It probably started when I was thirteen and read THE STAND by Stephen King. After 99% of the world is killed by a deadly virus, our survivors are faced with an even deadlier battle, in the name of evil Randall Flagg. Most of the people we grew to love and hate in the 1200 page tome (yes, I read the unabridged version) also die. The ending is happy(ish.) Bittersweet, but Stu and Frannie (and Frannie’s baby) survive. They defeat evil and begin to rebuild.
Epic storytelling generally involves high fantasy, but after reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy in high school, I haven’t been a fan of fantasy. I loved the story, but there was a lot of other stuff that made me skim lots and lots of pages. My 17 year old daughter read the first two books of the Game of Thrones series and she enjoyed them, but said she was finding herself skimming a lot as well, even though she was worried she’d miss something. So we are watching the Games of Throne series this summer to get caught up because from what my daughter has heard, it’s as good as the books without the boring parts.
I understand the need for storytellers who have to build a world to incorporate scenes, chapters and even hundreds of pages of histories and events, and there is a large groups of readers who love that level of detail.
I’m not one of them.
Epic storytelling works amazingly in film, especially when there’s a franchise and storytellers can world build over time, adding layers with each movie while still making each movie a solid story.
STAR WARS came out when I was eight. I saw it in the theater and was completely in awe. This was 1977, and we hadn’t seen anything as vivid and epic and fast-paced as STAR WARS. It opened my mind to possibilities I hadn’t even known existed, let alone thought about. Not just the world of science fiction, fantasy, or alternative worlds, but the breadth of storytelling. When I was eight, I was reading Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew. STAR WARS blew me away.
Even though George Lucas always said he had seven stories planned for the Star Wars franchise, I was disappointed when he sold the rights to Disney. I was disappointed in the second trilogy because they didn’t hold true to some of the details in the original trilogy which, to me, is perfect storytelling. The second trilogy was less than perfect. I didn’t buy into some of the characters actions and decisions. The only thing I really loved about the second trilogy was Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. (But who doesn’t love Yoda?)
Yet … JJ Abrams is set to direct the seventh Star Wars movie, and I am cautiously optimistic. It’s like when I know Joss Whedon is involved in a project, I am already on board because he’s an amazing storyteller. And in the end, it’s always about the story.
One of the reasons I’m cautiously optimistic is because JJ Abrams directed the reboot of the STAR TREK franchise. (Okay, yes, I’m a nerd. Kind of obvious, isn’t it?) The first movie was good, but INTO THE DARKNESS was amazing. It was the exact kind of epic storytelling I love—action, suspense, battles (both internal and external), moral conflict, and a multi-dimensional villain. (And I didn’t love it just because Benedict Cumberbatch was the villain. Though I loved him, too!)
Much of great epic storytelling is dependent on the actors being IN character, and I think Abrams brought in an amazing cast (particularly Zachary Quinto who plays Spock—I love him in everything he does.) But because the story was there, and the actors became the characters, and I went along with the ride. J
Epic storytelling isn’t just on the big screen; quieter versions exist in television. The first season of HEROES, for example, was an epic storyline that, like King’s THE STAND, brought together disparate characters in a final battle where some became heroes, and some became villains.
I also consider the recently completed first season of THE FOLLOWING starring starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy to be an epic storyline. I think it was one of the best written shows on television this year—dark, suspenseful, and very well-written. There is a happy(ish) ending to the season, but then wham! The writers give us a twist. This isn’t a series you can watch just one episode—you have to go from beginning to end. It’s an over-arcing epic story told for the small screen. It gives you the depth of character that you rarely get in two hour movies – the same depth of character I see in novels like THE STAND.
What do you think? Is there a different formula for epic storytelling in books than in the movies? Do you like all the high-level detail in fantasy novels, or prefer the movies? Did you see Star Trek? Iron Man? The Avengers? Or are these high-speed adventures not your cup of tea?