Saturday, November 29, 2008

An Allegorical View of the Writer's Life (according to The Wizard of Oz)

Lately, I've been teaching about plotting according to the Hero’s Journey. I use The Wizard of Oz to explain all of the phases. However, today I’d like to use this same movie to depict something different.

The writer’s journey.

Let's believe, just for the sake of allegory, that Dorothy symbolizes you, the writer. Perhaps you're stuck in "Kansas," your ordinary world. Because of your day to day routine your story idea is still in the flat stages, as colorless as Dorothy's gray-scaped surroundings. What you need is an instigator. Someone to fuel your passion.

Enter Miss Gulch.

The bicycle riding hag pushes all of Dorothy's buttons. Take away her dog? No way, she'd run away first. That's passion. Where does your passion lie? What would it take to spark that lifeless story line? What pushes your buttons? Is it your critique partner who rides you constantly to turn in that next chapter? Is it your husband reminding you, once again, that if you wrote that best-seller, he could retire? Is it your mother who wants to see you published before she dies. . .and she’s only sixty. Or maybe you need to make money writing. Bills need to be paid. Family needs to be fed. Or, like me, you need to feed your writing conference habit. Listen to your instigator.

Now, with your passion driving you to write, you may still need a catalyst to separate you from your ordinary world. Dishes need to be washed. Your boss is demanding more hours of your day. Perhaps school is your ordinary world. It's going to take a lot to get you to write that story.

How about a cyclone?

Feel the rush of adrenaline. Let it swirl around you. No matter how little time you may have to write, or if the dullness of your life overwhelms your imagination, seek that funnel cloud and stand under it. Let it transport you to where you need to be in order to write the story. And when you land, you will step out into a colorful world, limited only by your own imagination.


Don't forget to grab the ruby slippers. These will be important later.

You may need some mentors to help you on your way through this new world. Find a writer's group, like American Christian Fiction Writers. Pull together a critique group locally. Find an accountability partner, someone who will set you on the right path.

We will call these mentors Munchkins.

Okay, focus here. I know you're singing "We represent the Lollipop Guild" in your head.

Now, I'm going to take a wild leap into allegorical land here. Please stay with me.

As a writer in this strange new world you've created, you are going to need an Overseer, someone to turn to. Someone who helps you learn and grow, even through your mistakes. Could it be possible to think of Glenda, the good witch, as a God figure in your writing journey? I know the term "witch" is off-putting to a Christian, but I wonder if L. Frank Baum had this in mind. In chapter 12 of the book, the winged monkeys are decimating the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. But they refuse to harm Dorothy because of a mark on her forehead where Glenda kissed her. At the risk of sounding theological, I'd like to highlight Revelation 7:3 where a command is set forth to not harm the earth until a seal is placed on the foreheads of the servants of God.

As in every good story, there must be conflict. We seek it out to keep the reader turning pages. However in the writer's life, we'd just as soon avoid any conflict that will keep us from writing. Not going to happen, so learn to roll with it.

Enter the Wicked Witch of the West, Glenda's nemesis.

The Wicked Witch throws everything she has at Dorothy to keep her from her goal. In the real world, these conflicts can be an illness that keeps the brain fuzzy or financial stress causing the writer to set aside her story and find a regularly paying job. It could also be more pleasant things, yet just as time consuming. Grandchildren visiting. Holiday preparations. Television's new fall season. The nemesis throws roadblock after roadblock to keep words off the page. If you recognize her or her winged monkeys just itching to snatch you from your task, cry out to your Overseer.

There will be a moment, (okay, maybe a few moments,) when the writer will question herself. She will sit at her computer, drugged, if you will, with thoughts of inadequacy. Beware, as this stage in your writing journey stands directly between you and your goal. It's yet another technique that the enemy uses to drag you down. . .down. . .down. . .until you can think of nothing else but blessed sleep.

This, my friend, is your poppy field.

Overseer to the rescue! A sprinkling of snow, and you're good to go. Now, march on toward your goal. Dorothy's goal was to go home, but the Emerald City was where the Wizard could grant her wish and ultimately help her achieve her goal. The writer’s Emerald City could be a daily word count or a first draft—something tangible for you to work toward.

Within that city, the writer needs a task-master. This need not be a man behind the curtain, it could be the writer herself. Whatever the case, no one reaches a goal without a plan. Now, let's forget for the moment that the wizard's plan was faulty and purely selfish. He'd hoped by sending Dorothy and her three friends on a quest for the witch's broom, they wouldn't come back. The writer's plan must be concrete, positive steps. How do you reach that daily word count? By setting aside a certain amount of time a day and "clocking in" as if you were working at a real job. Here's an eye-opener. THIS IS A REAL JOB. The sooner you understand that, the sooner you'll take yourself seriously.

