Welcome once again, as we continue our month long look into Christmas storytelling. Last week, we visited a modern version of the North Pole, but today, we’re entering a different realm. A realm between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This week, we venture into the American TV classic known as The Twilight Zone, and its Christmas offering, “Night of the Meek.”
Henry Corwin, a drunken department store Santa, arrives late and is fired from his position after a parent complains. Corwin then pours his heart out to the crowd, explaining that he drinks in large part because of the squalor and poor condition of his neighborhood and the children in it, and that he cannot truly be Santa for them. Decrying that Christmas is a far purer and better thing then department stores and presents, Corwin wishes that for one night, the meek could inherit the Earth. After being refused entrance to a local bar, Corwin comes across a large sack, which produces any gift asked of it. He then fulfills his wish, giving gifts to the children of his neighborhood and to the men of a homeless shelter. However, a nun calls the police, who then contact Corwin’s former employer, who believes he has stolen the gifts from the store. However, the store manage can only remove garbage out of the bag, and the policeman tells him to leave it alone. Later, Corwin has emptied the bag, and wishes only that he could do this every year. As he returns to the alleyway where he finds the bag, he now discovers a sleigh with two reindeer and an elf, waiting to take him to the North Pole.
What Writers Can Learn- Redemptive, Unique Character Writing, Morals
While The Twilight Zone is largely thought of for supernatural tales, it could often tell more heartfelt stories, and this is no exception. A great part of the genius of the episode can be placed at the feet of Corwin. The idea of a drunken, layabout department store Santa is nothing new, and is often written for comic effect, or to showcase a superior Santa figure. But here, we are made to feel for Corbin, who is aware of his flaws, and drinks out of regret not for himself, but for the poor people he lives with. We see that there is a good man behind the alcohol soaked veneer, who takes his position so seriously, that he weeps when poor children ask for gifts and “a job for my daddy” that he is powerless to give (A great note of consideration must also be given to Art Carney, famous as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners, who carried the episode with his heartbreaking performance as Corwin).
But this episode is also excellent in its redemption and moral offerings. Despite his noble intentions, Corwin is at best, a sad figure with little to give the world, and he knows it. Upon finding the magic bag, we see Corwin’s utter joy at being able to make his dream a reality. Even under the face of scrutiny, he stays true to his goal, gifting his accusing manager, an act that convinces the policeman that Corwin should be left alone to accomplish his goal. In that, we see that even the most unlikely of us can do great good, if we are only given the chance.
And now, we come to the morals, the part that makes this required Christmas viewing for everyone. As mentioned, Corwin is a department store Santa. He constantly sees the hustle and bustle of people endlessly shopping and buying and spending each day, then goes home to a world where Christmas is just another day of the year. He sees children that will get everything they want, and children that don’t even get coal in their stockings. Even his firing comes at the hands of a woman who is trying to force the commercial of Christmas onto her son, and it is that very scene that makes Corwin deliver a speech on the truth of Christmas that ranks up with Linus telling the Nativity to Charlie Brown. Because Corwin doesn’t just remind us of Christmas’s true meaning, he stands in the hall of commercialism and reminds all the people, including the children, of those who have nothing. It is a speech that I have placed below, and I dare you watch it, and not weep.
The Twilight Zone had no other Christmas episodes, but those looking for strong moral tales would do well to examine its episodes for them (“The Last Night of a Jockey” is a fine example). “The Night of the Meek” was remade for the 1980’s Zone revival series, but nothing tops the original. And of course, there is another classic tale of the true meaning of Christmas, which we’ll get into next week. But if you want a hint, check the funny pages.
Today I want to discuss one of the most difficult aspects of writing- getting your point across. Writing means making a statement through your story, whether it be personal, social, or moral. Fantasies can be about courage and finding yourself, sci-fi can be about human potential and what we can or can’t do. But whatever your point, getting it to your audience is vital. Not doing enough or doing too much can ruin the impact of your story and unfortunately, it’s something even the best writers can do wrong.
In most cases, subtlety is the best course of action. The moral should never overtake the story, because the story should be how the moral is expressed. But overplaying the moral can also cause the story to be one sided and making the story one sided. A recent example is the second animated adaption of The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. Both adaptations tell Seuss’s tale of the dangers of deforestation and greed, but the first takes a moment to humanize the antagonist Onceler, giving him moments of regret for his actions. The story even has him make a strong argument against the Lorax, reminding him that shutting down his factory would put people out of work, a point the Lorax concedes. This causes the viewer to think more objectively and question the lessons of the story. But in the more recent adaption, this is ignored for a more pro-eco stance, which save for one moment of balance, paints all industry as bad and all nature as good, which weakens the argument and makes the message feel preachy.
