The Last Impossibility

Death is the great universal fact of life, as universal as birth. It rings down the curtain on every human play, sends everyone home in the end. We all know this; we are all overshadowed by what G.K. Chesterton called the last impossibility. It’s curious that we don’t take death more seriously than we do. Our popular culture overflows with glib platitudes, all catalogued in our books and movies.

You know the platitudes. He lives in your heart. She lives in your memory. The departed is – well, take your pick: inside you, inside all of us, around us, in the love or legacy or memory she left behind. The dead are anywhere but gone. Our culture, as manifested in popular books and movies, does not look to the blazing dawn of the first Easter, but usually it is equally unwilling to look at the cold finality and ultimate aloneness of the body in the tomb. What we end with is a popular culture that will face neither the darkness nor the light.

I would not recommend, as a curative, that every instance of death in our fiction be expanded to contain the fullness of Christian doctrine on the subject. There is certainly no reason to constantly elide the Resurrection; its riches are too rarely mined, even among Christians. But not every story has space for the doctrine or the riches, and such things are not to be forced. I wouldn’t ask that every story with death be a story about Easter. But I would like to see more books and movies get beyond the standard Hollywood cant.

It is possible to catch some rays of light, to hint at hope or even just mystery. J.R.R. Tolkien hinted at hope when Aragorn, in the face of death, offered this consolation: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair.” Not that we need such exalted contexts as Lord of the Rings to find the hope and the mystery; they are possible everywhere. Emily Blunt’s “Where the Lost Things Go” dreams of an unknown place, maybe behind the moon, where lost things might be found. Gone, yes, the song concedes, but gone where? – and that hard question is more comforting than the glib answers.

If a story is not to have the light, I would take even a measure of darkness over artificiality. Honest sadness is better than false comfort. I’ve heard the cliches so many times that all I can think, when a book or movie trots them out again, is that nobody wants the people they love to be Inside Of Them. The greatness of love is that it gets you outside of yourself, that it brings you into contact with another soul in this huge universe. No one wants a memory, an image, an echo. It’s not the same and it’s not enough. We want a real, living person.

We don’t need courage to face the darkness. We need hope. Christ’s Resurrection teaches us that death is not to be accepted or dreaded. As we absorb that reality into our hearts, so may it be reflected in our stories. We are not to be driven to the pale ghosts that haunt our hearts for comfort, nor must we pretend that death is not hideous. For Death is an enemy, but a conquered enemy.

Favor the Franchise

If you pay attention to Hollywood today, you have probably noticed that western civilization is in the latter stages of spiritual and intellectual degeneration. You will also have noticed, by the by, that most of Hollywood’s output these days consists of (a) franchise movies, (b) movies based on pre-existing cultural artifacts, such as books, comics, other movies, theme park rides, and decades-old Disney cartoons, and (c) franchise movies based on pre-existing cultural artifacts like books, comics, etc. The percentage of such derivative works in Hollywood’s modern oeuvre has been estimated as high as 99 percent, but it might be as low as 96 percent.

So Hollywood is not terribly original these days. But the reliance on franchise is not a phenomenon isolated in Hollywood. The adventuresome reader seeking out a new book by a new author must be careful – careful that he doesn’t end up picking book 3.25 in an eleven-book series, finale coming out next spring. (By the way, decimal books: a thing.) (Decimal movies, too.) It is possible, with sequels and spin-offs and a faithful public, to make an entire career of one story. A standalone book is an increasingly rare bird.

Movie studios favor the franchise for the same reason that book publishers do: money. It must be admitted that this is a sensible reason, particularly in the case of movie studios. When you’re pouring out money in the tens of millions for a single film, you want a sure thing. How do you know people will like your newest project? Well – they liked the last one, didn’t they? It is a well-worn axiom that the sequel is never quite as good, but that does not prevent the sequel from inheriting the audience of its predecessor.

That truth brings us to another significant fact: People do not seem to easily tire of the franchise. Publishers and studios are looking for a profit, and audiences give it to them. Diminishing quality ultimately ends in diminishing financial returns, perhaps even in the death of the franchise – but along that road a great deal of money is given up to mediocre and even poor installments. Franchises depend on the powerful attraction of effective stories. You never want your favorite story to end, and the characters who have inspired more emotion than half of the real people you know – it is hard to let them go. The desire for the story to go on, the curious attachment to non-existent people, sustains the franchise.

And yet maybe it all is a little too much. Beyond the bankruptcy of individual franchises, we have been trained to a certain insouciance regarding the endless sprawl of connected films. Of course they’re making a sequel. There is, too, a downgrading of regard for those who seem too inclined to revisit old ideas; Pixar toppled from the creative heights when it discovered the sequel, and no one counts on Pixar’s annual offering being one of the film highlights of the year anymore. This, then, is what I would like to know: Does the paying public want more standalones and more variety, or are we content with franchises as long as they are well-maintained?