“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”
Once upon a time, I assumed that a critically acclaimed book or film must be “good.” I was in my late teens and early 20’s and was convinced that a film that won Best Picture in the Oscars must always be worth watching, or that a Pulitzer-winning novel must always be worth reading. A fair amount of my time was dedicated to immersing myself in stories that would make me appear “sophisticated” when I told my friends I liked them. My low point was when I told some friends that Brokeback Mountain was an “outstanding” film. It took me some years to realize (and I am grateful that it was only a few years) that many of these stories were rather dull, that I was only watching such films or reading such books because I was “supposed to,” at least according to critics and pedants who had never outgrown their need to appear “sophisticated.”
I very much agree that some Pulitzer-winning novels are very engaging, such as A Confederacy of Dunces. But I would much prefer to read a novel that is knee-deep in fantasy, perhaps something penned by Neil Gaiman, than a novel steeped in dramatic “realism,” no matter how well the more highly-acclaimed author is at crafting sentences. I would much rather re-watch a Star Wars film (minus the prequel trilogy, of course), or almost any film based on comic books (minus Daredevil and Justice League, of course), than any Best Picture winner of the past decade, even if all of the elements (script, sound, lighting, editing, and so forth) of the award-winning film were handled by a highly capable crew.
Acclaim can be taken with a grain of salt. What matters far more, at least to myself, is simply whether I find the story to be fun or boring. Critical acclaim does not necessarily make a story “for the ages.” What does make a story for the ages is whether that story keeps on getting passed, through the ages.
The stories I immersed myself in, and told my friends about, reflected much about myself back then, as do stories I immerse myself in today. This holds true for all of us, individually and corporately.
Stories do much to shape our lives and our world. They wield tremendous power.
Parents (at least decent parents) instruct their children by telling them stories. Children continue to learn via stories throughout their lives. Many go on to become parents themselves and instruct their own children by telling them stories. This lineage of storytellers goes all the way back to the beginning of human history. Our Lord also used parables to teach His disciples. His stories continue to instruct and perplex us two-thousand years later.
Our consciousness gets impacted by the stories we are told, whether they are fictional or based on historical fact. Careers, families, companies, cultures, nations, our understanding of history, and entire civilizations are built upon a bedrock of stories. People have killed for stories they cherish. People have been killed for stories they cherish. Languages have largely been developed by eminent storytellers such as Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Goethe. Stories about the lives of Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, and Muhammad have become the foundations of religions. Our understanding of our nation, and ourselves as Americans, is shaped by the stories of the colonists and natives, the Founding Fathers, the Frontier, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Robber Barons and the Gilded Age, the Second World War, the Space Race, various social movements, and so forth. It is the general narratives we are told about these leading men and women, not comprehensive biographical details (which most of us would find rather dull), that our convictions are built upon.
We can go a long way toward predicting our future course by paying close enough attention to the stories that we are immersed in today. Which of our stories is among those that will continue to instruct people for generations to come?
This month, millions upon millions of us will have spent some hours immersed in two particular stories. Avengers: Infinity War recently set a new record by raking in $258 million in the United States, and over $640 million worldwide, on its opening weekend at the box office. As of this writing, it has grossed over $550 million in the United States, and over $1.6 billion worldwide, and is still going strong. Solo: A Star Wars Tale, yet another Disney production, will be released on Memorial Day weekend.
Needless to say, the Marvel and Star Wars franchises have already impacted our culture. The 19 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have grossed over $6 billion in the United States as of this writing, with even more films to come. The Star Wars franchise has thus far grossed over $4 billion in the United States box office since its 1977 debut, also with more films to come. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the highest-grossing film of all time in the United States box office at a whopping $937 million, and the gross of Star Wars: A New Hope is over $1.6 billion when adjusted for ticket price inflation, second only to Gone With the Wind. The impact of these two franchises extends far beyond our borders.
Sheer popularity places these two franchises among the very high candidates to be among those stories that are for the ages, stories that will impact consciousness for generations.
What are such stories revealing to us about ourselves? What about our worldviews?
In a day when many of us assume that religious faith is waning (at least in Western Civilization), or when it is increasingly uncouth to speak of religion in the public domain, it is still easy to verify and measure a widespread thirst for stories which touch upon myth and magic. This thirst is as strong as ever.