But at the same time, subtly can be difficult as well. While it may not bash readers over the head with the moral, the point can sometimes be lost. A personal example come from the Mel Brook Wild West satire Blazing Saddles. The film is chock full of shots at racism, Western films, and Hollywood, while still throwing random moments of insanity (a man punches a horse. Really). One example is how the black sheriff first rides into town, which stuns the townsfolk into silence. However, they quickly recover and pull their guns on the sheriff. The irony of course, is that the people couldn’t defend themselves from bandits, but are all armed enough to kill a black man. This is a clever point, but flew over my head for many years. Another example is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of my favorite satires of all time. The tale is a point by point example of the rise and fall of communism acted out through barnyard animals. But it does require some knowledge of such a government to really be accurate. Still, these examples are less of a problem then overstating and can be either fun to discover or encourage further exploration.
So what can a writer do to get a moral across? For starters, never write it in a way that talks down to your audience. Teaching is one thing, demeaning is another, and only one of them works. And try to see more then one side of your moral. If you can’t put your idea against scrutiny, it’s not worth defending. Take the time to show the opposition, and what makes sense about it. It will make your moral stronger for defending and hopefully make a better case. Finally, DON”T LET IT OVERSHADOW THE STORY. The story is meant to highlight the moral- it can’t become you on a soapbox screaming your belief to the world.
Happy Holidays once again, as we continue with the holiday edition of Points of Light. For the last two weeks, I’ve been examining different versions of A Christmas Carol. This week, I WILL be moving onto a different story, though I will again return with a familiar story of Yuletide cheer. So strap on your climbing shoes for the top of Mt. Crumpit, as I open up Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
As this is also a well-told and familiar story, I will be brief. The Grinch, a green monster that lives above Whoville, is tried of the incessant noise and spectacle of Christmas, and makes up his mind to ruin it. Dressed as Santa, he ventures down on Christmas Eve, stealing decorations, presents, and everything associated with the holiday, intending to dump it when he hears the cries of the Whos on Christmas morning. However, the reaction he gets makes him realize that Christmas is much bigger then his stolen loot, and with a new perspective, returns to Whoville, gives back all the stolen items, and joins the Who in celebration.
What Writers Can Learn: Commentary, Hidden Meaning, Personal Meaning
The Grinch is well regarded as a Christmas classic because it works on a variety of levels. At the very least, it is an engaging children’s story, with a happy ending and a simple moral. However, it also works for adults as a commentary. Seuss himself has admitted that there is a part of himself in the Grinch, and he largely wrote it to reconnect with a holiday he felt he’d lost something with. Anyone that’s ventured out into the Christmas season can agree. Each year, we are bombarded with endless decorations, shopping sprees, preparations and celebrations, and enough forced commercialism to make anyone hate the day. That is largely why the book resonates so well. Everyone has been the Grinch at some point- tired of the spectacle, seeing the holiday as nothing more then an exercise in greed, forced cheer, and commercial excess. In fact, one of the few strong moments in the live action adaption is when the Grinch admonishes the Whos for driving themselves into debt each year to buy presents that largely end up in the dump where he lives.
However, the Grinch’s journey, as it should be for the reader, is about seeing past the immediate façade of Christmas. The Grinch sees Christmas as nothing more then baubles and parties, and so that is what he steals. And like those tired of the holiday, he fully expects the day to be ruined because there are no longer any gifts or food to be had, no decorations to moon over. However, instead of anguished cries, he hears joyful singing, as the Who come out to give thanks for the day. Though he is confused, he comes to the revelation that while presents and parties and decorations are a part of the Christmas season, they are not all of it. Christmas is shown as a time when being with friends and family, and experiencing their joy and togetherness is all that truly matters. That’s why the Grinch cannot steal it, and it is the moment that makes the book a work of genius- by turning around expectations and giving a lesson that we realize was evident from the very beginning. That is a trick that only the best writers can accomplish, and the reason Dr. Seuss and his work is so beloved.
The Grinch is both a great moral tale and a family classic, that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Writers that are looking to write clever lessons and surprise readers should study it, as well as anyone that wants to write for children the way Seuss did. And readers who want more need go no further then the classic Chuck Jones animated special, narrated by horror icon Boris Karloff. The more recent live action version is impressive for the visuals and some of Jim Carrey’s performance as the Grinch, but it ignores the book’s subtlety for a sledgehammer approach to the moral (see the Nostalgia Critic’s video review (completely in rhyme) for a bigger picture). But it is entertaining enough, and does contain some well done moments. Come back next week, when I end the month and lead into a Christmas with a strong holiday masterpiece.
In today’s blog, I will be using a piece of popular culture to emphasize a point on writing, specifically writing heroes. I bring this up because of the release of Kick-Ass 2, the adaptation of the comic sequel to the comic/film Kick-Ass. Now, for those of you who might be fans of this series, I want to make clear I don’t think either the film or comic are examples of bad writing. The premise is solid, the story is solid, and I enjoy it’s more realistic take on people becoming superheroes. However, watching the film left me with mixed feelings, and I have had little interest in either medium’s version since. The reason for this is very simple- Kick-Ass is a superhero movie that simply doesn’t have any heroes in it. And while writers certainly don’t have to focus on heroic characters, they need to understand them when they do, or anything they’re trying to say with them gets lost. So why does Kick-Ass fail in the department? Here are three reasons why (note; I will only be using the first film as an example, as I have not seen the sequel at the time of this writing).