I haven't forgotten Dorothy's companions.

The Scarecrow, who longs for a brain, helps us understand that the writer must use her good sense. Even though you're making up a world, logic must rule. For instance, in a romance, don't have a widower of two weeks fall head over heels for a pretty woman.

The Tin Man wants a heart, suggesting that the writer must use compassion in telling her story. A good writer empathizes with her characters, thus drawing the reader in also.

The Cowardly Lion only wants courage. The writer must have courage to stand up for her convictions. If you're writing about a heavy subject, be brave enough to bring the point home.

And Toto? Remember there will always be distractions. Toto was an obedient little dog, until he spotted a cat. This is what got him in trouble with Miss Gulch. Thank goodness there was only one cat in the entire land of OZ or Dorothy may have never reached her goal!

Speaking of that one cat, it is this distraction that nearly derails Dorothy’s plans to go home. Toto jumps out of the basket as the hot air balloon begins to drift off, and of course, Dorothy must go after him. All is lost. The writer must not let anything distract her from reaching her ultimate goal. I want a show of hands. How many of you have an unfinished manuscript in a desk drawer? Yeah. That's what I thought.

But all is not lost. You still have the ruby slippers, right? Click your heels and repeat three times, "There's no place like publication." Come back to Kansas and get that story into the right hands.

(This article was updated on 8/1/2013)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tuck Everlasting - Comparisons

Our feature presentation is Tuck Everlasting. Based on the book by Natalie Babbitt and produced by Walt Disney Pictures.

It's a story of a wealthy young girl who stumbles upon a secret. She learns that there is a family living in her woods—a family, who she later discovers has been made immortal after drinking from a magical spring eighty-seven years ago.

Here's the synopsis according to the movie, but I'll discuss the book later and bring out the differences, both pro and con.

We'll start with the opening scene. It begins with a young man on a motorcycle riding through a contemporary town. Note that the story actually takes place in the early 1900s. In my opinion, this scene was unnecessary. It was confusing to the viewer in our group who hadn't seen the movie or read the book. All of a sudden we're back in time and she was wondering what that was all about. I also didn't like it because rather than creating a question, it's simply intrusive.

The girl, fifteen-year-old Winnie Foster, discovers seve
nteen-year-old Jesse Tuck, the youngest son of the Tuck family, drinking at a spring bubbling from the ground beneath a tree. His older brother, Miles, kidnaps Winnie because she knows where the spring is. At this point, she doesn't know their secret, but he can't take chances. He's afraid she'll tell her family where the spring is.

Winnie, disgruntled with her stifling lifestyle, and longing to run away anyway, soon sees this as her opportunity. She falls in love with Jesse, and time stands still for her as well as she grows to love the family and their gentle, simple ways.

Enter the man in the yellow suit. He had already talked to Winnie through the fence, looking for the Tucks. Her mother shooed him away, but he hung around. Which is how he learns of the secret at the same time as Winnie. Jesse takes her back to the spring to explain everything to her. The man in the yellow suit overhears, although he's still not sure where the spring is, and follows them back to the cottage.

After being accused of kidnapping Winnie, the man reports back to her father of her whereabouts. But he has an agenda. He bargains Winnie's freedom for the woods, of which he will pay a fair price. The father reluctantly agrees and now the man owns the spring. He intends to bottle it and sell it, making himself rich. A posse is formed to go get Winnie, but the man gets there first. He intends for Winnie to take him to the spring where he'll force her to drink so he can use her in his demonstrations while selling the water.

The family struggles to pull Winnie from his arms, but Mae Tuck, the mother, sneaks behind him and whacks him in the head with the butt of a rifle. Bad timing, for the posse has just arrived to see her do this.

She and Tuck, the father, are placed in the jail, and Mae will be hung for killing the man in the yellow suit.

Jesse comes to Winnie's house late at night. He asks her to help them get his parents out of jail. If Mae hangs, she won't die and then the whole world will know their secret.

I'll leave Mae in jail for now while I discuss the differences between the book and the movie.

How the Book Differs From the Movie

The book is beautifully written—a literary masterpiece. The prologue begins thus: "The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning." With lines like this, one would expect it to float like a seeded dandelion on a playful breeze. And it does, but with very little conflict until the end.

Disney felt the need to up the angst—in all, a wise choice, except for some nonsensical changes, particulary the jail scene which I'll mention later.

