Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Narrative Theory: Perspective Flips

In fiction as well as reality, it's the perspective of the storyteller that can effect the audience's opinions and feelings. History is written by the winners, as the old cliche goes, and really it's true, even if today people's cynicism has driven them to question everything to the point where proven fact can given cause to be doubted. Examples of this can be seen in the form of those two claim that the Moon landings never happened, for example, despite there being proven that they DID happen.

And what is true for reality is true for fiction, and people's drive to look for other perspectives, for the other guy's point of view, have given arise to an entirely new genre centred around stories being told from the point of view of another character, the most famous and most mainstream of which is the 'Wizard of Oz' spin-off, 'Wicked'. There the story is turned from a standard good versus evil story to one which suggests that the powers that claimed to be good might not be as altruistic as they appeared, and the same in regards to the villain. And through the use of what Tv Tropes calls "fridge logic", this perspective flip actually makes a lot of sense. The authority figures in the 'Wizard of Oz' that are meant to aid Dorothy are, if not liars, then explicitly conmen, particularly in the case of the Wizard himself.

IF he was lying about being a Wizard, what else might be be lying about? What if the Wicked Witch of the West, whose only interests in Dorothy seem to be tied to the facts that a) Dorothy killed her sister, and b) Glinda the good fairy gave the WWW's sister's shoes to Dorothy without asking either party if that was okay first, wasn't as wicked as people let on? Within the musical of the book, which drops a lot of the content from the source material to make it more appropriate for children in the audience, the fact that people, as a whole, prefer morally unambiguous heroes and villains, which in turn is something that those in power can manipulate for propaganda purposes, is a major plot point in the show itself.

 The point of this is, what makes a good perspective flip story, and what doesn't? It could be argued that the main purpose of a perspective flip story is to create depth to otherwise kind of flat characters, to build on the established universe more, or to use the "History is written by the winners" idea to invert the story to make the villain or a different character the hero while making the hero, if not the villain, then at least the protagonist.

Besides 'Wicked' there have been several different interpretations of this idea in recent years. In terms of film, there is the 1996 film 'Mary Reilly', which takes the story of 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' and tells it from the perspective of one of Jekyll's servants, a maid. This change in the perspective shifts he entire tone of the story from horror to a tragic romance, with the titular heroine getting into a love triangle with the two personas of her employer. Does this perspective flip work? ...To an extent. Moving the narrative away from the middle class professional men who conventionally star in this story to a working class woman who works for the main character/s DOES create an interesting tonal shift, but it tries to play it both ways, with Hyde both being a monster as well as being a handsome possible romantic prospect. This results in the story lacking a sense of tonal consistency, where if they played the story more straight, with Mary observing the events of the book when the narrators aren't actually there, they could have built more upon the internal universe. As a result, it becomes part of the, now cliched, horror story turned romance genre. I couldn't help but feel that the change in the class and gender of the main character could have opened more opportunities for storytelling without falling into the Romance trap, just because the lead was a woman.

In comics, we have 'Joker' written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Lee Bermejo and released in 2008 in time for the cinematic release of 'the Dark Knight'. This story is told from the perspective of a low-tier gangster who attempts to get into the big time by lacking onto the titular supervillain when he is released from Arkham Asylum. The often graphic content of the book (the Joker skins a stripclub owner who "stole" the Joker's club from him), I think that it's actually pretty good as it acts as a good counterpoint to Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker's series 'Gotham Central'. While GC works as a police procedural series based within the DC Universe, where the cops and lawyers try to get on with their jobs despite outlandish stuff like the superheroes and villains clashing with their 'Law and Order' style series, 'Joker' instead goes for the tone of a Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorcese crime drama. It shows the nitty gritty side of working as a henchman for someone like the Joker, that there are both terrific high as well as terrifying lows to the job. Money and power come easily, but end you're just expendable when it comes time for the Batman to come back into the frame. The perspective flip works here, as it shows what the Joker is like when he's not "performing" as well as building on the universe that the stories are set in, while at the same time takes advantage of who is doing the narration to give a unique perspective to the situation. There are plenty of stories that have the narrator seeing the Joker as a mass murderer, terrorist, supervillain or monster, there aren't very many where the narrator just sees him as being just another gangster and potential meal ticket.