Comic books have for decades been the sole story-telling medium in which myth and magic were very much standard. Superhero tales may even be the closest thing to mythology developed since our nation’s founding. There is no shortage of principal comic-book characters very directly based on mythology, such as Thor, Loki, Morpheus (from Neil Gaiman’s brilliant Sandman series), and Wonder Woman. There are also numerous principal characters, such as Captain Marvel (the DC one) and Thanos, who borrow a great deal from mythology, and many supporting characters, such as Odin, Hercules, and the Endless, who are strongly influenced by or directly based upon mythology.
The Force, a mysterious higher power, is one of the key themes that set the Star Wars franchise apart from the less financially successful (albeit still very influential) Star Trek franchise. Science fiction is very popular, but the most successful science fiction franchise of all is based upon a blatantly mystical and mythological worldview.
I am sure there will be many Christian reviewers who will be eager to share their own thoughts concerning one or both of these films. Some will probably respond very positively, going on to explain how these stories echo the Gospel and Christian themes. And some will probably respond negatively, perhaps going on to complain how the Force resembles Manichaeism or pantheism a tad too much, or that the filmmakers possess a lackluster understanding of Aquinas. For a general audience, and probably most practicing Christians as well, these are very much secondary matters. However on or off the mark these stories may be concerning theological matters, their popularity indicates a clear and widespread craving for stories about myth and magic, and Disney is feeding such a craving more than any company on the planet.
The highest-grossing film of 2018 as of this writing is Black Panther ($695 million in domestic sales). The highest-grossing film of 2017 was Star Wars: The Last Jedi ($620 million in domestic sales), followed by Beauty and the Beast ($504 million), all of which are Disney productions. 2017 box office hits based on comic books have included Wonder Woman ($412 million), Guardians of the Galaxy 2 ($390 million), Spider-Man: Homecoming ($334 million), Thor: Ragnarok ($315 million), and Logan ($226 million). The highest-grossing film of 2017 that lacked any fantasy elements was Fate of the Furious ($226 million), and the highest-grossing realist film was Dunkirk ($188 million, but very well made).
Our preference for stories about myth and magic can likewise be observed in other mediums. Since the debut of the first Harry Potter novel in 1997, sixty Booker, Pulitzer, and National Book Awards have been awarded. J.K. Rowling’s net worth far exceeds that of all of these award-winning authors combined. George R.R. Martin and Stephen King are two more examples of authors who are typically snubbed by literature’s most prestigious awards, yet whose net worths run into nine figures.
A person’s taste in the story can teach much about him or her, even things that that person is not consciously aware of. Regardless of what any person is “certain” of, he or she still must grapple, in some form, with the difficult questions about meaning, fate and free will, order and chaos, life and death, good and evil, and so on. The realm of the imagination has long been and continues to be, where we grapple with many such questions. A dedicated atheist may relish in scornfully looking down on churchgoers for their “stupidity,” but then go on to join the mad rush to purchase his ticket for a film about a Norse god or a mystical force, all with an enthusiasm that betrays his conscious (dis)beliefs. The modern world has not killed off the mythological imagination or the religious instinct. The appeal of such stories includes the religious and the non-religious, children and adults, men and women, and across all races.
The oldest stories we are aware of, ones which have survived for thousands of years, are a testament that stories that include a god or gods in its cast have lasting power. A diminishing of religious practice has not diminished enthusiasm for mythical and magical stories. If anything, the opposite may be proving itself to be true. Can the appeal of such stories be evidence of some sort of (perhaps Jungian) transference?
Why is it that such stories continue to have so much appeal?
The stories that we are “supposed to” love (at least if critical praise means anything) likewise teach us much about our world, and the course of our future.