After the gorgeous prologue that sets up the circle of life, chapter one details how smart the cows were not to have made a road through the wood. Chapter two begins with Mae Tuck excited to see her two sons again after ten years. And chapter three shows ten-year-old Winnie Foster sitting on her grass just inside the fence, talking to a toad about how awful it is to be yelled at and watched all the time by her mother and grandmother. As an only child, they have no one else to pick on. She half-heartedly talks about running away.

We already see a difference with the age of the young heroine. In the movie, she's fifteen, but in the book, she's ten. I think this was a good call on Disney's part because they were able to create a sweet love story between Winnie and Jesse without it seeming "weird." The book attempts their attraction, but it does seem awkward in places.

Another difference was with Miles, the oldest Tuck brother. In the book, the author portrays him as sad. His wife and two children never drank from the eternal spring, and so grew old while Miles did not. His wife believed he sold his soul to the devil and left, taking the children with her. In the movie, Miles is angry and bitter. His daughter died of a disease, and his wife was sent to an insane asylum, where she also later died. His son, he says, would be almost eighty years old, but he doesn't know where he's at. In one scene, Miles goes to a saloon and cheats at cards, knowing that if he were shot, nothing would happen to him. The Miles in the book would never do that, but Disney needed to bring in more conflict. Other than the saloon scene, I say they did a great job. Miles and Jesse fight more in the movie than in the book, because Jesse is so opposite. He loves the fact that he's immortal and he wants to see every inch of the world. These contrary personalities were just what this story needed.

In the movie, Miles is the one who tells the family that the man in the yellow suit is tracking them. In the book, they don't realize it until he shows up at their cottage. This also lends a little more conflict than the book. It sets a stronger ticking clock than the original work had alluded to.
In the book, the man in the yellow suit knows about the family through his grandmother whose dear friend had married into an odd family. That friend was Mile's wife. When she left Mile's with their children they came to live the grandmother, and that's where he heard about the family of immortals and became intrigued as to how they became that way. In the movie, he tells the family that he'd heard a patient in an insane asylum talk about a family of immortals. This is why Disney invented that little bit of back story for Miles about his wife going to an asylum. This tie-in is much more interesting and leaves us to wonder if the man had been a patient as well.

Let's talk about the toad. If you read the book, you know that Winnie had made a friend of a toad that listened to her patiently on the other side of the fence. He was, apparently her only friend. She conversed with it, which we never saw in the movie. The toad just showed up once in awhile so that if you'd read the book, you'd know Disney had too. More about the toad in a minute.

First I'll talk about the jail scene.

This scene only made me shake my head and utter, "This is Disney doing a little Disney-ing." In the book, Winnie is asked by Jesse to come to the jail at a certain hour late at night and help them get Mae out. Note that Tuck was not arrested with her, but when she shows up, he and the boys are standing outside of Mae's window with masonry tools. It seems Miles knew masonry, a fact that hadn't been told yet, so it's jarring to suddenly find this out. In any case, I like the book's resolution to their problem over the movie. The author has Miles pick at the barred window until it comes loose. A storm is nearing and he pries the window whenever there is a crash of thunder so the sound can't be heard. When the window is released, Mae climbs out and Winnie climbs in, taking Mae's place so when the sheriff checks on her, he sees her asleep. Then, in the morning, when she is found, the family is long gone. Winnie can't get into too much trouble because she is only ten after-all.

Now the movie version. Mae and Tuck are in their jail cell. A "frantic" Winnie (fifteen-years-old, remember) runs in the jail crying and saying the Tucks are trying to kidnap her again. The sheriff asks where they are, and she points outside. He grabs a rifle and heads out. There, standing like two demons in the storm, are Jesse and Miles in black clothing, black capes, and black top hats. They move toward the sheriff and Jesse orates these words: "Prepare to meet thy doom." Seriously? It was all very theatrical as only Disney would attempt. The sheriff shoots both Jesse and Miles, who fall appropriately. But then they rise, unhurt. The sheriff, scared out of his wits, runs for his life. I see a problem here. Wasn't the reason they wanted Mae out of jail was to prevent anyone knowing their secret? And here they dramatically call attention to it. Someone didn't think this through.

Anyway, in both the book and movie, the family has time to get away. But not before Jesse makes Winnie promise to find the spring when she turns seventeen, drink from it, and he will come find her later. In the book, he seeks her out at home later, gives her a vial of the water and requests the same.

This difference is important. Here's why.

