Bread or Circus?

or “Why SyFy’s ‘THE EXPANSE’ show is better than the books”

‘Bread and circuses’ was the policy employed by jaded Imperial Roman politicians to control and appease the great unwashed pleb masses. Now this isn’t a political post (although I certainly could run down that rabbit trail barking like a pack of rabid hounds) This being a writing blog, I’m going take a moment to ramble on about the storyteller’s dilemma of Substance versus Spectacle.

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STAR WARS: THE PLOT DOESN’T THICKEN  THE FORCE AWAKENS
After Christmas, I spent one of my rare annual visits to the Mall Multi-Plex on SW:TFA. My wife and I, along with several friends plunked down our $8.50 each, sunk into our seats and escaped for 2+ hours while munching on popcorn and smuggled-in Twizzlers. When the final credits rolled, my first reaction was relief: JJ didn’t botch it. He and his team made an epic Big Screen event and a solid homage to my childhood geek icon. Bravo.

Then why was there this nagging disappointment? For all the new characters, the old familiars, the cool vistas, the choreographed dogfights, the Death Planet explosion, I was ultimately underwhelmed. My one-sentence summation hit me on the drive home: “Another layer of frosting on a 39 year-old cake.”

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OK, so it’s not 1977 and I am a bit older than 13. What did I really expect? It’s “Star Wars” not “War and Peace”. Then I ran across this excellent LA TIMES article which brought it into focus: the old issue of Story versus Spectacle. Yes, SW:TFA was pretty, and shiny and frenetic, but plot-wise? A thin layer of Stupendously Predictable.

 
STORY OR SPECTACLE
That’s the storyteller’s dilemma, isn’t it? Story or Spectacle. My question is “Why do we have to choose?” Now maybe audiences have been complaining about this for centuries. “That Euripides is so shallow. All pageant and chorus. No depth at all – not like Aeschylus.” It just feels like the swap, the ‘bait-and-switch’, is far too common these days. Well, sizzle ain’t steak, no matter the era.

As an unrepentant geek, I’m referencing sci fi and fantasy here, but I think this friction applies across the board.

Take a moment and compare Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy with The Lord of the Rings. See? That’s my point. Not that The Hobbit wasn’t a great book with magical characters in the same incredible world. It just wasn’t THREE MOVIES worth of story. Which is why we ended up with Hunky Dwarves, an e-Harmony Dwarf/Elf match, an Albino Orc baddie, non-stop Disney-ride action sequences, and Sand Worms imported from Arrakis. Instead of one book per movie, we got one novella spread over three movies. So, Sir PJ had to spackle something in all those gaps. He had seven + cinema hours to fill.

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Cover of ‘Dwarf Quarterly’

What about Avatar? – where James Cameron grabbed every sci fi trope that couldn’t run fast enough and blended them into a sweet frothy frappe of a plot he could hang $600 million worth of CGI on. Contrast it with District 9. (Which stands as one of my all-time favorite SF films) Positively Everything about D9 is more interesting than Avatar, from the characters to the camera work. It has an actual story arc and character development.

No, Mr. Blomkamp didn’t hit the same heights with Elysium or Chappie, but it’s obvious he’s trying. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I had to choose, I’d rather be known for D9 than Avatar, a.k.a. the most forgettable mega-blockbuster in history. (Four out of five Otaku Experts agree it left virtually NO cultural footprint) And don’t even get me started on Pacific Rim or the recent Godzilla letdown.

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THE EXPANSE 

SyFy’s latest attempt to recapture the BGS phenomena comes from two of George RR Martin’s staff writers who are cranking out a series of SF novels each heavy enough to stun a horse. Kudos to them – they’re making a good living.

I heeded the hype and tried, but gave up when neo-Chandler detective met the Space Zombies. The whole affair hit me as McDonalds space opera: quick, assembly-line, SF calories. Filling in a way, made for rapid consumption from obviously reconstituted ingredients, but definitely not taking digestion in mind.

Thing is though, to fill out all those pages Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck needed to think in longer than 42 minute increments, conjure up better than cardboard character types, twine more than two plot threads for their solar system-sized setting, then add a dash of political/social machinations – which is why the show works as good SF television. There is more STORY there than the bog-standard SyFy serial. (Sharknado 4, anyone?) I won’t buy another Expanse book, but I’ll be spending one lunch break per week to catch up on the latest episode.

