Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Not so different

I didn’t watch the premiere of the Under the Dome television series last night, and I probably never will, unless there is a sudden outpouring of praise for and devotion to the show as it goes along. I’ve read the book, and I know how it ends, and I think the experience of going through that storyline a second time awaiting the inevitable would be less pleasant than, say, enjoying the general faithfulness (and interesting creative liberties) of something like Game of Thrones.

But obviously I’m aware of Under the Dome as a summer tv event. And I noticed a strange thread in some of the coverage of it: a sharp contrast drawn between Stephen King, who wrote the source novel, and Steven Spielberg, who is the executive producer. Much has been made of what strange bedfellows the pair of Steves must be, but I have to admit that thought would never have occurred to me. They’re both prodigious storytellers, and if anything it’s noteworthy that they haven’t really worked together before this, as a sheer numbers game proposition. (This is further based on the premise that the author of a novel upon which a miniseries is based has any interaction at all with an executive producer of said miniseries, in any fashion which could meaningfully be termed collaboration, but let’s just roll with it for now.)

Apparently, in the mass consciousness of the public, King and Spielberg get pigeonholed in different ways. It’s “horror writer Stephen King” and it’s “Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg”. When people think about Stephen King, they visualize Sissy Spacek drenched in pig’s blood or Jack Nicholson lurching around with an axe; maybe if their familiarity extends beyond the Hollywood version of King, they imagine their own version of Pennywise the Clown or the Walking Dude. Ask them to think about Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, and the mental images include cuddly little E.T. or dashing Indiana Jones (if they tend to gravitate towards the popcorn-movie fare) or Tom Hanks as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan or Daniel Day Lewis as/in Lincoln (if the awards-bait is more their thing). Spielberg makes heartwarming and/or artistically heartfelt films; King is a purveyor of nightmare-inducing schlock.

Except, you know, not really. The Shawshank Redemption is based very closely on a Stephen King novella. So is Stand By Me, which feels like an archetypical Spielbergian coming of age story. So is the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger cheese-fest The Running Man, which granted is a much looser adaptation, but both the novel and the movie are non-horrific science fiction. Yes, King became famous for his early works of horror like Carrie and The Shining, and for my money some of his all-time bests are similarly scary, whether it be the supernatural terror of Pet Sematary or the psychological twistedness of Misery, but he has roamed all over the genre map, from sci-fi to fantasy, weird west, domestic drama, and some stuff that defies categorization. (I always have a hard time figuring out what shelf The Dead Zone goes on, which is far from a knock on the book itself.)

And Spielberg has also been responsible for lots and lots of different works in different genres, not least of which is, if not exactly horror, then movies with genuine scares in them. Jurassic Park has its moments of sheer velociraptor-induced terror. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is one of the movies credited (as the legends go) with the invention of the PG-13 rating for its frightening and disturbing imagery. And let us not forget Jaws! How many people in 1975 claimed to be afraid to go swimming in the ocean as a direct result of watching Jaws? How many people to this day claim something along those lines? How often do you hear someone humming John Williams’s shark theme to convey the sense of lurking, approaching menace?

I think to a certain extent this all arises out of a general misunderstanding of what the horror genre is all about, an assumption that it’s mainly about victimhood, about telling stories about people who suffer and forcing the audience to suffer along with them. Which, OK, yeah, it is a lot about that. But I think people who avoid horror as a rule tend to think of the victimhood and suffering along the lines of a latter installment in a slasher movie franchise, where root-for-the-maniac fandom has taken hold and the narrative is a crude delivery system for gory violence and the rapid-fire demise of disposable characters. And again, it’s not that stories like that don’t exist or are even all that rare, it’s just that they’re not the be-all and end-all of horror. And as far as Stephen King is concerned, very few of his works could be described as identifying with the bad guy and mercilessly picking off the nominal protagonists. Not every one of his stories have happy endings, but they’re not sadistic torture-porn, either. (Well, not all. Under the Dome kind of is, just to bring things full circle here.)

King doesn’t set out to satisfy any particular antisocial bloodlusts, he tells stories with memorable and sympathetic heroes. And he pits them against intimidating forces of opposition, but isn’t that true of any good, engaging story? If the thought of being taken hostage by heavily-armed, cold-blooded terrorists is a nightmarish one, why isn’t Die Hard a horror movie? Is it just a question of degrees, of the extent to which an author focuses our attention on how terrifying the evil characters are, or the extent to which they suppress our ability to believe the hero can ultimately overcome that evil? Or is it really just a question of marketing, where if we’re told something is filed under horror it unnerves us and we jump at every shadow, whereas if we’re told something is family fun adventure then we perceive any and all threats to safety as par for the course for the hero’s journey?

I don’t know the answer, honestly, but I think it bears some thinking about. But I do know that Mssrs. King and Spielberg both are master storytellers, and both enjoy pushing far outside of the safe zones, and I for one am glad to live in a world with both of them doing their not-so-dissimilar thing.

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