply cannot sit through an entire film without explosions or other emotionally exploitive events to keep their minds from wandering.  I feel that this shows a serious lack in our educational system.

I believe that a natural start to teaching children how to appreciate visual media is to have them read books that have been made into film and help them compare the two media.  Showing them the same elements of story through both methods of storytelling can help them learn to be discerning in their viewing habits.  And fortunately, there have actually been some quite well-done films of many literary classics.

A part of this learning process, however, must include a basic understanding of how these two media necessarily differ.  I am not one of those “purists” who feel a film must be an exact copy of the book from which it is taken.  I am not even one of those people who insist that the book is always better than the movie.  Most of the time, the book IS better than the movie:  but in the interest of truth, it must be admitted that there are exceptions to this rule.  “The Princess Bride” is the one that springs immediately to mind.  While I enjoyed the book, with its facetious but interminably long introduction explaining “the  good parts” version, the movie incorporates the same sort of facetiousness without the initial tedium.

But, I digress!  The fact is, books can do things that film cannot; and film can do things that books cannot.  Taking advantage of the strengths of each medium is the job of the author and the filmmaker.  Understanding that some of the coolest parts of a book simply cannot translate well to the screen is part of the process of learning to appreciate film for its own strengths.  To give the most obvious example:  a film cannot get inside a character’s mind as intimately as a book can.  Other means must be found to allow the viewer access to the thought processes of the characters.  Another translation challenge is a lack of information.  At times in a written work, the author can state a complicated process quite simply and leave the details to the imagination.  “He quickly explained to his friends all that had happened to him in the previous few days.”  “A short scuffle ensued, ending with Mr. Smith head-down in the well.”  The film maker must make a decision as to how to convey these simple sentences visually.  Obviously the conversation must be shown to take place–but what do the characters say?  Or should the conversation simply be alluded to in a later scene so that the viewer knows that all the characters are now up to speed on the happenings of the story?  How should this “short scuffle” be choreographed?  How do we send Mr. Smith head-down into a well without killing the actor portraying him?  What can be a throw-off sentence to the author can become a major head-ache to a filmmaker.

Another problem is length.  A novel can be as long as the author wishes it to be.  A film usually cannot be longer than two or three hours at most.  A novel does not cost the author more the longer it gets.  A film’s costs multiply with each day it takes to shoot.  Therefore, it becomes necessary sometimes to condense a novel into a more manageable size.  Some scenes must be combined; some must be cut out altogether or perhaps only alluded to.  Some characters may even be combined to make the cast a more manageable size.

Here is a more complex example of changes in translation:  The Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol” is a highly symbolic creation, depicted masterfully by Charles Dickens as being perceived as “receding into the distance” and as made up of parts of all the people Ebenezer Scrooge had ever known.  As many times as this book has been made into a movie, no one has ever attempted to depict this character as it is described in the book.  Until recently, it would have been simply impossible to do; but even now, with CGI making so many wonderful things possible, I think it would be a mistake to translate this Ghost literally onto the screen.  Its appearance would simply be too distracting for meaningful dialogue to take place.  In the book, the reader is allowed to forget during conversation that the Ghost is strobing in and out of many different bodies.  On film, the viewer would be overwhelmed by the constant changes.

On the other hand, sometimes filmmakers make decisions in translation that are not defendable and are even deplorable.  Giving a character more lines because one is paying the actor an exorbitant  salary is using poor reasoning skills.  Changing the very meaning of the work by altering the ending (as in, for example, “Beowulf”–don’t get me started!)  is just plain evil.  Being able to tell the difference between good and bad choices would be an important part of the educative process.  Simply accepting any changes a filmmaker makes without questions would be as bad as automatically condemning the changes out-of-hand.  Teaching a student to think about the film and how it was made and giving the student tools to help him discern good filmmaking from poor filmmaking would be the goal.

Next year, I plan to incorporate some films into my literature curriculum and hold class discussions in hopes of helping my students gain viewing skills that will help them navigate through our cultural morass of visual media.  Wish me luck!

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