Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Is storytelling obsolete?

with 6 comments

The tricky thing about defending plot is that you occasionally get it from both sides. On the literary end, you have critics like John Lucas of the Guardian, who is clearly suspicious of most plotted fiction, or James Wood of the New Yorker, who is famously fed up with the conventions of literary realism. Meanwhile, on the other end, you have those who want to get rid of story altogether, but for radically different reasons. And I suspect that the likes of Lucas and Wood might ease up on their invective if they realized that plot was, in fact, literature’s last stand against an even more insidious opponent, embodied, at least this week, by Andy Hendrickson, Chief Technology Officer of Disney Studios, who was quoted in Variety as saying: “People say ‘It’s all about the story.’ When you’re making tentpole films, bullshit.”

To state the obvious, I’d rather be defending story against the likes of Lucas and Wood, who at least claim to be aspiring to something more, than Hendrickson, who is pushing toward something much less. On a superficial level, though, he seems to have a point—at least when it comes to the movies that consistently generate large audiences. Citing a chart of the top 12 movies of all time, including Disney’s own Alice in Wonderland, Hendrickson notes that visual effects are what tend to drive box office—”and Johnny Depp didn’t hurt,” he concludes. Which is true enough. Most of these movies are triumphs of visuals over narrative, based on existing brands or properties, to the point where story seems almost incidental. Even a movie like The Dark Knight, which cares deeply about plot and narrative complexity, feels like little more than an aberration.

But this only tells half the story. For one thing, the list that Hendrickson provides isn’t adjusted for inflation, and the list of the real highest-grossing movies of all time yields a much different picture. There are some clunkers here, too (nobody, I trust, went to see The Ten Commandments because of the script), but for the most part, these are movies driven by story and spectacle: Gone With the Wind. E.T. Star Wars. The Sound of Music. Even Avatar, which had a few problems in the screenplay department, was an ambitious attempt to create a fully realized original story that would fuel the dreamlife of millions. And these are the most lucrative movies ever made. To be content with a disposable tentpole picture that barely makes back its production and marketing costs strikes me as a lack of ambition. And it should strike Disney shareholders the same way.

Moreover, even the movies that Hendrickson cites are more driven by story than he acknowledges. Alice in Wonderland was a book before it became a terrible movie, after all, and it’s safe to say that box office was driven as much by goodwill toward Lewis Carroll’s creations as toward Johnny Depp. The same is true for Spider-Man, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and most other major franchises, all of which were built on the work of solitary geniuses. In short, someone still needs to do the work of story. Aside from exceptions like Pixar or Inception, the primary creative work may not be done in Hollywood itself, but in novels, comics, and other media where true artists continue to gravitate, and where the movies will eventually turn. Hendrickson may hate to admit it, but he still depends on storytellers, even if they’ve fled his own department. Life, as a certain famous franchise reminds us, always finds a way. And story does as well.

Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2011 at 9:48 am

6 Responses

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  1. Great post. Flashy stuff might catch us off guard, and lure us into a 15 dollar seat, but story will win in the long run.

    I haven’t read the articles from Wood and Lucas yet… lets see if they will change my opinion…


    Zane Cassidy

    August 23, 2011 at 11:49 am

  2. Glad you like it! I’m not a huge fan of the Lucas article, but Wood makes some points that are hard to ignore, even if he and I don’t see eye to eye.


    August 24, 2011 at 11:00 am

  3. I love it, I think that it’s true. So many people have forgotten about something critical to any films enduring success, the plot. True you have the odd cult classic full of plot holes and characters that don’t make sense, but movies like Alice in Wonderland aren’t meant to be cult classics.

    I think special effects are wonderful, but I think that we’ve gotten to caught up with them. Sure Transformers looks good, but it doesn’t mesmerize us the way Gone With the Wind does. No one will ever feel the same about Shia LeBouf’s character- who’s name I can’t even remember- as they do Scarlett O’Hara.


    August 24, 2011 at 11:34 am

  4. Very true. Another issue is that studio executives seem obsessed with making protagonists “likeable,” when most of the great movie characters—like Scarlett O’Hara—are anything but.


    August 24, 2011 at 11:44 am

  5. Good post! Тhank you.


    August 28, 2011 at 6:29 am

  6. Thanks—happy you liked it!


    August 28, 2011 at 10:02 pm

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