The Distilled Adaptation

Shortening

The translation of a story from book to stage or screen always involves some degree of change.  The two arts are different; what works to communicate a story in one medium may not work in another.

A book can accommodate relatively long sequences of events, because we read a book in segments on our own schedule.  But a stage play or movie has to be geared to the limitations of the human body.  Watching a full-scale version of The Wheel of Time, say, at one sitting would require both an IV and a catheter—and a “pause” button for sleep.

Tom Bombadil (from card game)Thus, the live-action rendition of a novel generally has to leave things out, and the ability to condense the story smoothly is vital.  For example, the three-film Lord of the Rings omits the book’s entire side trip through the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-Downs.  Even with three long films, something had to be cut.  (This omission, incidentally, was a good choice and well-executed.)

The limitations of time have eased a bit with the introduction of multi-episode and bingeworthy screen formats, along with viewers’ increasing willingness to follow long-running stories (a curious counterpoint to the frequent suggestion that our attention span is eroding).  An eight-season Game of Thrones video production can cover much of what occurs in a very long book series.  But the writer or director must still gauge what can be included and what can be omitted.

Reorienting

Sometimes, when condensing a book for the theatre, the writers may take the opportunity to narrow the focus of the original story—particularly when the novel is a broad, rambling, discursive sort of tale.  In the process, they may also convey a meaning (what we might cautiously call the “moral of the story”) that’s different from that of the original.  Depending on what the rewrite chooses to emphasize, the new version may point in a different, or more definite, direction than the old.

Reorienting a tale this way can improve it—depending on what the new direction is.  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha posterWe recently looked at the staging of the 1965 play Man of La Mancha; and a couple of years back we talked about what it says to us.  When I first saw the show back in 1970, its basic theme fit right in with what had become a widespread idea back in the 1960s:  that we are too prone to think of ourselves as unworthy of love, and that becomes a self-fulfilling handicap.

To recap:  The fantasy-ridden Don Quixote finds his ideal lady Dulcinea in a barmaid and part-time prostitute named Aldonza.  Aldonza despises herself as well as the men who use her.  She is at first baffled, and then enraged, by Quixote’s persistent attempts to idolize her and praise her ladylike virtues.  She feels she has no virtues; he is refusing to see her as she really is.  (Audio / Movie video)

Against her will, under Quixote’s gentle persistent courtesy, she begins to believe she can be better than the way she’s always thought of herself.  She is promptly and brutally disillusioned when the muleteers attack her.  The play pulls no punches:  being “nice” or showing generosity is no guarantee against mistreatment.  Yet, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Quixote continues to treat her as a noble lady.

Dulcinea, at Don Quixote's deathbedAt the end of the play (7:42 in the clip), after Quixote’s death, she finally accepts that she is more than a nobody, “born on a dungheap”:  she will honor Quixote’s memory by living his impossible dream.  “My name . . . is Dulcinea.”

I'm Lovable buttonMan of La Mancha forcefully illustrates what in the ’60s became a truism.  We must see what is potentially lovable in someone before it is evident; and sometimes that premature faith and hope can help the person realize they are lovable—and free them to love.  This is more than the mere psychology of self-esteem; it’s an insight about how human beings work that is still worth recognizing.

Yet this isn’t exactly what Cervantes had in mind.  It’s been a long time since I read his immense rambling novel, but I don’t recall that this theme of convincing people they are lovable was evident there.  The novel speaks to a lot of other issues, such as the interplay of realism and idealism, but it isn’t focused on this.  Rather, the authors of the play selected and adapted material from Cervantes to address a theme characteristic of their own time.

One might complain that the modern playwrights have hijacked an existing story for a purpose the novel’s author never had in mind.  But as I see it, the concentrated, powerful Man of La Mancha is a great deal more interesting than the long and diffuse original.  The adapting writers have distilled a potent new wine from familiar grapes.

Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is also a massive novel, covering many years’ time and an array of main characters.  It’s also prone to digression, including among other side trips a chapter on the history of the Paris sewer system (part 5, Book Second, chapter II).  When I read the book, I made myself a whole list of sections that could be skipped, without loss, on a second reading.