#3 The Villain is a Better Father then the Hero
Two of Kick-Ass’s most memorable characters are Big Daddy and Hit Girl, two makeshift heroes seeking revenge against gangster Frank D’amico, for falsely imprisoning Big Daddy and causing his wife (Hit Girl’s mother) to commit suicide. This is a classic revenge story, and the audience should easily be able to root for this father daughter duo. But instead, D’amico is portrayed as a more watchful and better parent to his son Chris. How? D’amico consistently puts down his son’s attempts to join organized crime, wanting him to find a better, more honest life then his father.
“But Dad, why can’t I help you at work?”
“Because you’re not missing Harvard to dump some bodies in the East River
Big Daddy, upon release from prison, immediately set his revenge scheme into motion, training his daughter to be a brutal fighter, training her in guns, weapons, and various fighting techniques from an extremely young age (she is 11 when the film introduces her). As a result, she is desensitized to violence, focuses only on ‘the mission,’ and is basically a grizzled, hardened fighter in the body of an 11 year old. However, we are supposed to root for her and Big Daddy, who has turned his only child into an instrument of his own revenge (since we get the impression Hit-Girl was very young when her mother died, possibly too young to have many strong memories) and rewards her for her violent work.
“Daddy, can you tell me about Mom?”
“You cripple that gangster there and I’ll see if I can tell you what color her hair was.”
Yet Big Daddy places all the blame on D’amico, even in one scene claiming that D’amico, not him, stole his daughter’s childhood. While revenge-fueled, murderous heroes like the Punisher have thrived for decades, such heroes generally work alone and do not drag others down with them. By dragging his daughter into his own revenger, Big Daddy loses any sympathy from the reader and his actions fail to have any sense of justice, because he is a lesser person then the villain he rails against. Which brings us to the next point…
#2 All the Heroes Are Driven By Revenge Or A Desire to Be Cool
Hit Girl and Big Daddy are clearly driven by their desire for revenge, but rather than using that to build them, they are limited and wasted by it. Their desire to be heroes is purely driven by personal reasons, and there is no sense they have any desire to help anyone else. They brutally go after D’amico and his henchmen, steal his money, and repeat the effort over and over, without any widening of the scope. It is totally believable that once D’amico dies, both characters would simply take his money, hang up their capes, and retire to the Bahamas, because sating their revenge is all that matters in their crusade ( In fact, that is almost what happens in the film). The same idea had Batman fans raging over the ending of the Dark Knight Rises, and it has the same problem here- it makes the characters look selfish and small minded.
“Yeah, so I spent two years being Batman, eight years sulking, ruined my company, and left after taking down one supervillian. Least I got my parents murderer first.”
On the flip side, the movie ends with Kickass’s actions sparking a wave of other makeshift heroes flooding the streets, ready to fight crime. Except none of them cared enough to do something before, but now that there’s a popular, Youtube promoted hero, they suddenly decided to put on costumes and go out to fight. These people are superhero ‘whiggers’- they are simply following a trend without truly understanding it, which most likely means they will stumble along, stopping some minor crimes, until they are either eliminated by the criminals or arrested by the police. And all of it can be laid at Kickass’s feet, who is worse then either side because he managed to be them both. He begins with some altruistic notions, but is basically a kid living out his superhero fantasy to feel cool. And by the end, when he is predictably beaten and tortured for his actions, he joins up with Hit-Girl, commits violent acts of revenge, and then promptly retires, leaving a whole generation of untrained heroes to tackle the villains that tortured them and slaughtered their loved ones.
“Look, I’m sorry your brother, father, sister, uncle, and cousin were all violently murdered. I didn’t tell them to put on a suit and fight crime…”
#1 There is No Moral Code
All of the violence and selfish behavior in this film are truly symptoms of one major problem- there is absolutely no moral code. The villains are expectedly brutal and psychopathic, but the heroes are the same way. The only difference is that the heroes put on costumes and convince themselves they’re the good guys because they were wronged or they have some misguided thoughts on doing the right thing. But it never justifies mutilating henchmen or putting a child in harm’s way for your own revenge. This movie is basically watching two groups of psychos slaughter each other, and we are told to feel bad for ones in costumes. But their motivations fail because simply put, they make the Punisher, a cold-blooded killer that condones things by going after criminals, a better hero, since he works alone and goes after more criminals then just the ones that personally wronged him. And worst of all, they take the greatest misconception about superheroes and prove it true. We’ve all seen the scene where the police chief or someone in power argues that ‘vigilantes cannot be tolerated, because they’re so dangerous.” Real heroes prove them wrong, but Kick Ass and his group ARE those vigilantes we’re warned about- people who take the law into their own hands and don’t care about the consequences. And there is no greater failure for a hero then that.
“Can we trust you?”
“Good, cause this guy’s a real problem.”