Winnie's last scene in the movie has her sitting by the tree, picking up the water and letting it drip through her fingers. Moments play in her mind of Jesse telling her how exciting life would be if they both lived forever, and of Tuck explaining that the circle of life was too important to be messed with. The immortal life was like a rock along the river, never growing, never moving, only being, he tells her. Then it cuts away. In the book, however, Winnie stands at her fence on her property, watching a dog try to attack her toad. (See, I told you I'd get back to it.) She grabs the toad, takes it to her room and pours the vial over his body, as toads don't drink, they absorb. I like that she makes this small sacrifice for her friend Toad. It's small, because she can always go back to the spring, if she can find it again, and do as Jesse requested.

In both scenes, the movie where she plays with the water and the book where she pours her vial on the toad, the question still hangs: Does she or doesn't she?

The last scene is in the town and it morphes from early 1900s to contemporary. This is effectively done in both the book and the movie. However, in the movie, Jesse is on his motorcycle, (a continuation of the first scene that I didn't like,) and looks longingly at Winnie's house. Then he takes off and finds the tree now with a gravestone near--Winnie's, where we learn by the carved epitaph that she had become a wife and mother, and lived a hundred years. In the book, Mae and Tuck enter town on their buckboard, out of place with the cars and pavement. They lament that nothing looks the same, and that the woods have been flattened. (If the woods had been flattened, Jesse would have never been able to find the tree.) They go to a cemetery, and there find Winnie's grave marker, still a wife and mother, but she died at seventy-six. I guess Disney wanted to show that she lived a full life by making her one hundred.

So, that's what worked and what didn't in the opinions of those who watched the movie together and discussed it.

On a final note, there was a scene in the movie where the man in the yellow suit goes to a cemetery outside of a church. The vicar comes out to see if he needs anything, and the man, a bit psychotically, asks about eternal life. If a person could live forever without dying, wouldn't that be a good thing? The vicar stammers out that the man speaks blasphemy. I wish that Disney would have let the vicar do his job. It would have gone something like this: "But everyone has access to eternal life through Jesus Christ. He told the woman at the well as much when He explained God's living water in John 4:13-14. "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

Wouldn't that have made a great statement? The social commentary included in the story is that used wrongly, this water would cause anarchy. But God's plan for living water is perfect.

Sigh. But that was Disney doing a little Disney-ing again.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What Would Happen If?

Wouldn't it be fun to take your favorite story and write about what happens next?

Cinderella's daughter would become a spoiled brat, and treat her step-daughter as her mother had been treated. A prince from a neighboring country would fall in love with Cindy Jr., show her the error of her ways, and the two would live happily ever after.

What about To Kill A Mockingbird? Scout would grow up to become a political activist, and work at developing half-way houses for the mentally handicapped in honor of her friend, Boo.

Several classics have gone on in sequels. Little Women and Gone With the Wind just to name two.

Hook, a sequel to Peter Pan, asks the question, "What would happen if Peter grew up?" Which is, according to IMDb, the exact question that Jake, son of the writer, James V. Hart, asked his dad. And we're glad he did. What would happen? He'd become a modern day pirate as a cutthroat merger and acquisitions lawyer and develop a fear of flying, of course. Genius!

The creator of Hook must have had a blast as he took all the familiar devices and turned them on their heads. Peter, the boy who never grew up, becomes old. He demands that the window in the children's room be kept shut, even though years before, that's how he visited Wendy. We see a glimpse of the icon Peter as he stands at the window with his fists on his hips. He doesn't pay much attention to his children when before he had nothing but time for kids. His work phone is a constant interruption. And the formerly cocky Peter has trouble spitting out words as he gives his speech at Wendy's banquet.

We wouldn't get any of that if we didn't know the story so well.

I love that Peter marries Wendy's granddaughter, Moira. We all so hoped Peter and Wendy would get together. Well, those of us with a romantic streak. So this was the next best thing. (By the way, was that Gwenyth Paltrow as a young adult Wendy?)

Wendy herself turns the old home into a house for lost children, just as she cared for the lost boys in Neverland. And by the way, I love her phrase, "Give us a squench." I've used that a few times with my own grandchildren.

An elderly Tootles continues to look for his marbles.

Nana is still stuck outside in the doghouse, although I suspect she's a direct descendant of the original. I do wish they'd used a Saint Bernard as in the Disney original, but a shaggy dog works, I guess. Perhaps that's what was used in the original play.

Did you catch the hooks holding the windows closed in the nursery?

The inciting incident occurs when the children are taken. Peter must now become the person he'd shed, someone he doesn't even remember.

Tink to the rescue!

Julia Roberts's Tinkerbell is just the cutest thing. And what wonderful spunk. I don't recall the original fairy clobbering Peter with a blunt object, so this is great insight into what she turned into over the years. With the help of fairy dust, she lugs an unconscious Peter to Neverland to rescue his kids.

