I’m still bitter about having spent two and a half hours and twelve dollars at the cinema yesterday watching The Maze Runner having to endure my dad’s grouchiness (and his awful treatment of service staff that makes me wanna bury my head in the ground forever), as you can see, since I probably wouldn’t have gone but everyone’s raving reviews convinced me to watch it…leading me to be sorely disappointed.
Anyway, I finally managed to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel today (I’ve wanted to for ages and I went to the cinema intending to watch the Grand Budapest Hotel TWICE, but was turned away both times because I was a few months away from being 18) and it didn’t disappoint the least bit. Of course, I wouldn’t count on Wes Anderson to disappoint me since he’s made a few of my favourite movies like Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums, despite having sky high expectations for all his new releases.
Of course, I’m not going to review the film in its entirety since the movie’s been released for months and everyone who’s wanted to watch it already has or they probably intend to watch it (go watch it), and to those who are unconvinced, geesus please learn how to appreciate Wes Anderson’s craft. Instead, I’m going to talk about good storytelling, even though I’m rather unqualified to do so since I’m not even half good at writing and well…my English teachers would probably know more about that than me. Even so, as a ‘consumer’ of books and films and theatre, I suppose I’ve learned to discern between good and bad storytelling over the years, having read all sorts of books – trashy, non trashy, weird, not so weird, interesting, bland – and watched tons of movies (I’ve probably watched all the bring it on movies at least twice each because I got so bored at my grandparents’ place in Malaysia…there’s no internet there, don’t ask but I’ve also managed to watch The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs in between all that…stuff.)
Anyway, back to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has an amazingly written story and whimsical dialogue and comedic timing that works perfectly, it’s a good story because it fulfils its purpose to entertain and make people laugh, and tear up a little, and feel all warm and fuzzy inside – it makes people feel. Au contraire, The Maze Runner doesn’t work because I don’t feel emotionally invested in the fates of the characters so much so that I found myself checking my phone a few times during the movie to discuss the Bolshoi Ballet’s livestream recording for World Ballet Day with my friend instead.
Part of good storytelling, of course, comes from creating believable and relatable characters. None of the characters in The Grand Budapest Hotel’s perfect. Ralph Fiennes’s Monsieur Gustave, the Grand Budapest’s concierge, might seem to be a perfectly “good” protagonist stereotype…until we see that he provides, um…services…to some of the rich old women that make up the hotel’s main clientele. And of course, when he later gets caught up in the whole fiasco with regards to Madame D’s inheritance, he steals the painting (that he was supposed to inherit anyway) and lands himself in a stint in prison…and escapes. He’s a typical happy-go-lucky character, except beneath that surface, there’s depth in his dedication to the hotel and his servitude, and his occasional missteps. Similarly, his bell boy, Zero, isn’t perfect either. He first starts out as a bumbling new bell boy at the Grand Budapest on a probation (of sorts), and he soon gains the trust of Monsieur Gustave, who teaches him the tools of the trade. Despite being a nervous newbie, he’s not an entirely a dimwit either, especially after picking up some of Gustave’s habits – he’s the one who encouraged Monsieur Gustave to make off with the painting, and even negotiates the repatriations he would be given should Gustave sell the painting – of course, they don’t get to that part of the plan. These are characters that have their flaws, but have even stronger inherent traits like their happy-go-lucky-ness and their loyalty, and a sense of innocence or naivety that makes viewers believe these characters and root for them, wanting to see them succeed. This sense of involvement is what gets viewers engaged in the show.
We can also see this when we compare the audiences’ reactions to the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Doctors. What endears the first three doctors to the viewers is that despite their flaws, the Doctors are still dependable (or at least they try their best to save their companions and express grief upon losing their companions), and they’ve got traits such as 9th’s and 10th’s belief in protecting life and 11th’s aloofness or…well, puppy-like nature, with his sad puppy eyes and the need for constant affirmation so that he’ll forget his dark past. In contrast, many viewers feel less attached to the 12th Doctor because, while Moffat has decided to push the show towards a “darker” direction, the Doctor feels a little too dark. He no longer tells his companion to stick close on dangerous missions, his first reaction to danger is either to investigate it further or simply to escape, rather than to call out to the companion to, well, “run”. A recurring theme in the new series of Doctor Who is the constant abandonment of the companion, most of the time because the Doctor believes that Clara can handle the dangers on her own (and she does, and that’s good) but when this happens to often, your sense of trust in the Doctor is shaken. Instead of having a character that you love and endear, you start to fear the character and the dangers he bring. I’m not saying that the 12th Doctor doesn’t have any redeeming characteristics and I’m not saying that this series is bad, because this is honestly one of the best series of Doctor Who I’ve ever watched and that’s because Clara’s allowed to shine in every single episode, bar Time Heist, and her two-dimensional “Impossible Girl” identity is given greater depth and dimensionality in the new series. This might also be why fans are starting to call the new series the “Clara Oswald Show”, and I don’t blame them. (But I don’t mind Clara getting such a huge role either – it’s been quite a while since we’ve gotten such detail into a companion’s life anyway, since most companions have lives wrapped AROUND the Doctor, not the other way round.)
