I want to talk about emotional impact, and different versions of the same story. I’ve been mulling over how characters other than the main protagonist move the plot and add to its heart. I’m still working through my thoughts on this, but I did promise people more posts, so I’m going to let you see my mess a bit. I hope to be coherent about it.
I love storytelling – all the ways we tell stories. Fables, fairy tales, paintings, novels, short stories, movies, tv shows, gossip, eavesdropping, jokes, plays, musicals, comics, Morse code, Semaphore … OK maybe not Morse code and Semaphore so much. (Cue silly Monty Python skit, giant flags waving wildly for “Heathcliff!”) Everyone has their favorite way of getting story, but everyone gets story in multiple ways. You choose your mediums and you learn or entertain or teach or are entertained. Humans like stories. We tell them even when we don’t know we’re telling them. And while we do like new ones, we definitely like to tell the same ones over and over. We like the emotional payoff.
There’s a saying that is something along the lines of “There are no new stories,” and that’s sort of true, if you look at it in the macro-sense. We’re always retelling the same story :
- What is human?
- What is love?
- What is right?
- What is wrong?
- What is that thing over there, is it a spider? Because if it’s a spider I really have to go now.
The specifics are what make the story interesting. Sometimes the specifics become a trope, or a meme, or whatever you want to call it, with the same medium-macro specifics, such as the Cinderella story. So many versions of Cinderella – in other cultures, it’s not called Cinderella, but it’s the same basic story. A young person is abandoned and/or wronged by people who should protect her, but because of her (it is usually a her) innate kindness and goodness (or the ability to weep/sing/make sweaters in a fetching manner), and a little outside help, she is shown to be the most worthy person for … well, marrying a prince, usually, but a better life, or a release of the evil spell, in any case. (Also fits Snow White, Beauty & the Beast, Seven Swans, Toads and Diamonds ….)
(As an aside, I think a big draw of fairy tales in particular for women, is that the main characters are often girls – sometimes the girls are completely wet and useless, and their fate isn’t all that pleasant, and the morals tend toward “Be super impossibly ‘good’ and ‘pretty’ or else,” but at least the girls have names, and get to do SOMETHING, and have adventures. So if you grow up as a woman and realize your favorite tales are really problematic, feminism-wise, just remember that those tales are about women characters you can at least pretend have some kind of agency.) (I write long asides.)
So humans like old stories. We tell them all the time, sometimes with a lot of embellishment, sometimes with very little. Sometimes we stand it on its head, and sometimes we shake it until it’s all-but unrecognizeable. And that’s great – I love retelling stories sideways and upside down and inside out and giving the unexpected tweak to make it all seem new again. I love new versions of old stories. I love old versions of old stories. I like to see what those changes make to the central message of the story, or how the central message is the same but feels different.
Which is a long way of saying: stories tell us about ourselves. We’re always trying to tell ourselves about ourselves, and we keep changing our own rules. While we’re changing the story and rules around, sometimes we change who is important in that story. It isn’t always just the main protagonist moving the story. Sometimes our protagonist needs jump-starting.
I saw the movie version of Into the Woods, and I both liked and didn’t like it. That is, I enjoyed myself; I enjoyed the slightly different take. It’s well-acted and well-sung, and I laughed and ‘aww’ed and smiled. I tried really hard not to sing along. I can see, time-wise, why they didn’t keep some of the asides and songs and reprises and … but it makes it a much flatter feeling story, even though the central message remains the same. So this time, the retelling didn’t change what we tell ourselves, but it changed the feel of the story, and the emotional payoff wasn’t as good, at least for me.
(There may be spoilers for the musical plot and the movie changes from here on out, so if you don’t want any of those, skip to the end.)
MIDDLING SPOILERS AHEAD
The central message of Into the Woods, as far as I’ve always found it, is: You Have to Change Your Own Story. (He hits you over the head with Children Will Listen, but that’s really not what he’s telling us the whole time.) The other main message of all of Sondheim’s work is always: People are Effed Up. Yes, You, Too. Sondheim delights in those messages, and when he’s at his best, he can make us delight in them, too. We laugh and we cry and we shiver along with him. We are absolutely gleeful to do so.