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A QUESTION OF MEDIUM?
“Don’t be daft, Paddy me boy. TV ain’t books.” Aye, I get that. They work different ways on different levels. Fine. But aren’t both vehicles for STORY? And isn’t STORY what we crave? Sure, we oooh and aaah at sweeping vistas, alien landscapes, and epic battles, but we want rich characters, believable story arcs, genuine character development, credible conflict, setback and climax. We want legitimate struggles rather than contrived ones. Faulkner’s ‘heart in conflict with itself’. Give us heart-breaking defeats and breath-taking triumphs – the bones and body, not the make-up. I think that’s why even in shallow fare like Star Wars, Darth Vader is more compelling than Luke Skywalker, and why Smeagol/Gollum is one of the most memorable characters in all Middle Earth.

 
NAMING THE WIND OR PASSING THE WIND?
I’ve heard that Pat Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles was optioned for film. (and video games and graphic novels, and possible TV spin-offs, and clothes, and…) The spec-fiction genre fan in me is very excited. Good on ya, Mr. Rothfuss. Excellent choice, Hollywood.I hope they do them justice.

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I’m afraid though – terribly afraid, given recent events- that Mr. Rothfuss’ marvelous books with get reduced to green screen fantasy flatulence that happens to have a rocking medieval boy-toy musician, hashtag ‘Kvothe’. Which would bum me right the hell out. Like near-suicidal. It would be like watching a cow get turned into bouillon cubes. Or a Eucalyptus tree into bubble gum. (For the love of all that’s holy, Pat. Don’t let ’em do it!)

 
FIVE FLAMING TORCHES ON THE WRITER’S ROLLA-BOLLA OF DEATH

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Juggling – that’s the challenge. At least, that’s what I think good story-telling is: a deliberate whirl of characters, plot, prose, entertainment and substance. Not that I have an MFA in Creative Writing or that I’ve hit the 10,000 hour/Million Word “Expert” mark. Honestly, I’m figuring this out as I go – sort of an ‘Earn as I Learn’ thing. Working on my next novel, I’m painfully reminded any genuine mastery is going to take far more discipline than inspiration.

However, those are the five elements that coalesce in the stories that move me. Books with that mysterious alloy survive the annual cull year after year and they are the ones I buy multiple copies of to give away to friends and family.Those are the kind of stories I want to write.

No, I haven’t mastered this yet. Not even close. But I’m going to keep at it because in terms of my writing, at the end of my life, those are the kind of stories I want to be remembered for. I don’t think for a second it’ll be easy, but I do believe in my marrow it’s on the shortlist of things that are truly worth it.

Have a good day. Thanks for reading.

3 Comments on “Bread or Circus?

  1. I think “The Force Awakens” does have a few new elements, small seeds if you will, planted in a big fan package of what every Star Wars fan has hounded the studio to see again: the same space battles, the same old characters, the same old fight. It’s what people said they wanted, so it’s what was delivered. But the small seeds I saw give me hope that the next movie will further extrapolate beyond the basic premise that “Force Awakens” delivers (which, as a few have noted, isn’t much). It is, in many ways, a new hope (if you’ll excuse the pun). Whether or not the next movie is brave enough to move beyond the basic framework of the original trilogy or plays it safe for applause is yet to be seen.

    I’m glad people have gotten so much enjoyment out of “Force Awakens,” as there is indeed a lot to celebrate. I eventually want to write a post with the moments I found most enjoyable (that I daresay are not the ones others are, which is perfectly alright).

    But it does again show that the geek audience is incredibly fickle and difficult to appeal to (proving why studios have shied away from it). Here we have a movie that in many ways trods over the exact same ground as an older, beloved classic, adding a few quips and extra characters to spice things up for certain target demographics, and with older actor cameos of their hallmark roles. Yet for some reason, “The Force Awakens” is blessed for following this format, while “Star Trek: Into Darkness” is sacrilege.

    Sure, “Into Darkness” had plot difficulties, some pacing issues, and a few weird narrative moments (as, indeed, “Force Awakens” does as well beneath the glitz). Yet I’d argue that the team behind “Into Darkness” really did try to add new elements to the story: it’s not just “Wrath of Khan” redux as many accuse it of being, but a completely different story about characters who have to learn new lessons about responsibility, leadership, trust, and honor. Quinto yelling “Khan!” was over the top, but I actually thought the flipped Kirk/Spock dialogue toward the end was good. It showed how these characters were different than their alternate universe counterparts, with different stories to tell and a different relationship arc that built throughout the movie to that moment. Yet that movie is continually brought up as a failure (I even saw it rated as worse than the Hobbit movies on a list, which is just sad).