The Shape of Water grossed $64 million at the box office, a fraction of what a Marvel or Star Wars film typically earn. Still, it is the highest grossing of the last five Best Picture Oscar winners. Not since Argo, a 2012 film, has any Best Picture winner crossed the $100 million dollar mark in the box office. Not since The Return of the King, a 2003 film, has the Academy bothered to award the highest-grossing film of the year with its highest honor. It has, in fact, become rare that any film among the ten highest grossing in a given year even be nominated for Best Picture (although the Academy may make a politically-motivated exception for Black Panther). The Academy Awards themselves have become increasingly desperate for television ratings with each passing year, this year’s ratings being the lowest ever according to Nielsen, suggesting that the most prestigious awards in the film world are closer to becoming irrelevant. This problem of irrelevance may have a simple remedy: the Hollywood community can simply move past its fixation on oddball or politically correct “indie” films that few people care for and instead honor films that people actually watch (something that was once standard). But in all likeliness, they will just continue shooting themselves in the foot for more years to come.
Ideology is antithetical to faith. It preys upon religious instinct, including (or especially) the religious instincts of atheists who would deny its existence. No one has to search far back in history to understand just how catastrophic ideologies can be. In a day when many people, particularly amongst conservatives and Christians, worry that Post-Modernism and political correctness has fully blossomed into an ideology, including such academics as Thomas Sowell and Jordan Peterson, the lack of popularity of such stories offers a sound reason to offer hope. Yes, this ideology has become widespread, now in possession of the hearts and minds of millions of our countrymen. And yes, this particular ideology seems to have infected much of our culture, most especially in academia and entertainment. But political correctness, at least large doses of it, seems to have a problem which no ideology can long endure: stories that bore audiences.
The audience for a story such as Crash ($55 million box office gross) was a fraction of that of a popular film because relatively few people wish to be immersed in a story they would find preachy, especially one to the point of being as cheesy as a Christian-inspiration film such as God’s Not Dead ($65 million). The audience for a story such as Moonlight ($28 million) was a fraction of that of a popular film because the protagonist’s situation, even if it makes for some decent emotional porn, was still forced. Winning an Oscar Award does not suddenly give wide appeal to propaganda!
As a screenwriter, whose work has been professionally reviewed, I am well aware that a diverse cast is a high priority amongst most gatekeepers for Hollywood studios. And it should be. Diversity makes great sense from an economic standpoint; by making a story “relatable” in any way to as large an audience as possible is a means to capitalize. This passes no judgments on how people “should” act, or “should” think, but merely seeks to gain based on how people are. The Fast and the Furious franchise, which does financially well within the United States but is a box-office monster abroad, is an especially strong example of this. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and modern installments of Star Wars are doing this as well. But how often are the most acclaimed stories driven by economics (preferring simply to capitalize rather than to propagate)? How often are they instead driven by politics (preferring to propagate rather than to capitalize)? The mediocre box-office performance of these recent Oscar winners suggests that general audiences are not so easily fooled as critics are.
A story is unlikely to be “for the ages” when so few care for it during its own age, regardless of what awards are thrown its way. In fact, most stories that have eventually become cult classics were initially dismissed by both critics and audiences alike.
Can an ideology survive if it fails to excite people? What other things can the stories we do not bother with telling us?
Truthfully, there are ten thousand things stories tell us about ourselves and our world, but I only have the space to speculate on a few.
I did enjoy Avengers: Infinity War. But I enjoyed the Infinity Gauntlet comic book even more. Although I, like plenty of others, hold reservations about Han Solo being portrayed by anyone other than Harrison Ford, I will, of course, end up watching it. Disney, for all its quirks, does a very fine job at creative control, that I shall continue paying up to watch each new installment of each of these franchises. At the end of the year, the time will come for studios to campaign for their Oscar nominees. I will be surprised if I even know the names of half those films by the weekend of the Academy Awards.
Just over a decade ago I likely would have regarded this evolution in personal taste as something of a backslide toward anti-intellectualism. But I was even dumber when I was in my early 20’s than I am now. I reckon that my personal taste has, in fact, been the very opposite of a backslide: a return from journeys through snobbery and pride, realizing in the end that my first instinct of what made a story worthwhile, the same instinct from my childhood, was actually the better one. The common person knows much more, even if so much of that knowledge is subtle than the critic does. And if any of us becomes tempted to worry ourselves about faith and ideology, or about our very future, perhaps we can take heart knowing that it is the common person, not the critic, who determines the course of that future.
And for the record, Brokeback Mountain was garbage.