This week Will takes a look at the perils of writing familiar characters.
OK writers, it’s writing activity time. Take out your #2 pencils and pick your favorite literary character. Got it? Good. Go! Put yourself in the mindset of this person and then write a new scene or scenario or sequel. Don’t worry about originality. Just write. Get those juices flowing! Back before the turn of the millennium, Mr. Smith, my senior English teacher, said something similar as he charged me with the task of creating a series of journal entries for a character in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I’d like to think I was tapping into the civilized nature of Ralph, the novel’s protagonist, but I might have just been channeling cheeseburgers and speaking as Piggy. Who knows. It’s been awhile. The point is writing in this way allows one to connect to a character and engage in an alternate, personalized way. Instead of being passive readers, we are now active co-owners of the story. This is all good for students, but when does it become an activity for professional writers?
The Aurora Theatre recently mounted David Davalos’ Wittenberg, which tells the story of prince Hamlet (yes, that Hamlet) and his final fall semester at university before returning to Elsinore castle after news of his father’s death. The two sides of his budding mind are molded by the religious, theological teachings of Professor Martin Luther and the seeking philosophy of Doctor Faust. This creates a wonderful stage to hit back and forth the ideas which Hamlet anguishes over in the famous play. Davalos uses our familiarity with the Bard’s work to comedic ends. Famous lines are thrown around in new ways. (Faust: “To be or nor o be” / Hamlet: “Is that the question?”) This is very entertaining on the surface. The inherent problem is that the very thing that gets people in the door also creates a very high bar to live up to. Most comedies set against Hamlet seem trite. It’s a blessing and curse. Wittenberg is aware of that fact and has fun with these weighty characters while still playing with weighty themes. That’s the blessing. I enjoyed ideas and source material more than the overall production. That’s the curse of adaptation.
Similarly, genre films can create this same curse of expectation. Jim Jarmusch’s new film Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie. The beauty is that the film exceptionally more than that. Even though Lovers isn’t working with a specific character that most audiences are familiar with, it is working with a certain breed of character. This particular bloody breed is fraught with expectation. Everyone has an idea of what a vampire should be. Just as most theater goers have expectations of the Bard’s dark Danish Prince should be. There is much to be said overall about the quality of this film but for now I’m interested in how it stacks up against audience expectation of the vampire. Jarmusch brings the vampire story back to a place that holds a mirror to humanity instead of existing apart from it.
My vampiric expectations look something more like Interview with the Vampire rather than Twilight. However all of these stories are playing with similar genre expectations: immortality, sensuality, danger, outsider mentality, super-human power, empowerment, longevity, inspiration, violence, the trappings of existence. The difference here is that Jarmusch takes these tools and turns them into lenses over the human condition. What does it mean to be near-immortal? Do the weight of years enhance our ability to see beauty in the world or only make existence feel all the more heavy? Is creativity richer when you are restricted to the outside fringe of society? How does anger and separation heighten allure? The methodical atmosphere of Lovers rolls over these themes and allows Jarmusch’s characters to appear as tangible and as alive as any human counter part. The film adds up to more than the drawn lines of it’s genre. This is what it looks like when adaptation transcends.
Adaptation is an essential aspect of artistic creation. It has been and will remain so as long as we continue to create. Occasionally, it seems greater or lesser value is assigned to the discussion of adaptation versus original creation. Which is harder? Which is more important? Ultimately, it’s a fruitless non-discussion. They are different creative endeavors. Black and white rules don’t apply here. (Do they anywhere?) Taking a set of characters and creating a new story around them is just as hard as starting with an entirely blank slate. I’m sure certain sides of this activity come more easily to one writer or another. In the end, do I care whether Hamlet as derived from Amleth or ur-Hamlet? No. The quality of a new creation speaks for itself. With any art, when the piece edges upon transcendence, the familiar can reach into the universal.
Allen, David. Wittenberg. Digital image. http://www.auroratheatre.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.
Jim Jarmusch. Digital image. http://www.imdb.com ;N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.
Only Lovers Left Alive. Digital image. http://www.imdb.com ;N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.