Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Everyone's a hero in their own story (again)

I appreciate that many of these posts are about how story works, why story works, and why it sometimes doesn't, which is as applicable to any genre as science fiction.  But I'm pretty much going to carry on until somebody tells me to stop.

A few days ago our nuclear family unit caught up with a film (fantasy, rather than sci-fi) that's been out since the summer, so forgive me if all this has been written before - there still seems to be room on the internet.  As, unlike, say, meat, films don't go off I rarely feel the need to see a movie when it first appears, being happy to catch up with the cheaper rep performances.  Or even when it appears on TV.  I refuse to be in thrall to marketing wallahs telling me something is 'must-see' here and now.  There's simply too much stuff out there and too few hours in a day.

I've always subscribed to the view that a performance (film, book, TV show, whatever) should make you laugh, cry, scared, come, whatever - any reaction is better than none.  So I suppose the fact that I felt utterly uncomfortable for large parts of this movie - as uncomfortable as I've felt watching any film since The Hunger Games or even the appalling Life is Beautiful - is a form of praise.

However, given that I was feeling uncomfortable over the romanticising of the kidnapping and (non-sexual) grooming of a child, I'm not sure how far that praise can stretch.  Any sense of victim and perpetrator was swept under the carpet, with the kid in question foregoing the desire to escape for befriending her captor like a stray puppy.  Yes, kids, we're talking full-blown Stockholm Syndrome kicking in pretty much before hunger and thirst in a way that I found genuinely creepy.

And the name of the movie?  Steven Spielberg's 'BFG'.

On the way back to the car my twelve-year old and I had a couple of robust discussions.  (One of the best pieces of advice about writing I've seen recently came from a Charlie Brooker article in a recent Guardian interview where he said that Russell T Davies had advised him that conversations tend to be two monologues clashing.  It was that kind of discussion.)  One was about my 'theory' that what we had just watched was Stockholm Syndrome.  The other was about comedy.

As a syndrome is defined as a set of symptoms, I disagreed that I was proposing a theory.  If you have spots and I say you have spots, that's observation.  If I say you have measles, that's a theory.  I was just bundling up what I had seen on screen under a convenient and appropriate umbrella term.  Neither was I saying that either Dahl or Spielberg had set out to make a story about Stockholm Syndrome - that would have been a theory.  What I was saying was that what we saw and heard added up to Patty Hearst-lite.

Indeed, I'm pretty sure that neither Dahl nor Spielberg would agree with my reading, and would probably be slightly appalled.  But, like the Hunger Games before, for me, it all comes down to the lead character's reactions to events failing to convince.  Does she react how you'd expect a kidnap victim to react?  Does she try to escape?  (Well, actually, yes, but half-heartedly.)  Is she terrified?  Fears for her life?  Not sure that comes across.  I wasn't expecting The Disappearance of Alice Creed, but at least I was convinced that Alice Creed was at least inconvenienced.

For me, that's it in a nutshell.  I'm happy to believe in the BFG.  But I'm not happy to believe in a human child reacting like that to the BFG.  And if you lose faith in the hero, who is your stand-in in the story, then you're lost, period.  (It's also why I'm probably the only person in the universe who thinks Divergent is a better story than The Hunger Games whose name isn't listed in the credits; the premise may be even sillier, but at least I can go along with how the characters react to their predicament).

And, again's the pity, that the story could have been easily fixed.  Show me that the orphanage is a horrible place (maybe it goes without saying, but this one seems fairly neglect-free), and it's better to be out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Or put the BFG in a position where he absolutely has to kidnap Sophie, possibly to save her from the murderous giants, where his options reduce to one, and one he takes reluctantly.  But that doesn't happen.  A friendly giant would trust her not to talk, or be believed if she did, and only take her when she blubbed.  In other words, if Sophie forced him into kidnapping her.  All those would work dramatically, but not this.  Perhaps Spielberg was in thrall to Dahl's original?

All this raises two moral side-questions, which I'll ask and then fail to answer.  Firstly, is it alright to be kidnapped by somebody who can offer you a more interesting life than the one you've got?  And, secondly, is it alright to kidnap somebody in order to save them from a worse fate, such as abuse or murder?  I suspect the second is easier than the first.  Feel free to theme a story around those.  Yours for free.

That other argument?  Simply that, when my twelve-year old heard that Life is Beautiful is a comedy set in a concentration camp, he declared that there were subjects that you should not write comedies about.  I, on the other hand, would defend an artist's right to make a comedy about anything, with the caveat that if and when it goes wrong you risk creating a story that is off the scale in terms of being crass and offensive.  Not sure The BFG was in that territory, but it was certainly ill-thought out.

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