In this version, the movie takes out some of the Witch’s moments, songs, and motivations. This makes her a lot less fun, amusing, sympathetic, or morally ambiguous. It makes her more menacing, but also less so. It pulls her teeth while at the same time giving her a spiked stick. The musical Witch is our bitter jealousy, our anger, our sense of unfairness, our excessive revenge, but she’s also our prankster, our gleeful chaos, our snide, snarky, insightful jerk. She’s not good, she’s not nice, she’s just right. The movie takes some, but not all, of that away. It makes her a little flat. Meryl Streep did a good job with what they gave her, (she’s not Bernadette, but who is?) but she can’t give you what the rewrite didn’t provide. She can’t be playfully vicious any further than the lines allow.
I think that’s the center of my issues with this retelling. The Witch’s sarcasm and snark and chasing of the Baker’s father and the eating of that bug and the line “A bear? Bears are sweet!” is part of what makes the story fun, and moves it along. Her loss of Rapunzel to death, not just leaving, gives us most of the reason the second half of the second half is so much darker. Yes, I missed the reprise of “Agony,” and the “Justifies the Beans” song, and I wish they’d kept the narrator, because man, the narrator is great.
But without the malicious levity that the Witch provides, the story gets bogged down in People are Effed Up and Wow People are So Effed Up, and the laughing is a lot less even before we lose the Witch to her beans. When she does her “Last Midnight” song, she’s not nearly as scary, because she’s already been there for most of the movie – overly vengeful, bitter, lost – the humor/horror juxtaposition doesn’t work as well. And then she’s gone, and we’re left with our effed up non-heros, who have to sing about how lost and non-heroic they are. (Let’s be honest, the “No One is Alone” song might be a major point of this story, but jeez, that song is long and boring. (It seemed shorter in the movie, and thank the deity of your choice for that, because Oy.))
Once the Witch is gone we lose some of the urgency, even though there’s still a very (justifiably) angry giant roaming around killing folks. The Witch pushed us to move, and now we have to push ourselves (another point of the show, yes). I feel like, in the movie version, they yanked the urgency out sooner, and lost some of the thread that ties all the stories together. So even though we have Cinderella, and Jack, and Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, etc, as main characters, the Witch is the driver of it all, and if she’s not running around making everything jump to her commands as much, if she’s not shocked to bitter rage at the sudden death of the one person she loved, then the movement is disjointed and the emotional impact is different.
The emotional impact is less.
And now, I finally get around to my point about my own writing.
MILD SPOILERS FOR A RAGGED MAGIC AHEAD.
When I originally wrote A Ragged Magic, Orrin was not a main character. He was just an acolyte, being horribly abused by Bishop Gantry, and while Rhiannon knew bad things were happening to him, she had a lot less proof. She didn’t want him to suffer, but she didn’t have any driving reason to rescue him above herself, either.
There were other issues with that earlier version that I’ve (hopefully) fixed now, but the emotional heart of the story was a lot less urgent. Without a compelling outside person to push herself for, Rhiannon stays lost. She needs someone to take risks for. Without Orrin, most of her compelling reasons are to hide – why take chances? Which makes perfect sense in a real world, but it makes it a less impactful or interesting story. Orrin makes her a better person. Orrin is flawed, a little naïve, and certainly grieving and in pain himself, and he’s her friend quickly and intensely in an intense situation. His sudden and horrific situation makes him sacrifice himself to save everyone else. And his peril pushes Rhiannon to take risks to save him, along with herself (and everyone else). And all of that drives the story in a much more impactful manner. Without this rewrite (for which we can thank Fabulous Editor Jak ™) (along with many months of me banging my head on a keyboard) we don’t have any of that. We don’t know Orrin at all, and Rhiannon is more timid, has fewer leaps in growth, so the end of the book feels muffled and lost. Orrin is not the main character, but now he is a central character. When he was less, so was the story. When I made him more important, I made the story’s heart bigger, too. (And hopefully I did a good job of it. Eeep.)
All of this is the (quite) long version of saying – sometimes your central but not-main characters move the story along in a way you’re not even noticing. And if you slight them, you slight the story.
Moral: Don’t Slight Your Sidekicks – They’re Not as Side as You Think.
(Other Moral: I Like Parentheticals and Long Paragraphs. Sorry About That.)
Title is from “Last Midnight” from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. In case you didn’t get that.