Les Miserables (opera) logo

By Source, fair use (Wikipedia)

Obviously, this discursive work can’t be transformed directly into a play or a movie.  Nonetheless, there are quite a few film or stage versions.  The one I find most powerful is the opera Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel, with English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer (1980).  It’s a long show, just under three hours, but of course it can’t begin to reproduce the entire book.

Thus, again, the playwrights are selective.  The novel tells the story of a group of people caught up in the Paris revolt of 1832, extending backward as far as 1815 to depict the backstory of Jean Valjean, the central character.  The play starts almost as far back.  After being imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is overcome by the mercy of God when a kind bishop refuses to turn him in for a new theft, and resolves to make a better man of himself.  He adopts the orphaned girl Cosette and raises her in secret, avoiding public notice so as not to be imprisoned again.  The grown-up Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young student involved in the short-lived and futile revolt.  To save Cosette’s beloved, Valjean joins the rebels and, as the barricade falls, rescues the fallen Marius.  At the end, with Cosette and Marius married, Valjean dies at peace, received into heaven by the spirits of Fantine, Cosette’s mother, and Eponine, a reformed girl who also loved Marius and died on the barricades.

The music is extraordinarily powerful.  I’ve seen the play twice.  Each time was an intensely moving experience.  The opera was finally made into a movie in 2012, with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried.

One Day More, from Les MiserablesA political motif is essential to the story—the tragic plight of the poor of France and the injustice that drove them so often to rebellion.  And as a political drama, it’s a bitter tale.  The student activists, confident that the people of Paris will rally to their side, put themselves on the line.  And no one comes to join them.  The revolt is snuffed out at once, barely a footnote in history.  The only triumph that can be found is a visionary one in the indefinite future:

 

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?

Say, do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that they bring

When tomorrow comes!    (Finale)

 

Les Miserables - To love another person is to see the face of GodThen why is the play so uplifting?  We don’t care so much about the revolt’s failure because the characters transcend their miseries.  Cosette and Marius marry; they’ve earned their happy ending.  Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine die, but they ascend to eternal bliss.  The revolt accomplishes nothing, but the heroism and love of the principal characters makes that detail seem irrelevant.

The theme of the opera might be summarized as:  ‘Politics comes and goes, but people are forever.’  How we treat other people is vastly more important, in the long run, than the rise and fall of political regimes.  Of course, the two are not unrelated:  the purpose of a sound political regime is to make it possible for people to live good lives.  But this particular story places all its weight on the personal side.

I’m not sure that that’s what Hugo had in mind.  He might have; he certainly does emphasize the heroic compassion of Valjean and contrasts the ironies of the abortive revolution.  But it seems to me Hugo’s novel had considerably more of a political axe to grind than the opera does.  It’s a matter of degree, but I don’t know that Hugo would have sympathized entirely with the adaptation’s relative downplaying of the political.

Conclusion

In both these cases, it seems to me the adaptation has taken a particular thread from a very large original and woven it into a much more condensed, more focused story.  In doing so, the adapters have chosen to bring out themes that may be different from the bent of the original tale.

When it’s successful, such an adaptation gives us a derivative work drawing on untapped potentials in the original.  The relationship is not unlike what I’ve called the “malleability of myth.”  A root story can be reinterpreted in many ways—and some of them may be greater than the original.

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The End of Timeless

Poster for TimelessOver the holidays (Dec. 20) we saw the two-hour series finale of the time travel TV show Timeless, seasonally titled “The Miracle of Christmas.”  We were there at the beginning for this two-season series; let’s take a brief look at how it ended.

While I suspect everyone who’s followed this series will by now have seen the finale, just in case I’ll issue aSpoiler Alert!

An Appropriate Time

While we hate to see a good series go, sometimes closing down is the right thing to do.  Not every series can go on forever; we’ve all seen shows that linger on long past when they should have died.