    I guess what I’m trying to say is: the bread and circus critique may be applicable in some scenarios, but the poor entertainment leadership can’t begin to guess when the fickle crowds will toss either back in their faces. The line between “the bestest” and “worst ever” is thin, porous, and constantly moving. When faced with geek mob violence, many are wise to choose the safest route: stay out of that fight altogether.

    • Hey, thanks for responding.

      I do agree with your assessment on JJ’s work. But then again, I think he’s a storyteller at heart. Unlike some, I also really enjoyed the Star Trek re-boots, and in a popcorn way, SW:TFW. (Same with Mad Max – Fury Road, but how Mad Max can be the ‘Film of the Year’ is beyond me. I think it proves my point)

      I think where we might differ is that the ‘fickle crowds’ are actually more a vociferous opinionated minority. Sure, people pay good money for spectacle but it’s ultimately vapid. Story is the engine. It’s what stands the test of time. I think the very reason there can even be a SW:TFW all these years later is that the original story made such an impression. (which is a variation on older knight/quest tales) Same with Star Trek or Mad Max. I think audiences go back hoping deep down for the story to transport them like it did the first time. My belief is that spectacle may entertain or distract, but story is what transports and transforms.

      I submit the two elements are pedals on a bike; they absolutely need each other. It just seems the current trend isn’t to mine the story for more riches, to take it further and deeper, have better characters and plots, but use just enough to stage even more spectacle. Which become a slippery slope to bigger, brighter, louder, more grotesque, shocking, bloody… Spectacle become the substitute for a lack of story. (Or in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Skin is the favored filler)

      I understand there will always be money to be made playing to the cheap seats, but ‘geek mob violence’ is a poor hobgoblin to fear and a lousy excuse to slather yet another coat of paint on someone else’s antiques. (or polish turds and call ’em gold) As part of the audience, I know what kind of things I want to see, read and pay money for – it’s not by-product and filler, no matter how shiny. As an artist, I also know the kind of work I want to produce. I think the distinction is important and I want to keep it in the forefront of my mind.

      • Thanks for the reply; it’s so nice to see that someone online has actually taken the time to read, consider, and respond to a comment in a thoughtful way. Your critique of spectacle in place of substance certainly has merit, though as alluded to with the bread and circuses, it’s an old problem.

        In the early days of film, there was a lot of emphasis on the technology over story, because it was novel and would sell a picture all on its on. Sound! Color! Widescreen! 3D! Eventually, though, the novelty wore off and filmmakers were forced to figure out new ways to attract an audience. Television also forced film to up its game.

        In a way, we’re living through that same transition period. Studios are trying everything they can think of to save their box office sales, which means bigger! Louder! Better!

        But it’s television that’s been the true beneficiary of changing technology as shows are better able to compete with the “big screen.” Streaming is changing viewing habits to put more focus on long-form storytelling (which has virtues and flaws). Ironically, I think the share universe structure being embraced by many franchises allows for more varied, diverse storytelling. Without the backing of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and its near guaranteed income stream, can you imagine a show like “Agent Carter” being greenlit?

        Sure, this structure can get a bit self-referential and bloated in places, but it also allows for experimentation with market value. The success of the Star Trek movies is returning that franchise to the small screen. I have hope that the Star Wars saga’s latest installment will inspire unique, intriguing stories. Hey, the prequels gave us the Jedi Apprentice books series, which were great science fiction adventures that explored a variety of ethical and social dilemmas.

        In the theatre world I inhabit, there’s a play called “Mr. Burns.” In the first act, characters gather over a fire in a post-apocalyptic America. There’s no electricity, people are scarred and scattered. They comfort each other by piecing together elements from old Simpson episodes. (SPOILERS) By the end of the play, set decades in the future, this world has created a whole mythology out of those tales, creating grand theatrical presentations that bear only a passing resemblance to our pop culture and are more about the world’s shared struggles to survive and thrive in this brave new era.

        No matter what spectacle is produced, people have a way of creating new ideas and stories from the culture of the day, in spite of whatever the creators had originally envisioned. Once a story is in the wild, it’s up for grabs to interpret, personalize, reinvent, and share to a new audience.

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