In terms of books that focus on flipped perspectives, there are a great many to chose from, with the aforementioned novel version of 'Wicked' being just one of them. But in this instance, I'm going to go with 1990's book by Susan Kay, 'Phantom', which acts as a biography of sorts for the 'Phantom of the Opera', going from his birth up through to the events of the actual book. The novel uses multiple perspectives within the story to make the character of Erik more sympathetic, while building upon the brief epilogue in the original novel in with the author Gaston Leroux tries to explain how Erik was able to do what he did and who he actually WAS. In a lot of ways, 'Phantom' acts in a similar manner to the film 'Casino Royale' in regards to the James Bond film franchise or 'Batman Begins' to the Batman one, where it shows him learning how to be the gifted magician, musician, architect, assassin etc. he is by the time that the time Christine finally arrives on the scene. Overall this one manages to succeed as a perspective flip novel, as it manages to build on the established universe while also fleshing out, not just the Phantom's character, but also that of Christine, the Persian, Raoul etc. etc.

All in all, I am looking forward to future ones in the future, as I personally think that there is a lot of potentially good stories to be mined from flipping stories to the point of view of another character. For example, what about a version of 'the Phantom of the Opera' told from the perspective of the character of Carlotta? An older opera singer who finds herself rapidly finding herself increasingly past her peak in terms of talent, only to jealously lash out at a pretty young singer who only exists seemingly to remind her of how far she's come. Add to that, say, Christine actually being the one pulling the Phantom's strings by manipulating the dangerous lunatic into both teaching her and dispatching of any opposition, only to dump him for the wealthier and more socially acceptable Raoul, and you have a potential alternative view of the story. This one kind of has it's roots in the Spoony One's interpretation of the 'Twilight' book franchise, which he interprets as being about a sociopathic human girl manipulating supernatural monsters for her own gratitification or amusement, regardless of the danger she's putting herself or others in.

Or, if you wanted to go from comic book terms, what about showing the negative consequences of vigilante crime fighting on the families of the criminals that are put away? For example, say there's a guy in one of the seemingly half dozen slum areas of Gotham, who loses their job and ends up having to work for one of the local crime bosses to support their family. As the guy deeper into the criminal lifestyle the amount of money that he's bringing home increases, and he and his family are suddenly middle class, have cash and the respect/fear of the neighbourhood. Everything seems to be going well, the kids are going to fancy schools, wife is able to set her own business etc. etc. But then suddenly, while he's out on a job, Batman shows up and beats the tar out of him, which starts a chain of events that results in the guy getting arrested and his family loosing everything in the resulting trial and bankruptcy hearings. When the guy eventually gets out of prison, having been cut loose by his former employer and left to take the brunt of the blame for the failed heist, the guy now has a hatred for both Batman and the other gangsters. If done right, then if the guy tries to "fix" his family's lives again by directly trying to take himself a piece of the Gotham pie, becoming the big man as opposed to just being a stooge for the likes of the Penguin, the audience has more reason to be invested in the character, and it adds depth to a character that otherwise would just be someone to occupy a few panels in a story told from Batman's point of view.

Ah, they're ideas anyway.

1 comment:

  1. I stumbled on this blog while looking for a particular Phantom of the Opera illustrated book from Korea. (odd huh?) I really enjoyed reading this - and I love the way you summarized my favorite novel of all time "Phantom." I've been a POTO fan since I was 10 yrs old and saw the musical live. When trying to explain to friends why this book is so good, I usually was dismissed and it was thought of as a 'girly' book. However, a few of my guy friends did end up reading it and were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. I wish Susan Kay wrote more than two books. She has an amazing talent.