Friday, 4 May 2012

Film vs. Book Debates: Formulaic stories - Idiotic or Reliable?

This week, I've found myself justifying why I enjoy Nicholas Sparks's books, after my interview with the man himself went live. I understand why people may not have heard of him. After all, he writes romance novels, so if you don't enjoy reading a good romance, why would you know him? And if that isn't what you enjoy then I can totally see why you wouldn't be a fan. His books appeal to a specific target audience and I understand why anyone outside of that audience would not necessarily see his appeal.

Sparks's books are not particularly literary and are short and simplistic enough to lend themselves to being made into films. Does this make them bad? Well no. I often stress that books and films are - in their simplest form - escapism. Sometimes people want to be intellectually challenged and read something complex and wordy like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Cloud Atlas. Other times, they want an easy-to-read romance and will turn to Sophie Kinsella or Nicholas Sparks to satisfy that need. They want a story that will take you along for a ride and leave you content at the end without the need to have a lie-down or take a paracetamol because your head hurts.

It isn't just romances that do this. Formulas have been used in both books and films for years and will continue to for many more, of that I have no doubt. There is a sense of security in using a formula. Just think about how many films you've watched or books you've read about the young protégé who is forced to take over the mentor's role - Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Matrix, The Godfather. When it comes to romance, how many truly original romantic stories can you name? Guy and girl meet. Something gets in their way. They find a way to stay together anyway. If there was no conflict, where would the drama be? If they just met, fell in love and lived 'happily ever after', how very dull the story would be.

Blockbuster romance Titanic was the largest grossing film of all time before Director James Cameron's next film Avatar knocked it off the top spot. Millions of people across the world went to see the film. So did the IQ of the planet suddenly plummet? No. People were as intelligent when they came out as they were when they went in. The difference was simply that they had spent a couple of hours (well in the case of Titanic - more than 3!) living somebody else's life. They were - for the time they passed in the cinema - living the lives of Jack and Rose. They wondered if they would be able to stay together, if they would make it off the boat, if anyone would turn round and punch Rose's god-awful mother (just me?!).

In that premise lies the appeal of many of the formulaic stories. With Nicholas Sparks, you know what you're letting yourself in for. There will be romance - uninhibited, passionate romance. There will be drama, probably a tragedy. There will be a happy tied-up ending, but not before - in most cases - a few tears have been shed. In the predictability of a Sparks novel or film lies reassurance and stability. If you've seen his other films or read his other books, then you will know if they are your cup of tea or not. Simple.

People, I imagine, feel the same way about Michael Bay. I was a teenager when I first saw Pearl Harbor and was mortified when I read a critic say that no intelligent person could possibly enjoy that film. Was I an idiot for having 'enjoyed' it so much I bawled for the last half an hour of the film? No. I was a teenage girl madly in love with both Josh Hartnett and Ben Affleck, just as Kate Beckinsale's character was at the time. Watching it back now, I actually find it quite amusing. The drama, the action, the you'd-have-lost-the-war-if-it-wasn't-for-us American ethos of it all is laughable. But entertaining it still is. People say similar things about Transformers - but who that knows Michael Bay's work would go to see a Transformers sequel expecting plot? Stuff gets blown up, there's a hot girl screaming SAAAAAM! on repeat and cars turn into alien robots. That's what you expect, and that's what you get. Bay delivers.

Why then does enjoying these formulaic stories make you an idiot? If reading a book or watching a film is simply a way for a person to escape, why does wanting to escape into the security of a well-known formula make you an imbecile?

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