Popular culture is popular for a reason; even the most forgettable and disposable works touch on matters of authentic psychological urgency, despite distorting and falsifying and debasing them. That’s why the good ones – the ones that pull more than a few threads from the underlying tangle and let them show through the shiny surface of simplification – take hold of the imagination in ways that defy their modest artistic merits.
Last month I went to see Manchester by the Sea, and re-read Geoff Ryman’s Was.
Manchester by the Sea was funnier, and not as unrelentingly grim, as I had been expecting (and fearing) from the reviews I read beforehand. It tells the story of Lee, a man to whom something terrible happens (I won’t spoil what exactly), something that changes his life, and his family’s lives completely, that affects his entire community. Years later, he has to go back home after his brother dies, and his now teenaged nephew needs a guardian.
The thing that makes this such a good film is that there is no clear-cut redemption, there is no feel-good happy ending; Lee’s life changes, but he isn’t ‘fixed’, he’s never going to be ok, ever, but his life still goes on, still damaged. It’s a good film because it handle’s this with respect, it never feels voyeuristic (even though we have to wait to see exactly what happened that caused Lee to leave town), it never feels like the character is being tortured to death by the story for the sake of it (or for the sake of ‘proving’ some bizarre ideological point); it shows that life doesn’t have any larger purpose, or higher meaning, terrible things happen, but people still carry on, scraping something together for themselves.
Was, published in 1992, combines the stories of Judy Garland, the filming of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, an actor dying of AIDS in the 1980’s, Frank Baum, and the ‘real’ Dorothy Gael who inspired him.
Geoff Ryman is one of the most compassionate and humanist writers I have read (ages ago, I found a description of literary humanism I really like, in this review of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: “authentic humanism, meaning a consideration (both celebratory and cautionary) of human doings and undoings”); he is an author whose works I return to again and again – I have lost count of how many times I have read Was, and I would also particularly recommend his books Lust and Air, and his short-story collection Paradise Tales (if the story in that collection about the Angel of the North doesn’t move you, nothing will).
Was also covers difficult subjects, death and loneliness and the abuse (emotional and physical and sexual) of children, and describes people continually striving to live meaningful lives; but, as with Manchester by the Sea, it is never there to shock or titillate. Ryman shows compassion for all his characters, even the bad ones, without ever making excuses for them.
Ryman also does his research! He travelled and read and researched what Kansas was like in the late 19th Century, and the real-life accounts he discovered expanded and enriched his own story telling.
In his afterword, Ryman says: “I am a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism. Because I am a fantasy writer, I am particularly aware that every work of fiction, however realistic, is a fantasy. It happens in a world that is an alternative to this one.” He later adds:
I fell in love with realism because it deflated the myths, the unexamined ideas of fantasy. It confronts them with forgotten facts. It uses past truth – history.
I love fantasy because it reminds us how far short our lives fall from their full potential. Fantasy reminds us how wonderful the world is. In fantasy, we can imagine a better life, a better future. In fantasy, we can free ourselves from history and outworn realism.
Oz is, after all, only a place with flowers and birds and rivers and hills. Everything is alive there, as it is here if we care to see it. Tomorrow, we could all decide to live in a place not much different from Oz. We don’t. We continue to make the world an ugly, even murderous place, for reasons we do not understand.
Those reasons lie in both fantasy and history. Where we are gripped by history – our own personal history, our country’s history. Where we are deluded by fantasy – our own fantasy, our country’s fantasy. It is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy wherever possible.
And use them against each other.
It’s no wonder that Christie’s plots are so beloved by readers and viewers alike, and so frequently adapted and reinvented for the big and small screens. Christie, like most writers who sell millions of books, is a “story first” writer. Her prose is crisp and elegant and her grasp of human frailties is second to none, but telling the best possible story in the most exciting, unpredictable and ingenious way was always her top priority. As a result, her work must be a dream to adapt. The narrative is as readily graspable as an apple in a fruit bowl. By contrast, some stories are like crab legs – prospective adapters-to-screen might attempt to crack them open but it’s a messy and difficult process, and sometimes it turns out that, after all that effort, there’s a disappointingly small amount of story-meat to be had.
Adaptations seem to be becoming something of a theme on this blog! I watched The Witness for the Prosecution in December, and And Then There Were None the year before.
Thrillers/mysteries aren’t my genre, I’ve watched the occasional film/TV adaptation, but I haven’t read any books by Christie or anyone else. I think this may make for more interesting viewing, I don’t know the story, I don’t know the genre conventions or cliches; what may be obvious to an aficionado, won’t be obvious to me. With The Witness for the Prosecution, I didn’t know if I should expect a happy ending or a final twist – the ending was brilliant and diabolical.
I may have to give Christie’s books a go at some point in the future.