Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Origin-al Sins

When readers first met James Bond, in Ian Fleming's novel Casino Royale, he was already an experienced agent of Her Majesty's Secret Service. When a wider audience first met him, when the first Bond movie, Dr. No, was released in 1962, they saw him for the first time, played by Sean Connery, at a card table, winning his game and seducing a beautiful woman at the same time. Within the first few scenes, we are made to understand that this is a man who knows what he's doing, is very good at doing it, and has been there and done that. But we are not told exactly where it is that he's been and what it is that he's done. And we don't need to be told. We don't need every moment of his life spelled out for us. Where Fleming takes his stories next and where Connery's acting leads us shows us all we need to know and there's no need to flash back and watch 007 take his first fumbling baby-steps into secret agent-dome.

Fleming trusted his readers, respected them enough to know when enough information is enough, knew they were capable of filling in the blanks as little or as much as their imagination would allow them to. Luckily, the producers of Dr. No and the other early Bond films were smart enough to follow Fleming's lead and introduce Bond as an already seasoned agent and set him loose to save the world without bothering to explain to us exactly how he got what Liam Neeson's Brian Mills character would call his "very particular set of skills."
But then, more than forty years later, the James Bond franchise was rebooted and Casino Royale was finally adapted to film. By now, something had changed and the producers of the new films just couldn't resist the impulse to give us Baby Bond fumbling his way through his first mission as a Double-O agent trying to prove his worth to M. Overall, I thought Casino Royale was a good movie, but adding an origin to Bond's story was unnecessary and actually detracted from the appeal of the character, took away some of the aura of experience and ruthless confidence that made millions of readers and moviegoers over the last fifty years wish they were James Bond.

My point here is that sometimes less is more. Some, though not all, characters work better if they spring fully formed into words and images instead of us having to see exactly what events led to their being what they are when we first meet them. Something seems to have changed in recent years in movies, books, TV, and comics. There seems to be a plague of origins and backgrounds being added to characters and concepts that were once better for their lack of definite histories. It disturbs me that some of those in charge of the great properties in fiction no longer seem to be able to distinguish between which characters need everything to be spelled out and which are better when left mysterious to one degree or another.

I've been thinking of a few more examples.

When I was a kid and discovered the original Star Trek via reruns, I never bothered to question how Captain Kirk and his crew of Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and the rest wound up serving together aboard the Enterprise. It was self-explanatory.
These were military men and women, officers in Starfleet. Even as a child, having grandfathers who both served in our country's armed forces, I understood that assignments were handed out and those who served together on a base or a vessel often formed bonds of comradeship as they went through difficult experiences together. Kirk and company were thrown together by the powers-that-be at Starfleet and crew close as time went on until they had formed the deep loyalties and friendships that made them work so well together and often risk their lives for each other. I also did not need to know exactly how James T. Kirk had become captain of the Enterprise. It was obvious! He was commissioned as an officer, did his job very well, earned his promotions through his terms of service on various vessels, and rose through the ranks until given command of his own starship. There didn't have to be anything more to the story than that. I was more concerned with what happened to Kirk, Spock, and the others after they began their famous five-year mission than I was with how they had all come to be there in the first place. No explanations necessary!
But once again new hands took hold of the reins of a great fictional franchise and just had to go where no one was stupid enough to go before! The rebooted Star Trek movie, released in 2009, showed us a ridiculously plotted mess of a story in which one big giant crisis forces Kirk (who hasn't even graduated Starfleet academy at this point), Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekhov together and ends with them becoming the new crew of the Enterprise with Kirk apparently being promote straight up the line to captain without having to climb the ladder from ensign to lieutenant to commander and so forth.
Not only is this origin story far less realistic than the simple unspoken assumption that the seven main Trek characters served together because they were given that assignment by their superiors due to normal military protocol, it also undermines the heroism of Kirk's character. The original version of James T. Kirk, although young for a starship captain, had clearly risen through the ranks of Starfleet over the course of years, earning the right to be responsible, on a daily basis, for the lives of his four-hundred crewmen. What we get with the new Kirk is a young man, barely more than a boy out of school, being handed that responsibilty based on his performance in one emergency situation. Should he have received a medal for what he did? Probably. But a promotion to captain of the Enterprise with no intermediate experience? Absolutely not. I wouldn't want my life in the hands of a captain who gained his position like that.
So, the new Star Trek takes a great early career that was hinted at occasionally in the original series and wipes it away in favor of a ridiculous origin story that throws seven characters together by fate and puts them in positions they have not yet come close to earning. 
That entire film was insulting to my intelligence and to the legacy of the Star Trek that came before it.

