Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Exploring Story Worlds

I recently read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (turned into a film with Brendan Frazer), which has a great hook of people who can read characters out of books and into the real world.

There's so much potential with that story - you can just imagine the possibilities: famous fictional characters, fantastic creations entering the real world, maybe the heroes even reading themselves into a book and seeing what life is like on the other side of the pages.

Unfortunately we don't get any of that. Instead the fictional characters in the story belong to a book made up specially for the novel. The novel within the novel that they're from is also called Inkheart and it's a fantasy story depicting a world where all sorts of fantastic creatures exist.

But we don't really get any of those - instead we have a juggler who's very good at playing with fire, a villain who's main goal in life is to make the people with the ability to read things into the real world to read him lots of gold and a few of his henchmen.

We do get a couple of characters from 'real' fiction who have a fantasy twinge to them. There's Tinkerbell, who doesn't have much to do at all. We have the Brave Tin Soldier from the Hans Christian Anderson, who gets to come out of a book and then be read back into it (albeit with a happier ending) - and then there's a kid from the Arabian Nights stories who seems to have been in the Ali Baba tale, but is a non-entity in terms of the story (and may have just been made up by Cornelia Funke).

At the climax of the book we do get a few more fantastical creatures, but they're very much there as an afterthought. The rest of it is filled with fairly mundane villainy.

Now there are another two stories in the trilogy, so there may be more of an exploration of this world of people who can read fiction to life, but the first in the trilogy in no way fulfills the potential for the created world. This seems to be a problem that keeps cropping up again and again in novels and films - a good idea poorly mined.

It's very easy to point to stories that manage to mine the potential of their worlds - they're usually the ones that people like a lot. The Harry Potter series of books - love them or loathe them you'd be lying if you said that they don't get stuck into the universe that Rowling has created. The world is practically dripping with magic.

Pirates of the Caribbean - opening with a ship at sea in the fog and the telling of a ghost story and then throwing pretty much every possible piratey thing at the screen rarely misses out on a trick when it delves into its story world.

Star Wars - again a universe that feels well-lived in - it's not the regular world with a few science fiction things bolted on.

Steven Gould's Jumper novel (NOT the film). This is the regular world, so no cramming every corner with some weird and wonderful thing, but he takes the initial concept of a teenager who can teleport and runs with it, fully exploring the idea and what it means.

Those four examples were stories that I thoroughly enjoyed, that I've recommended to friends and that I'd happily go back for more with (and in all those cases I've gone and read or watched the sequel(s). Inkheart I'm not so sure - I was left feeling fairly unsatisfied after finishing reading it and thought I could have come up with better ideas than the author - largely because she hardly seemed to come up with any at all.

Still, it's a fairly popular novel series - so what do I know?


Anonymous said...

Still, it's a fairly popular novel series - so what do I know?

Obviously, you should write the idea correctly.

Iain Gibson said...

Funny you should say that ...

Bethany K. Warner said...

Read Jasper Fforde. He crosses "real" fiction characters into his novels.

Iain Gibson said...

Good example with Jasper Fforde - I only remembered him sometime after writing that post. The Thursday Next books are a much better example of how to play with a literature-fantasy world particularly as he manages to take all the inherent ideas (such as communicating through footnotes) and run with them.