Timeless was built around a wide-ranging conspiracy—an evil organization called “Rittenhouse.”  Such stories have a certain inherent instability.  If the secret enemy simply keeps going, with the good guys never making any progress against it, then we’re stuck with a fixed situation that lacks the tension of possible resolution or serious arc development—take The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or any similar 1960s-type spy series.  On the other hand, if the heroes do succeed in making headway against their opponents, they eventually win, and the show can find itself at a loss for what the heroes are going to do next (I’m looking at you, Chuck).  So a struggle against a secret conspiracy is a good candidate for a limited series.

In this sense, I liked the Timeless wrap-up.  The show wrapped before it could lose momentum.

The Pointless Conspiracy

This limited lifetime is particularly important here, because even the short run of the series was enough to reveal some significant weaknesses in the “Rittenhouse” idea.

Timeless character portraitsYou’ll recall that the principal characters are Lucy Preston, a history professor; Wyatt Logan, a U.S. Army Delta Force operative; and Rufus Carlin, the technical expert and pilot of the “Lifeboat” time ship used by the good guys—along with Jiya Marri, a programmer who isn’t initially part of the traveling team but grows into the role.  They skip around from time period to time period, trying to prevent two groups of opponents from changing history for the worse.

The time travelers gradually discover that a secret organization, passed down along family lines, has been dominating American history since the Founding.  A NSA renegade, Garcia Flynn, and his henchmen steal the experimental time machine in order to stop Rittenhouse by changing history.  There’s an interesting ambiguity from the beginning about who is actually the villain, since we see Flynn’s machinations before we find out about Rittenhouse.  But we’re never quite sure either what Rittenhouse is about or how Flynn expects to stop it.

The secret society is supposed to derive from an actual historical figure, David Rittenhouse (1732-1796).  Wikipedia describes him as “an American astronomer, inventor, clockmaker, mathematician, surveyor, scientific instrument craftsman, and public official . . . a member of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the United States Mint.”  This Rittenhouse seems an odd choice for a sinister mastermind.  He actually sounds more like a hero (of science) to me.  So, right from the start, we’re a little at sea as to what Rittenhouse’s motives or goals are supposed to be.

Omniscient Council of Vagueness illustration from TV TropesTV Tropes has a hilarious discussion of what it calls the “Omniscient Council of Vagueness.”  Rittenhouse is a perfect example.  We don’t know what the organization wants.  We don’t know why.  If it’s been manipulating American society or politics, we don’t know when or where.  We don’t know how it exercises its influence or what historical events can be ascribed to that influence.  We know it’s bad, because its agents are ruthless.  Maybe the goal has something to do with master-race breeding (a favorite go-to way to characterize villains since the Nazis):  in the episode where David Rittenhouse actually appears as an old man (Season 1, episode 10), he declares that Lucy is a fine healthy specimen and orders her taken to his bedroom (a procedure which is of course timely interrupted before we can overstep the bounds of network TV).  But even the idea of some eugenic program isn’t really developed.

It’s easy to postulate some vast secret organization like Marvel’s Hydra or U.N.C.L.E.’s THRUSH, and equally simple to plaster them with enough repellent traits that we’re happy to take them for granted as The Bad Guys.  But given how sophisticated Timeless was in some respects, I was sort of surprised it never went further in fleshing out this premise.

Suppressing Technology

On the other hand, Timeless gets points for recognizing that you can’t wipe out a technology forever just by destroying all the prototypes.

Science fiction has frequently dealt with the difficulty of putting the genie back in the bottle.  If a scientific principle or technology can be discovered once, then even destroying all the existing examples won’t permanently prevent it from being used.  What can be discovered can be rediscovered.  (See, for example, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 story “Solution Unsatisfactory.”)

Doc Brown's time-traveling trainSo, at the end of Back to the Future, Doc Brown soberly declares that Marty must destroy the time-traveling DeLorean once he returns to his own time, since time travel is too dangerous to be allowed.  (In an appropriately comic conclusion, Doc then promptly negates his own directive by showing up with a wonderful time-traveling steam engine.)  But even if we suppose that the secret of Marty and Doc’s adventures is kept quiet forever, somebody else is eventually going to come up with a flux capacitor (whether or not the idea is occasioned by falling off a toilet and hitting your head).

