Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Themes" do not make your book great literature

When I was on the plane from Israel, I watched the movie, In Time. For those of you who don't know, the movie is about a world where time is currency, and where there is a huge gap between the rich (who live for thousands of years) and the poor (who are lucky if they manage to live beyond their mid-twenties.) While I didn't have the highest expectations for this movie, it had an interesting premise, and I figured that it would at least give me an hour or two of light entertainment.

And, well... I guess it's a good thing I kept my expectations low. While it tried to disguise itself as an original story, the movie itself was about as cliche as you could get. Sure, the movie had big "themes," but these served as nothing more than an excuse for the plot to go from Point A to Point B. Let's start with the theme of "the rich oppress the poor." Yes, the rich did oppress the poor. This means that the rich are inherently evil, which gives the protagonist an excuse to pick up a gun and fight them. And as for the "just because you live a long time, doesn't mean you're really 'alive'" theme? Makes sense, but it's too bad that Hollywood's definition of "living life to the fullest" involves little more than fast cars and sex.

Then there's a hundred other problems. The protagonist's perspective seemed, well, too current. Also, why is a man with a Hispanic last name like "Salas" played by Justin Timberlake? And if this character spent his whole life living in the ghetto, how did he learn to drive a car? Also, they keep on mentioning the protagonist's father as if he were somehow important, but we never actually learn anything about him. And the love interest? She's your typical dissatisfied princess: "1. I am rich and pretty, but my life is so boooring and I want something more. 2. Gets dragged into the hero's mission and then turns into a helpless little whiner. 3. Realizes the hero is Teh Hawtness and joins his cause, finding several excuses to make out with him in the process."

This movie is the perfect examples of how great themes are not sufficient for great story-telling. So to all those people who point to the "themes" in Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games and insist that these books must be taught in schools (and especially to authors like Terry Goodkind, a man who throws a hissy fit every time you refer to his books as "fantasy"): You're not looking deep enough. Every book has themes. And every movie, with the possible exception of most pornography, has themes.

But great literature is about more than just themes. Listening to Richard Rahl preach about objectivism isn't any more of an artistic experience than watching Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried run around looking bad-ass. No, great literature is about using the medium--the written word--to it's ultimate potential. It's about careful word choice and experimentation. It's about originality.

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