Monday, August 08, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #96: The Difference Between Literature and Entertainment

Yesterday, in discussing Carol Reed’s Graham Greene adaptation The Fallen Idol, I mentioned Greene’s famous insistence that his “entertainments” not be confused with his literary works. But where do we draw that line? Greene considered Idol to be an entertainment because it was about a police investigation, but is it?

I agree that a distinction should be drawn. Longtime readers of this blog know that I can appreciate The Scorpion King as much as Il Posto. But it does neither of those fine movies any favors to lump them into the same category. So what is the difference? To my mind, it has nothing to do with subject matter, or even tone. It has to do with the relationship of the character’s actions to the outcome.

True “entertainments” are about intended consequences—the action is determined, one way or the other, by the intentional efforts of the heroes and villains. Literary works are about unintended consequences—The action turns on ironic twists of fate. In The Fallen Idol, the more the boy tries to clear his hero, the more he condemns him accidentally, so that the irony just twists and twists, right down to the denouement, so I disagree with Greene: it is literary.

If you want to see the two dynamics in action, there is no clearer demonstration than watching a week of shows on CBS, then watching a week of shows on AMC, which, against all odds, has become our most literary network for original programming.On CBS, you would never see an episode of “NCIS” or “The Mentalist” that focuses primarily on the unintentional consequences of Gibbs’s or Jane’s actions, but on AMC that’s all you’ll see. Here’s a typical episode of “Mad Men”:
  • At breakfast, Betty criticizes Don in a way that brings up the frustrated memories of his buried past. He doesn’t respond...
  • ...But at work, Don says to Pete the angry retort that he wanted to say to his wife...
  • Unable to yell at Don, Pete randomly yells at Peggy instead...
  • Frustrated by this, Peggy criticizes Joan. And so on…
On “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, and even on lesser AMC shows like “The Walking Dead” or “The Killing”, actions never have their intended consequences. Life is a whirl of misdirected and sublimated emotions. This is the domain of literary fiction: understanding the ironic hidden forces that underlie all human interactions. Entertainment can be fantasy-based (super-heroes, wizards...) or reality-based (cops, doctors, lawyers...), but it all flows from the most cherished fantasy of all: the idea that you can know you’re doing the right thing.


j.s. said...

"If art isn't entertainment, then what is it? Punishment?" -- Pauline Kael.

Like you, Matt, I love all kinds of books and films, the whole spectrum from art films and literary novels to trashy entertainment and everything in between. But for the past couple years I've been obsessed with books and films that have it both ways. Not half art and half entertainment, but fully both.

Since I can only think in terms of specific examples, let's say the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Sam Peckinpah. Or a show like BREAKING BAD.

One of the aspects of BREAKING BAD I admire most is how it nails the mechanics of thriller writing far more effectively than, say, NCIS. And it's not just because you care more about what happens to the characters. I've had so many moments where I genuinely don't know what's going to happen next and care utterly, where I'm riveted by the suspense of a scene that has little or nothing to do with complex inner irony.

The distinction I'd make isn't between intended consequences or unintended consequences -- most stories trade in both -- so much as it is about the depth and emotional resonance of the narrative reversals. I'd argue that in any given episode of NCIS, things don't always go the way Gibbs or anyone else wants them too, but the reversal of our expectations will almost always remain at the level of plot.

BREAKING BAD has storylines as chock full of thrilling plot twists as NCIS, but many of the reversals in Vince Gilligan's show also play out their ironies at multiple (and deeper) levels -- plot, character, theme.

Christine Tyler said...

I've never thought of it like this! Very interesting. I'll need to mull over that interpretation, because I think I like it. I always drew the line at the expectation the creator had for their audience. What they were trying to achieve.

I see literature as more of a two-way street. The creator is expecting some sort of intelligent reciprocation. Essentially, they're teaching something, even if it's just teaching a wider view of the world and the human condition.

While entertainment always feels more like a spoon-fed dessert. Nothing is expected back from me. I just enjoy it and soak it up. It doesn't challenge me.

I think both are valuable, of course.

rams said...

You don't usually remind me of Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, but I just had the familiar sensation of blinking and saying "Wow. That is so brilliantly clear," and only later "Is it true?" And I think it may ... be. Going to keep holding the template up against books, films, tv -- but I think I'm dazzled.

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