The characters recognize this issue at the end of the Timeless finale.  Rather than destroying the “Lifeboat” prototype, they decide to hang onto it, just in case.  This is not just a good way to leave a thread hanging in case anybody decides to make a sequel someday; it’s smart thinking.  And, in a clever final twist, the last scene does suggest—in the innocuous setting of a science fair—that some years later, a high-school STEM student, in a program started by Rufus and Jiya themselves, is about to stumble upon the time travel principle again.

Character Development by Substitution

The most important part of the story’s end, though, is about the characters.

Timeless action scene in hallwayI was glad to see that, after a number of twists and turns, the romances worked out satisfyingly.  Lucy and Wyatt, as we always suspected, do end up together.  So do Rufus and Jiya—but their situation is a little more complicated.  There’s more going on than meets the eye in the resolution of these relationships.

A key part of Wyatt’s motivation throughout had been his guilt and grief over the death of his wife Jessica.  When Jessica turns up alive, after a particular historical change (Season 2, episode 3), this naturally throws a wrench into the budding romance between Lucy and Wyatt.  But Jessica, it turns out, is alive because Rittenhouse (now in possession of a time machine) has changed history to save her, and in the new history has inculcated Jessica into Rittenhouse’s plans from the beginning.  This is not, in other words, the Jessica that Wyatt originally new:  this is a Rittenhouse Jessica, subverted from childhood (Season 2, episodes 7, 9).

The plot complications that ensue are one thing.  But the setup produces a rather novel view of character.  To what extent is this alternate version of Jessica the same person that Wyatt fell in love with?  And if loving someone means loving her “for who she is,” what happens when she’s now someone else?

In a case of brainwashing or mind control or the like, one can at least imagine going back to the ‘branch point’ and recurring somehow to the original state of the person.  But if (in this timeline) Jessica has always been a Rittenhouse recruit, there is no such original state to return to.  (If there had never been Back to the Future sequels, one might imagine Marty similarly having some trouble coming to terms with his new, more assertive parents.)

The same issue is played out more subtly with Rufus and Jiya.  In the last regular episode, Rufus is killed.  Since this is a time travel story, the other characters are naturally bent on changing things to prevent that from happening.  In the finale, this is achieved:  but the Rufus who’s now alive is from a timeline different from the one originally inhabited by Wyatt and Lucy.  He hasn’t had all the same experiences.

Rufus and Jiya, San FranciscoMeanwhile, Jiya has experienced a much more traumatic change.  In the last regular episode, she is stranded in 1888 Chinatown and must survive by her wits alone for three years.  The Jiya who meets the revised Rufus has gone through things Rufus has never imagined.  We see that they nonetheless stay in love; but they will have to work through some major issues together.

This identity issue is not unique to time travel.  We have a much longer history of stories about experiences that significantly change a person:  for example, a man goes off to war and comes back “a changed man.”  For example, in the movie Sommersby (1993), a Civil War veteran’s wife is not entirely sure whether the man who came back is the one who left, or a near-identical twin.

But in this normal case, continuity is still expected:  the change is from an already-known branch point.  Laurel Sommersby ultimately concludes the man before her cannot be her husband—“because I never loved him the way I love you!”  Character development happens, if not always gradually, at least in some kind of organic way.  She does not believe her husband could have become the man she now loves.

If time travel can rewrite someone’s entire history, is that still true?  We’re almost back at the nature-nurture debate:  to what extent is my character fated at birth, and to what extent created through life?  Timeless gives us subliminally convincing evidence of continuity:  a new timeline’s version of Rufus or Jiya is played by the same actor, speaks with the same voice, wears the same persona—except to the extent specifically varied for purposes of the plot.  But the story of the finale raises disconcerting issues of how much continuity is necessary to remain “the one I love.”