Another character that fits into this discussion is the Marvel Comics hero Wolverine. Originally created to fight the Incredible Hulk, Wolverine was first shown as an operative of the Canadian government and then recruited into the X-Men when the second generation of that mutant team of heroes was created to revive their series. The great appeal of Wolverine in those early years of his existence, and one of the things that made him the most popular Marvel character to come out of the 1970s, was the mystery that surrounded him. Very little was revealed about his past for a very long time. During their brilliant run on Uncanny X-Men, writer Chris Claremont and writer/artist John Byrne very skillfully dropped little hints about Wolverine's past. One example is this panel, from a late-70s issue of X-Men.
The reader is left with a big question. How did Wolverine come to know how to read Japanese? This could have launched a whole new story that explained exactly how this had happened, why he knew the language, and related his adventures in Japan in some previous time period. But Claremont and Byrne had the sense to know that planting a seed of mystery in a reader's mind can be a thousand times more effective than coming out and hitting them over the head with a fully detailed story. And there were other hints too. At a later point in the series, Wolverine revealed that his name was Logan. But was that his first name or his last name? Was it even his real name, or just another alias he had gone by at some point in his shadowy past? That also would not be made clear at any point in the near future. Wolverine was a fascinating character because of what we didn't know.
Of course, it couldn't last forever. The classic Claremont and Byrne era of X-Men ended and Wolverine has been in the hands of many writers since. Eventually, Marvel caved and forgot one of the best pieces of advice their legendary founder Stan Lee ever gave. "Never give the readers what they THINK they want."
But they did. Marvel went ahead and did a whole storyline about the past and the origins of Wolverine, sweeping away all the mystery and revealing events that pale in comparison to the ideas many readers formed in their imaginations when things were only subtly hinted at.
I, for one, no longer find the character nearly as appealing as I once did.  

There we have three fictional characters or concepts I've enjoyed for most of my life, who never, in my opinion, needed their pasts specifically spelled out, and who have now been made less appealing by the revelation of their origins. I find it disturbing that those responsible for delivering old characters to new audiences can't seem to recognize the appeal of leaving a little mystery there for us to relish. In a way, I find it insulting to my intelligence. I don't need or want everything explained to me! It takes away the relationship between the story and the part of the reader's imagination that fills in the blanks that, when skillfully left in by the writer, make the story stronger. I don't want to know the exact details of John Watson's war experiences before he returned to England and met Sherlock Holmes. I don't want to know everything Han Solo did before meeting Luke and Ben in the cantina. 

In my own writing, I always try to be careful how much I reveal about each character I create. Sometimes, we need to know everything. When I created my pulp heroine, the Red Veil, it was essential that the reader understand her childhood because it added a level of toughness to her personality that would later resurface when she faced tragic events as an adult and decided to act rather than sit and mourn as society of the time would have expected her to.
On the other hand, when writing about my character Hound-Dog Harker, I carefully chose which periods of his life would be detailed in my stories. His early childhood is prominently mentioned since he is the son of two characters from Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. But the primary focus of the stories is his later life, in the 1930s, when he works as an agent of the British government (he faces situations that are somewhat stranger than anything James Bond ever got himself into!). In those 30s stories, Harker is already a veteran agent and knows, more or less, depending on the weirdness of the case, what he's doing. I've also revealed that Harker fought in the First World War and I even stuck a cameo appearance by him into another story that takes place in that war, but I have no plans to do any stories detailing his war experiences. The fact that he was there, acted heroically enough to earn his nickname of Hound-Dog, and survived it, is enough. I'd rather concern myself with writing tales of what he does when he's the fully-functional operative he is in his prime.   

In my vampire novel, 100,000 Midnights, I left the background of one of the supporting characters, Phillip, vague and did not plan to tell the tale of how he became a vampire. In writing the sequel, which I'm almost done with now, I changed my mind and did reveal quite a lot about Phillip's past. Sometimes, changing one's mind about something like that is all right (especially if the original writer is the one doing it).
But when a character's aura of mystery (as in the case of Wolverine) is what actually helps to make him wildly popular, or when a concept has worked very, very well for decades (Star Trek and James Bond) without everything being revealed, maybe those writers currently entrusted with such characters need to think very hard about whether it's wise to rip away the old curtain and show us what's behind it. There is such a thing as knowing too much, and it can often do more harm than good.  

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