Narrative and the stretching of credulity.

The image is publicity material for what is considered to be the worst Sci-fi film in the history, Ed Wood’s masterpiece ‘Plan 9 from outer space’. It was, both in technical terms and in terms of plot, a good contender for worst film of all time. Check out the link, this guy was weird. I have seen the film and it is so bad that it is unintentionally funny. I will leave you to check it out but it illustrates my point today. It tried to combine Sci-fi, horror and the producers sexuality. It featured Vampira- a horror star and Bela Lugosi, who was in fact dead at the time and a double was used (Along with stock footage!). The double (Wood’s Chiropractor.) Disguised himself by the simple expedient of holding a cape over his face. The film broke all the rules of the relationship between viewer and writer/producer.

I consider narrative to be important no matter what the media. Stories told in Books, Radio plays, T.V., film or games all need to be believable to succeed and all need a compromise from the Reader/Listener/Watcher. That is suspension of disbelief. We are asked to believe Agatha Christie’s elderly amateur sleuth Marple could solve murders based on similarities with life in the microcosm of the village of St Mary Mead. The writer takes this scenario and writes something which is believable, if unlikely, and we agree to try not to think that it just wouldn’t really happen. There is a long running TV show here called ‘Midsomer Murders’. It is set in  the rural county of Midsomer and we are asked to believe that this county in the middle of the countryside suffers a Murder rate similar to the East end of London. It is a standing joke but there is a strong comedic element so we accept it. The same is true of Medieval murder mysteries. Few portray the middle ages accurately but if the story is good……..

Sci-fi and fantasy probably suffer least from these rules simply because the subject deals with possible futures or imaginary magic environments. Even here care is needed though. Most readers have a strong notion of what science MAY lead to or a working knowledge of the history of medieval magic around which most fantasy is based. In cinema any film which broke these rules through poor writing/acting or the plot not being believable in context with accepted science was destined to be a ‘B’ movie.

But even masters of the art of writing can step over the line. Everyone knows that any blockbuster film franchise will always contain a bad apple, usually the last film in the series. Ideas run out and you push the credulity of your audience till they can no longer suspend their disbelief. Your core fans may accept it but most cinemagoers will not. Result-flop.

Tolkien started by writing what was essentially a book for older Children- ‘The Hobbit’. He later produced his masterpiece ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Later he tried to fill in the history to his Middle Earth in’The Silmarrillion’. It contained little real story and you are unlikely to see Peter Jackson making it into a film trilogy. It is essentially a genealogy of the races of Middle Earth and few engage with it.

Another example is a series of Books which became a T.V. series. The author was Colin Dexter and the Book/T.v. show was ‘Inspector Morse’. It was a story of an Oxford Detective Endeavour Morse, his sidekick Lewis and their cases. It was followed by ‘Lewis’, being the stories of Morse’s Sidekick, promoted to Inspector, and his Sidekick Hathaway. Next came ‘Endeavour’ a series detailing Morse’ early career. This has been a massive franchise in 3 incarnations and the stories are engaging in all 3. Yet each series has had it’s failures. Plots were confusing or just ran contrary to human nature as the viewer understands it. Motives were offered which were very weak as cause for murder. Characters were charicatures instead. One recent episode of ‘Endeavour’ called ‘Ride’ will suffice to illustrate a bad episode. There was confusion as to who the bodies were, why they had been murdered and one was mis-identified twice. The author was trying to be too clever. The plot was similar to and almost plagiarised from ‘The Great Gatsby’. frankly it became obvious this was fiction, the story did not ring true and the entire thing had been handled better in Gatsby. Also the previous series had left the young Morse falsely imprisoned. This was the first episode in the new series and he was free, with very little explanation of how or why this occurred. Little was made of it and most of us felt that there should have been an episode dedicated to updating us on what happened. If you invest in a character, as the writer/viewer contract says you must, you don’t leave great chunks of one of the most formative events in his life blank. It was lazy writing on all scores.

In the various reboots doing the rounds now even famous franchises are becoming diluted for the same reason. Batman, Spider-Man, Star trek and many others are now so wrapped up in alternative universes and multiple versions of essentially the same story that believability goes out of the window. Added to this is the Game versions adding another layer. In short it is becoming nearly impossible to suspend disbelief when it is plain that stories are being reinvented merely to milk the franchise. Personally I believe that the Star Wars saga should have finished with the Sixth film. The story was neatly wrapped up and further films seem to be desperate attempts at resurrecting the corpse.

This is all my personal view but I am sure many feel the same way. It is also true to say that I have seen little in the way of books, T.V. series, films or games which are entirely new, most based on previous formulae. It may be true that the infinite monkeys at their infinite typewriters (Laptops) may be able to re-produce the entire works of Shakespeare eventually but could they come up with anything new? It may be that new ideas are no longer possible after all this time. Maybe the best we can hope for is old ideas but that the writer is skilled enough to combine them in exciting ways. Not so much suspension of disbelief, more like suspension of the ‘I have seen this before…’ reflex.