Stories generally involve the kind of character development that comes through the accumulation of experience.  But Timeless gives us kind of character development by substituting a new version of a person, with a new history of experience—a deft use of the “what-ifs” for which time travel tales are famous.

 

Timeless has been a cool series to follow.  I don’t know that I’d have wanted it to go on indefinitely, but it sparked some stimulating thoughts in its brief run.

Timeless finale scene with Christmas lights

Christmas Comfort Viewing

Christmas ornaments, candles, bow

    Image courtesy Pixabay

A couple of years ago, we talked about “comfort reading” at Christmastime.  “Comfort viewing” is, of course, just as vitally frivolous a concern.  What kinds of shows are good to watch at the holiday season?

Tone and Timeliness

I’m going to use the term “movies,” because most of the ones I have in mind are theatrical-length.  But the category includes TV programs as well, from “novella”-type brief movies to the half-hour (minus commercials) Christmas specials.  Most of them are available on demand or on DVD in this day and age, so the old distinction between scheduled programs and view-on-demand is less important than it used to be.

Not all Christmas movies are comfort movies.  We’ve got plenty of more or less gloomy shows about dysfunctional families or Christmas catastrophes, too—TV Tropes collects some under the heading “Twisted Christmas.”

They don’t have to be literally disastrous.  I recall seeing Home for the Holidays (1995) some years ago and being surprised how generally unpleasant the story was.  Bill Murray’s variant on A Christmas Carol, the 1988 Scrooged, is a good deal darker and more horror-like than most such Dickens adaptations.  We’ve got action movies, which by definition are not soft and fuzzy:  Die Hard (1988) leaps to mind.  (Maybe there was something in the air in 1988.)  Searching “Christmas horror movies” kicks up quite an array of bloody holiday tales, with which I am (deliberately) unfamiliar.

That’s not what I want to talk about here.  The majority of Christmas flicks tend to be comforting on the whole, even though there’s conflict; they draw on the warmth, generous feelings, and general connectedness of this holiday.  As a colleague recently put it, they’re the kind of stories that “serve as an antidote to the evening news.”

If you want an action movie set at Christmas, by all means pull up Die Hard, or its sequel Die Hard 2 (1990); I like those.  But for purposes of today’s discussion, I’m going to assume we are aiming at heartwarming.

Connie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas, coverThe following are my own recommendations, of course, not a comprehensive survey.  You can find on Wikipedia a commentary on “Christmas by medium”; a list of Christmas films; and a list of TV specials.  For a more focused and informative survey, there’s a set of excellent lists at the end of Connie Willis’ collection A Lot Like Christmas (2017).

A Quick Taxonomy

There are several ways a movie can be appropriate to the season, depending on what sort of Christmasy you’re looking for.  I tend to divide them up this way:

  • Movies about Christmas
    • Religious
    • Santa-related
  • Movies that involve Christmas but whose focus is elsewhere; for example, Christmas romances
  • Movies that happen to be set at that time of year, but in which the holiday itself plays a relatively minor part; or that have particular scenes set at Christmas

All of these can be good, healthy holiday fare.  We may want one atmosphere for Christmas Eve, for example—and a rather different mood for New Year’s Eve.

The Nativity

The Nativity Story, posterThere are probably a lot of video productions that depict the Christmas story itself—the birth of Jesus—but I’ve tended to rely on just a few.  2006’s The Nativity Story takes a straightforward approach, with empathetic characters, steering a middle path between excluding and emphasizing the miraculous—a good mix for contemporary sensibilities, to my mind.  Further back, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth contains in its early sections an appealing rendition of the Nativity chronicle.

Scene from Amahl and the Night VisitorsSlightly offstage from Bethlehem, so to speak, is an old favorite of mine, Amahl and the Night Visitors.  This brief opera was composed for television in 1951 by Gian Carlo Menotti; I have a DVD copy of the 1955 telecast in black and white.  Amahl is a young crippled boy whose wild imagination and enthusiasm soar despite the poverty in which he and his widowed mother live.  They are astonished one night to receive a visitation from three kings, following a star to find a different child.  The music is haunting and lovely; the story blends humor with deep feeling.

