Fiction has found its way into the hearts and minds of cultures all across the globe, in countless forms and varieties. From the “Epic of Gilgamesh” to the latest installment of “Die Hard” and everything in between, we’ve been practicing the art of telling untrue stories to each other for thousands of years. The last episode of “Game of Thrones” had 12.1 million people watching it unfold, only counting the night it aired and only counting those that acquired it legally. Books have been adapted electronically, and continue to thrive both in that form and in print — though book readership has been declining, it’s not such a steep decline as many would have you believe.
A good many people write off our deep love for fiction as pure entertainment. That it is a form of escapism that allows us to forget about the troubles of the world. The argument is often made that stories don’t need a thematic backbone; they don’t need a “moral of the story,” they just need to entertain.
Entertainment is important, yes. It’s the vehicle that most often drives fiction, and without some kind of entertainment (be it action, romance, suspense, terror or heartbreak), the themes will fall flat on their face and the story will be terribly boring. But you must have both — and before you shake your fist at the screen, don’t confuse the heart of a story (aka themes) with heavy-handed preaching. There is a reason no popular movie is literally just two hours of action — even the “Transformers” series attempts to insert half-hearted themes in there.
People don’t generally want to be preached at — that’s where you often hear the disdain for the “moral of the story” type movie or book. There is a time and a place for preaching, and that’s at the pulpit, or it’s in politics — it is not in fiction. Preachy fiction may rally like-minded individuals, but it often dies in popularity as even those who first read it realize that it’s simply not a very good story.
It’s the subconscious themes and “morals of the story” that really drive a great film or book. The same people who often make the arguments against theme, tend to like movies like “Taxi Driver” or “Sicario” — they don’t even realize that those films are some of the most theme-rich movies out there; it’s just not so heavy-handed, and the themes are generally pretty bleak. But as pretty much every good filmmaker will admit, there is always some heart to their story, otherwise they wouldn’t tell it at all. Raw entertainment for entertainment’s sake can do well at the box-office, but it will eventually taper off and be forgotten alongside every popular, escapist novel that has been forgotten throughout history. However, like we have seen in the past, it is the literature that survives.
Let’s take the subject of war and violence on the screen, for example. There are a million terrible pacifist movies, rife with fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of war, plastered with preachy, recycled lines about being a “shell of a man” and how “God left X country a long time ago.” However, while I in no way consider myself a pacifist, I can watch and enjoy “Seven Psychopaths,” which at its root is a very pacifistic movie. Why? Because it’s tastefully done, and I think most people can appreciate that. It’s a good story.
On the flip side, nothing makes me cringe more than a bad war movie — especially when, despite any good intentions, it does not speak to the reality of war. For every solid “Saving Private Ryan,” there are plenty of terrible films that surround it. The irony of “Seven Psychopaths” is its direct contrast to “Seven Samurai,” one of the greats in film literature. However, a great war film isn’t just intense action with correct tactics, it’s a movie that speaks to the nature of war, or at least one aspect. Many war movies like “Saving Private Ryan” focus on the loss and gruesomeness, but some shift that focus elsewhere — “Dunkirk” hones in on the slow-burn intensity of what feels like hopelessness on an epic scale.
My examples here have coincided with the most popular forms of modern fiction: film and television shows (to include Netflix and HBO), and the latter seems to be rising in popularity; the former is becoming more and more like television with each addition (episode) to the major franchises. However, historically speaking, books have held the number one spot for a long time, its predecessor being oral tradition.
Whenever new mediums of literature present themselves, they are often scoffed at as unrefined entertainment. This was said about theater, some opera, has been said about film and television, and is also said about video games. Anything with a story will present itself as raw entertainment to those who are not familiar with that medium, because all they can see is the entertainment aspect — they can’t see what others stand to gain. The theater brought real people, that real connection; books bring imagination and intellect; movies can bring an unparalleled, immersive visual and audio experience; even video games stand to offer something no other type of fiction has yet: choice (this is coming from someone who doesn’t really play video games).
Yet the important thing to remember is that the commonality is fiction. And good fiction speaks beneath the waves of political discourse, beneath the waves of societal boundaries and arguments, even beneath the waves of consciousness itself. It’s not the who, what, where or when, fiction seeks to explore — it’s the why.
Featured images: (left) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons from “The Iliad”; (right) courtesy of Amblin Entertainment, from “Saving Private Ryan.”