I’ve deviated far enough from my original topic, so I’ll reel myself back and we’ll leave the Doctor Who talk to another day (probably till the end of the series.) Aside from believable characters, good storytelling also comes from well written plots and in the case of TV shows and films, well written dialogue as well. I’m a literature student, and I know I don’t analyse this well enough (and I should probably pay attention to that more), but DICTION is of utmost importance in writing. Of course, I’m not expecting TV and film writers to pay as much attention to every single word they use as poets do, but this does make a huge difference between a rather unappealing movie and a brilliant one. I’m not saying that a writer has to use huge words either – in fact, that might sometimes put viewers off. Write simply such that your message is brought across more effectively. Case in point, Neil Gaiman’s writing. Well if you don’t know, I absolutely revere Neil Gaiman and I do agree with many that he IS the “Master of Storytelling”. He doesn’t write with huge and complicated words, rather, he is concise and to the point about what he’s describing, such that readers are able to visualise clearly the world he’s creating. Furthermore, the way he manipulates simple words to evoke emotions is so very incredible, I wish I knew how to do that but I just don’t have the skills to. In The Doctor’s Wife, one of the best episodes of Doctor Who in the NuWho era, there’s this farewell scene between the Doctor and Idris, who’s the TARDIS in human form:
Idris: Doctor. Are you there? It’s so very dark in here.
The Doctor: I’m here. Hey.
Idris: I’ve been looking for a word. A big, complicated word, but so sad. I found it now.
The Doctor: What word?
Idris: “Alive.” I’m alive.
The Doctor: Alive isn’t sad.
Idris: It’s sad when it’s over. I’ll always be here. But this is when we talked. And now even that has come to an end.
Of course, everyone was in tears and sobbing uncontrollably by the end of this scene, because the TARDIS – despite having been the Doctor’s constant and most loyal companion – has never ever had the chance to speak to the Doctor (yes the TARDIS is a perfectly sentient, alive, biological organism. In fact, a TARDIS has an almost symbiotic relationship with her time lord). Not to mention that the Doctor himself has had a rather unique relationship to his Type 40 TARDIS since he “stole” her and together, they’ve experienced adventures like no other time lord or TARDIS had. That scene was one of the most poignant and beautiful moments of Doctor Who and it conveyed the bittersweet nature of their farewell so eloquently despite using such simple language. I’m not exactly sure how Neil Gaiman does this, I wish I knew the tricks, but then again if everyone knew how to write like he does, everyone’d be master storyteller too.
Finally, the key to good storytelling is to TELL A STORY. Yes, just tell a fucking story. Symbolism? Great. Huge, social commentaries about life and death and capitalism and all that? Good too. But you know what a play or a film or fiction is? Art and entertainment. You can try to fill your story with huge and important social commentaries but if you don’t make it palatable, people are not going to want to watch it or read it, and this is why The Maze Runner fails. I do agree that there’s an important message about corruption and environmental degradation in the movie, but if your audience is going to either get so freaked out by hugeass spiders that they turn off, or they get so bored that they start checking their phones, or…well, they just spend the entire time squealing over the actors (which really says something about your writing because your viewers are paying more attention to the physical aspects of the actors instead of the story itself), you aren’t going to get your message across. In storytelling, the story comes first. Write it like you’re telling a child a story (but please, not in a condescending way because I hate it when adults constantly think that children are dumb and need to be taught and protected – they do not.) If need be, narrate the story like you would when you’re reading a fairytale to a child, like how Neil Gaiman writes his books, like how Wes Anderson writes his movies, like how Tolkien, through Bilbo’s eyes, narrate the occurrence of the events in the Hobbit to dear Frodo. I do enjoy hearing a narrative voice in the stories I read, because it gives you a sense of closeness and familiarity to the story and the person telling the story.
The thing is, I’ve never really realised the importance of entertainment in narrative art forms until we started studying Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession and Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan in literature. Both Lady Windermere’s Fan and Mrs Warren’s Profession are plays including two rather headstrong women with their unconventional mothers, and both serve as commentaries on the hypocrisy and corruption of society. Wilde, as everyone knows, is an amazing storyteller. His writing his humorous and tongue-in-cheek, and Lady Windermere’s Fan is no different. Even so, the play isn’t filled with slapstick humour and jokes, there are interjections of serious moments where Wilde highlights his message. Even the jokes about marriage and the double standards of women in society bring forth the authorial intent with subtlety and clarity. In comparison, Shaw goes on lengthy and rather preachy rants about how capitalism is corrupting mankind and pushing women and the poor to means like prostitution to survive. Sure, after reading the play, everyone gets that Shaw thinks that capitalism is evil and that it corrupts society, but that is because we are compelled to read the play since our A Level grades depend on it. Should the play be put up, I’m pretty sure Shaw will lose most of his audience by the end of Act II (trust me, I sat in front of two junior boys who were completely lost during Mrs Warren’s huge rant.) Before you think, who’s this kid to complain about George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote the play, Pygmalion, that inspired My Fair Lady), I’m not the only one who says this. In fact, my literature teacher’s criticised Shaw’s writing in Mrs Warren’s Profession quite a few times, not only on the incoherence in the story but also on his style of writing, in comparison to Wilde’s, seeing that it puts a rather bad taste in his viewer’s mouths. Then again, Mrs Warren’s Profession is one of what Shaw calls, his “Plays Unpleasant”, which means that he’s already setting out to insult and criticise all of society, withholding any tact or purpose to entertain.
Of course, the above are all my own views, and if you’re an actual writer, you can probably ignore the above since you’re more likely to be more qualified to discuss the topic than I am, but this is just my two cent’s worth. That being said, if you disagree with any of the above, maybe you can pop a comment at the bottom of the post so I’ll know what others think of good storytelling.