In the Spirit of Christmas

There’s a wider field of movies that have their roots in the original Christmas story, but capture the spirit of the feast in different ways.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is of course the most well-known example.  There are all sorts of film versions of the book, including those with Scrooges played by Reginald Owen (1938), Alastair Sim (1951), George C. Scott (1984), Captain Picard Patrick Stewart (1999), and Kelsey Grammer (2004, a musical).

Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol posterA favorite Christmas game is to re-do the story by casting favorite character ensembles, such as Mickey Mouse and friends or the Muppets, to play Dickens’ parts.  Or one can transpose the story into the modern day—I mentioned Scrooged above.  I must admit that, for me, the Carol that will always be the canonical screen version of the tale—chalk it up to ‘imprinting’ as a child—is the one featuring 1960s cartoon character Mr. MagooMister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) has the distinction of being the first animated TV Christmas special.  It’s a surprisingly faithful rendition of the original story, using a lot of Dickens’ original language and managing to convey considerable seriousness, as well as comedy, with extremely minimal artwork.  The songs, by noted Broadway composer Jule Styne, are also remarkably effective.  Or so it seems to me—there’s bound to be a sizable nostalgia factor in my evaluation.

George Bailey, Mary, and Zuzu with tree, It's A Wonderful LifeAnother cluster of films springs from It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), which takes place at Christmastime and may constitute the very definition of “heartwarming” in America.  This story, too, has been adapted into innumerable variations in TV movies and series.  I like Wonderful Life, though I prefer to keep it to once every two or three years for fear it’ll become cloying.  And for some reason I think of it as a good show for New Year’s Day (still within the “octave” of Christmas).  Among the spinoffs, one of our family favorites (for grown-ups) is The Family Man (2000) with Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni, a kind of reverse-Wonderful Life in which the main character is given a glimpse of how his life would have been better if he had made a different decision years ago—as a spur to making a new decision now.

Sometimes a spirit-of-Christmas movie may involve some kind of Christmas miracle—for example, Miracle on 34th Street (1947, remade in color in 1994).  Sometimes it simply involves a Christmas celebration:  A Muppet Family Christmas (1987) gains some of its abundant cheer from wacky Muppet-ish comedy, but more from being a kind of family reunion, including not only the familiar Muppet Show cast but also characters from Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies.  I’d put the venerable Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and the original TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) in the same class.

An honorable mention in this category goes to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which is so brilliantly awful that Lucasfilms (so I hear) has never allowed it to be commercially released as a recording; it’s only available in bootleg versions.  I’m not telling who gave me my copy.  It’s fun to see the familiar characters hamming it up in the context of a Wookiee celebration of “Life Day,” but beyond that, I wouldn’t advocate it for either sentiment or space opera.

Jewel in The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)I’m particularly attached to The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), a 46-minute frame story for a series of songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra featuring Jewel.  The story, about a runaway girl who takes refuge in an abandoned theatre on Christmas Eve, is sufficiently sentimental to qualify; and if you are at all fond of TSO, you’ll love the music.  In particular, this is the show that includes “Promises to Keep,” which I tapped a couple of years ago for the Quote of the Week page.

The Santa Mythology

Many Christmas-specific shows, on the other hand, focus instead on our good friend Santa Claus.

This isn’t a bad thing per se.  There is, after all, still a connection:  St. Nick was, in fact, a saint.  But the system of amiable legends that’s gathered around Father Christmas provides ample fodder for drama (and comedy) without explicitly going back to those roots.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer posterThere’s a class of TV specials that have, for us older kids, the pleasure of nostalgia, and also (as far as I can tell) still appeal to more recent generations.  The archetype may be Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), the first of the Rankin-Bass animated holiday productions.  The Abominable Snow-Monster, the Island of Misfit Toys, and Hermey the elven-dentist have become familiar icons of of pop culture.  I also have some fondness for Frosty the Snowman (1969).  Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), a favorite in other branches of our family, gives us a novel sort of origin for Mr. Claus.  Full-scale live-action movies have also drawn on the Santa mythology.  I found Will Farrell surprisingly tolerable (playing off Zooey Deschanel’s sardonic romantic interest) in Elf (2003).  As I recall, Arthur Christmas (2011) wasn’t too bad either—though now that I look back at it, that one was CGI, not really live-action.

