What makes a story something you want to experience over and over, something you think about or re-experience until you’ve internalized it? This is one of the things that I find myself pondering as I read more books, watch more movies, and attempt to craft lasting stories of my own. I don’t think there is any easy or straightforward answer to apply in all cases, but recently I discovered at least one aspect that makes a difference thanks to the juxtaposition of two movies I watched and enjoyed last year: Avatar and How To Train Your Dragon.
I ended up acquiring both when I received a Blu-ray player this Christmas, but no Blu-ray movies. Both were movies that I had seen in theaters and enjoyed enough to see again, and both were ones that I was holding off purchasing on iTunes or elsewhere because I wanted them in HD.
A couple days ago, the discs happened to arrive while a friend was over, and when I popped them out of the box he commented that he enjoyed seeing Avatar in 3D, but thanks to its utter lack of substance didn’t see much use in owning it. We joked about some of its more laughable moments, and I laid it aside. He then revealed that he had never seen How To Train Your Dragon, and never felt the need.
This would not do. I originally thought How To Train Your Dragon looked stupid (the awkward title and a lackluster preview being the main deterrents for me), but when I went to see it on a whim at the local theater I discovered a contender for the best animated film I saw in 2010. Since the options for my friend were to go get stuck in rush hour traffic or kill a bit of time, we ended up watching it on my assurances that he would not regret it.
At the end of the movie, he said it was very enjoyable, but that it was basically the same movie as Avatar. I misunderstood, and after joking about the flight sequence similarities we dropped the subject.
I have been thinking about that off-handed comment, though, and he’s right. How To Train Your Dragon and Avatar are essentially the same movie:
- Both center on a main character whose physical differences result in his ostracism and inability to gain acceptance to society
- In both the main character discovers a connection with the natural world that he did not expect, and that is in fact completely at odds with his society’s way of life
- In both the main character pursues his connection with the natural world, inevitably leading to conflict with his society and the world he has grown to love
- Both offer sideline romantic interests that initially despise the main character, but grow to respect his intelligence/capability and eventually ally with him
- Both movies culminate in the main character using his connection with the natural world to overcome a greater threat
The main differences are in the details.
Yet although I bought them both at the same time, I do not hold both movies in equal regard. For me, Avatar is candy. It is bright and enjoyable, yet ultimately lacks depth. I will consume it form time to time, but I don’t love it. It’s just something to eat when you feel like dessert.
How To Train Your Dragon, on the other hand, is berry pie. Like Avatar, it is not particularly subtle, yet offers more substance and complexity; the root ingredient is good for you, even if it has been sweetened up to appeal to a larger audience. I will not only consume it multiple times, I will eagerly look forward to eating it and share it with my friends.
The difference between the two that redeems How To Train Your Dragon’s sillier and more stereotypical moments while leaving Avatar in the “beautiful, yet ultimately falling short” category is that How To Train Your Dragon is based around a simple insight:
“I wouldn’t kill him … I looked at him, and I saw myself.”
This is not a normal offering for an American movie. Avatar hammers home tired messages about the importance of the environment and evils of the military complex, while still ultimately relying on violence based in white/Western supremacy as the one true method for resolving problems; much more standard fare for American cinema. It additionally focuses solely on a setting that is completely inapplicable to its viewers; however much Jake may like to emote about how we’ve “killed our mother”, our planet is not a giant brain. Avatar’s pretense at a liberal, eco-friendly standpoint is little more than that: a pretense. The movie’s true message is more along the lines of “the military industrial complex can only be countered with violence”, a message that eco-terrorists will likely find liberating but that should be deeply troubling to anyone who really cares about these issues.
Of course, at first pale How To Train Your Dragon is not personally applicable, either. Not many of us are locked into a bitter struggle for existence with mythical creatures. Yet within its fantastical setting, How To Train Your Dragon offers a way for individuals to change despite facing what seem to be diametrically opposed ways of life.
And that personally applicable insight is what makes How To Train Your Dragon an excellent story while Avatar remains merely enjoyable, despite the two telling the same story different ways. Personal epiphanies on the part of the main character are not required; what makes the story more powerful and lasting in How To Train Your Dragon is that the story is based on an insight that can offer change not only to the characters, but also those experiencing the story from the outside.
One of the greatest challenges I have been facing since I started trying to revise my NaNoWriMo entry penned more than a year ago is trying to figure out what makes the story matter. “Why does this story need to be told?” I asked myself. “What about this story will make people want to read it again and again?” I could not find an answer.
Thanks to Avatar and How To Train Your Dragon, I recently tried asking a different question: “What causes the main character to change that applies to me as well?” And there I very quickly discovered an answer, one that offers a way to tell the same story but shift the focus slightly to make the core conflict for the main character applicable to my own life. Suddenly the story became more interesting, and my revisions jumped from simple grammar and sentence structure changes to changes that affect the story as a whole.
There are many ways to think about a given narrative, of course, but at least one rubric for story quality for me is now the question: does the core conflict, and the ways the characters have to change to overcome that conflict, apply to me or offer insight for change in my own life?
I can only hope that I am not so much of an outlier on the bell curve of society that what I find personally applicable will also appeal to others, but I suppose that is the nature of a story: you tell it, and how people react to it tells you something about how they think differently than you.