Monday, August 8, 2016

The same story

"I heard a story like that once," B.J. said. "Only instead of a poet it was a princess, and instead of eight Immortals it was seven swans, and instead of having to jump off a cliff she had to be silent for twelve years, and instead of immortality it was love she wanted. Except for that, it was the same story. "
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

Two weeks ago I again enjoyed watching The Princess Bride, the now classic Rob Reiner film. The story takes the form of a book a grandfather (Peter Falk) reads to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). From time to time, the boy interrupts to tell his grandpa he is reading it wrong. That can't be the way the story goes. Westley, the hero, can't be dead. The princess can't marry someone else. The boy has never heard this story before, but he has heard or read or watched other stories, and he knows how they are supposed to go. He wants to hear the familiar story, not this new version. As it turns out, of course, Westley is not dead, just "mostly dead," and the princess doesn't really marry the evil prince. At the end of the movie, the boy asks his grandfather if he might read this book to him again tomorrow night.

Children do like the same stories over and over again, but then so do us adults, even if not so obviously. We want the hero to prevail and to get the girl, and we want the villain to get his just deserts. Those of us who enjoy genre novels, especially those written by the same authors, expect these stories to follow a similar script. If we like Agatha Christie's Jane Marple stories, we want them all to have familiar plots. Certainly the settings, the characters, the murder weapons and the clues will change from book to book, but the stories themselves are not all that different. That's why we like them. The same is true of Sherlock Holmes stories, Perry Mason stories, most romance novels and so on. We crave new stories, but we want them to be very similar to the older stories we loved.

Speaking of Peter Falk, I was a fan of his Columbo character, whose whose TV murder mysteries ran for decades. Now they can be found on one channel or another almost daily, and I have been watching many of them again. The episodes are all different, yet much the same. A prominent, highly intelligent person commits what seems like the perfect murder. Often it doesn't even seem like a murder at all. Yet Columbo soon smells out his prime suspect and hounds that person for the rest of the show until he manages to find the proof of guilt.

I was surprised by one episode that didn't follow the usual format. Viewers don't see the murder, so don't know who the killer is until Lt. Columbo reveals the identity at the end. Meanwhile the detective goes undercover in a variety of disguises. It seems more like an episode of The Rockford Files than Columbo. I kept wanting to say to my television, "That's not right. That's not the way the story goes." It was comforting when the next episode I watched got it right.

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