From there, we slide down a formulaic curve into routine holiday episodes of all sorts of TV series.  I’ll take Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas (1992) as a sample (my kids used to watch the rather amusing Inspector Gadget).  As a useful litmus test, any show that invokes “saving Christmas” is generally at the bottom of the barrel:  “saving Christmas” may be glossed as “ensuring that toys get delivered,” and signals that the primary concern has moved from anything important to mere presents under the tree.  Such episodes may be mildly entertaining, but won’t be comforting.  It’s hard to be heartwarming when the crucial issue in a story is just to make sure that nothing interferes with the distribution of toys.  Note that The Grinch was specifically designed to make the contrary point:  Christmas comes for the Whos of Whoville without any presents at all.

Rise of the Guardians posterOn the other hand, the Santa mythology can develop into something of real depth, depending how the author takes off with it (so to speak).  Our counter-example is Rise of the Guardians (2012, based on a series of books by William Joyce).  This tale actually manages to meld epic fantasy with a pop-culture undercarriage, as various eccentric holiday icons including the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, along with “Nicholas St. North,” collectively the “Guardians of Childhood,” battle the ‘Dark Lord’ Pitch.  The story has a genuine point, too:  the glad surprise of good gifts coming out of nowhere is presented as crucial to the innocent acceptance of childhood.  What’s at stake is the disillusionment of children, not just their asset inventory.

Guardians also features a genuinely Badass Santa (“Action Santa” division)—a Santa who’s not just jolly but rather formidable, like the Father Christmas who appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  To combine high merriment with forceful purpose can make for an intriguing contrast.  (While researching this point, I was charmed to discover that in DC Comics mythology, Santa visits Apokolips to give Darkseid a lump of coal each year.  Here’s the actual graphic-novel scene.  Now that’s badass.)

Tangentially Christmas-Related

In the next ‘ring’ away from the center, we have movies that involve Christmas tangentially, but not as the main theme.  The holiday season casts a fireside glow, as it were, that invites other genial stories to blossom in its presence.  Romances, in particular, bloom here:  there’s nothing quite so sweet as a Christmastime romance.

White Christmas movie posterThis category may overlap with some of the spinoff movies above.  An iconic example is White Christmas (1954), which is good fun with an actual good deed (helping out one’s former commanding officer in the postwar era), as well as two romances, at its heart.  (If you want a sort of earlier prototype, with less plot but more holidays, you can alternate it with Holiday Inn (1942), where the song “White Christmas” actually originated.)

There are lots of more modern examples, which vary in the degree of the story’s connectedness with the holiday.  My favorites include While You Were Sleeping (1995), which I find endearing although for some reason it was never a great favorite with the rest of my family; Love Actually (2003)—any movie that plays “God Only Knows” over the final scene gets extra points in my book; The Holiday (2006), a kindly romantic comedy about two women who switch homes for the season and find love; Serendipity (2001), a far-fetched but enjoyable rom-com with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale; The Sure Thing (1985), starring a much younger Cusack for the college-age set.  Christmas in Connecticut (1945) exemplifies the same sort of approach in a previous generation.

Further afield, we have a range of movies one can arguably justify as Christmas material for one reason or another.  Steven Spielberg’s 1991 Hook, an intriguing sequel to the Peter Pan story, is set at Christmastime.  About a Boy (2002), which seems intended to demonstrate that Hugh Grant cannot play an unlikable character, no matter how dubious that character may be, involves a Christmas setting.  The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a tale with which I feel a certain kinship for other reasons, has its climax on Christmas Eve.  Father Christmas makes a cameo appearance in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), as noted for the novel above.  Even Little Women, in its various film iterations, features Christmas scenes.

