Monday, February 27, 2012

The Echoes in Stories


With Hugo carrying five Oscars, it seems a good time to think about ways in which the literary and artistic past can create and sustain echoes in stories. Take the work of Dianna Wynne Jones. She had this wonderful ability to take ordinary characters, often quiet outsiders in some way,  place them in bizarre and wondrous and terrifying situations, and stir it all up into pure magic. But what always strikes me about her work is how it seems to have, for lack of a better word, a story lineage.  In Howl's Moving Castle, Sophie, the young hatter, has powers she herself is unaware of, until she's cursed by the Witch of the Waste--hear the echoes of Oz there? There are so many other intertextual references in this book. Tolkien, Shakespeare, Alice, Arthurian legend, can all be found in little asides, in signs on walls, in the names and aliases of characters.

In Miyazaki's charming Studio Ghibli version, the castle comes to life in a wonderfully three-dimensional way, as home, fortress, motorized vehicle and portal between layers of reality. The people are entirely enchanting, and notably, the warts have disappeared from the characters. Even Calcifer the fire demon has lost a little of his caustic edge. It's all quite lovely, however, and the visuals are magical all by themselves. What's lost is some of that complexity that make the books of Dianna Wynne Jones so delicious. And a few of the literary references, the ones that can only show up in narrative. On the other hand, much has been retained, and something has also been gained, in the passage of this story from book to film, from England to Japan. You don't have to know Japanese to feel the creative leaps made when the story crossed linguistic borders.

In very different vein, I just read Susan Orlean's biography of the legendary silent film dog hero, Rin Tin Tin. I  enjoyed the book for many reasons, but this passage on p. 137 seemed to be speaking to the whole notion of how story endures:

"The question of pedigree is, in a sense, rhetorical....in the continuing story of Rin Tin Tin, pedigree doesn't seem as important as the idea of a character continuing, and lasting, across time. In that regard, the issue of bloodline seems like a will-o'-the-wisp, a distraction, a technical issue. The unbroken strand is not one of genetics but one of belief."

That's how it is with stories. Howl and his castle, Sophie and her dreams. Readers and viewers create meaning from the creative illusion of text, and image, whether that image is in illustration or film. It's all about belief. Whether the page or the screen captivates, and how it does so. But somewhere in the mix, the evidence of that strand offers a little assurance. It offers connections both temporal and emotional, a nod to those who get the embedded code and maybe a little invitation to those who don't. Stick around, those echoes seem to be saying, in Roland Barthes-ish mode. When you're ready you too can click on this link.    

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