Peter attempts to rescue them, but his skills as a lawyer have not prepared him for the treacherous pirates. He fails miserably, leaving his son to wonder why he didn't try harder. Does his dad care for him? Now, Peter not only needs to rescue his children, but he must regain his son's faith.

And now the question the creator must have asked himself. "What would happen if Peter's kids are influenced by the child-hating Captain Hook?" The answer soon becomes obvious. The girl, Maggie, sees him for who he his, someone who desperately needs a mommy. But Jack is really who Hook wants in the first place. With Peter as king of the lost boys, and therefore their chief champion in defending them from the pirate, wouldn't it be ironic if Peter lost his own boy to his treacherous arch enemy?

Ooooo…good stuff!

Peter encounters conflict after conflict as he tries to become the Pan again. The first being Rufio, the boy who has taken his place. A street punk who obviously learned how to fight dirty. He and his gang of lost boys bully and terrorize poor Peter, embarrassing Tink since she's trying to convince them that this is, indeed, Peter Pan.

He finally gains the trust of some of the smaller boys. The littlest finding his hero somewhere in the flabby face by stretching the wrinkles out of it. But Peter still must prove himself to Rufio. He finally overthrows the leader through an insult contest. That makes sense. I had boys. It's what they do.

The major conflict (but not yet the black moment) in the middle of the second act happens when Peter and the lost boys act as spies in the pirate camp. Hook has decided, with the help of his personal valet, Smee, that the best way to get to Peter is through his son. He has worked his magic and Jack is becoming a pirate, and sadly, forgetting he has a family. Hook knows that Jack's problem with his father is that he's never there for him. He even missed a very important baseball game once. So, the devious pirate orders all under his command to stage a game just for Jack to prove to the boy that he loves him (gag) and will always be there for him (gag.) Peter sees his son play baseball, probably for the first time. He's so proud of him as he hits a home run, but his joy is short-lived when he hears Hook say "My Jack." He knows there is no other way to gain his son's respect but to become who he really is deep inside.

He must fly.

How do you have a happy thought when your children are in the hands of the enemy? But find it he does, as he thinks of Moira and the birth of their first child, Jack. To save Jack, he thought of Jack. There must be sermon in there somewhere!

Next conflict. In the transformation, he forgets he has kids, because he's become a boy again, albeit still in a man's body.

Tinkerbell must save the day once more. (Do you see a pattern here? It seems only the females are thinking straight in this story. Good insight, Spielberg!) Ah, but Tinkerbell has her own problem. Even while helping Peter get his kids back, she knows that once he does, she'll lose him again, probably forever. Now, we already knew that she was the jealous sort. And now, she tries to do something about it. Here comes the next question the creator asked. "What would happen if Tinkerbell acted upon that jealousy?" She would make the only wish she'd ever wished for herself. She becomes big, hoping that Peter will choose her. But, alas. Peter is a family man. Upon his rejection, she poofs into her tiny bit of light and flitters off.

As we enter the third act, Peter, fully the Pan and no longer ground-challenged, shows up on Hook's ship. A mêlée ensues. Pirates and lost boys battle it out, and sadly for Rufio, he battles to the death.

This is Pan's black moment. In saving his own son, he's lost one of the boys he's sworn to protect. Hook deserves to die.

Whoa! Our favorite fairy tale just turned dark. Is this what happens when we modernize a classic? Never fear. The writer, James Hart, wrote this knowing his son would read it.

Peter clashes swords with Hook. As they parry and thrust, Hook looses his vanity. His wig flies off and underneath is nothing more than a tired, old man. Maggie, who has seen him for what he is all along, convinces her father to end the fight and take them home.

He nearly does just that, but Hook isn't finished. With one last cruel insult -- vowing that he'll continue to pursue Peter's children, and their children, and their children -- Peter turns his sword on him once again, but before he can finish him off, Hook's greater enemy takes over. The giant crocodile that had taken Hook's hand ages ago, and has been in a taxidermied state in the town square, topples and falls on Hook mouth first. The dastardly pirate disappears into the throat and becomes nothing but a satisfied burp.

After naming one of the remaining boys as leader, Peter and his children return to England. He completes his character arc by answering his work phone in the middle of their homecoming and tossing it out the window. Peter, the man, has rediscovered his boy within, and we are happy to find that both can inhabit the same body.

So, the final question is the same as the first: "What would happen if Peter Pan grew up?" He would embrace his children with as much robust as he had embraced his childhood.

Kudos go to Amblin Studios for taking the classic and finishing the story.