Hallmark Christmas Romances

The Hallmark Channel has created an entire cottage industry of Christmas romances in its annual “Countdown to Christmas” seasonal blitz.  It appears that Netflix, as with romantic comedies generally, has now decided to join the action, with a very similar look-and-feel (The Holiday Calendar, 2018); and the Lifetime channel has also entered the competition (Christmas Around the Corner, 2018).

If you don’t watch out, you can spend the entire season swimming in an ocean of these holiday love stories; if I’m counting this correctly, Hallmark alone produced 22 new shows this year, not counting those returning from previous years.  It’s hard to choose which ones to check out; they all sound much the same in the blurbs.  They don’t tend to be terrifically great or abysmally bad; to my mind, they tend to fall either just above or just below my usual cutoff criterion (namely, would I seek it out to watch again?).

Obviously, there’s a lot of repetition, but as usual, “Tropes Are Tools”:  it’s not whether you’re drawing on a well-established pattern, it’s how well you use it.  The standouts (those that land above the line) tend to have a little something more going for them:  perhaps especially engaging actors/characters, a little more plot complexity or depth, wittier dialogue, or the like.

Angels and Ornaments posterA couple of examples will serve to illustrate.  Angels and Ornaments (2014) features a particularly winsome heroine, and, in defiance of the traditional meet-cute, she and her opposite number have known each other all their lives.  They have to come to the realization that they’re meant for each other, a subtler and more interesting process than love at first sight.  To facilitate this process, we have a matchmaker angel, who, in the tradition of It’s A Wonderful Life, is not an angel strictly speaking but a dead human being—who has his own story and character arc.  His encouragement of the main characters’ romance is sometimes silly but reasonably believable; he gives them some sound advice.  The story also involves writing a song—not a tremendous song, but likable enough (as it recalls the movie) that I downloaded it for my audio playlists.  (You’ll note that I give extra points for music; you may or may not have the same reaction.)

A Christmas Detour (2015) gives us an engaging pair, apparently mismatched from the start.  They end up on a road trip together, along with a married second couple, when a snowstorm closes down an airport.  The main characters, Paige and Dylan, develop a relationship along the classic friction-then-affection lines (what TV Tropes dubs “Belligerent Sexual Tension”), and that development works pretty well.  Closure comes when the heroine finally arrives to meet her boring, snobbish fiancé’s equally off-putting parents, and finds (of course) that Dylan is who she really wants.  Meanwhile, the secondary romance—a long-married middle-aged couple that start out constantly sniping at each other (‘Like An Old Married Couple’), but become reconciled with each other via the Christmas spirit and the inspiration of watching the main characters fall in love—adds interest.

Sturgeon’s Law applies, as always—but some of the Hallmark ventures do make good, meat-and-potatoes holiday fare.

Conclusion

There are those who object to the “secularized” versions of Christmas that inspire many of the movies above.  But I see it the other way around:  Christmas is so powerful an idea that it casts a sort of penumbra on everything that comes close to it.  The stories that are not explicitly religious aren’t a distraction from the “true meaning of Christmas.”  Rather, they reflect the feast’s tendency, like a benign infection, to seep into and ennoble everything related to it.  (I wrote a song, about twenty-five years ago, to make just this point.)  The luster of Christmas gives an extra warmth, a heightened sweetness, to romance and toy-giving and every other good thing.  And who couldn’t use a little added warmth at this chilly time of year?

A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

The Simple Stage

The Crucible

I don’t see a lot of stage plays.  Generally I wait for the movie version to come out.  (Which took quite a while in the case of Les Miserables—though in that case I actually did see the play twice on stage.)

Cruscible-side-shot-1Recently, however, I had occasion to see a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), by the Lumina Theatre Company:  my son was in the cast.  (Portraying one of the villains; and he did it very well!)  The Crucible is one of those plays that many people have been exposed to, often as a high-school reading assignment.  But I had managed to miss either seeing or reading the play, up to now.  It was a powerful experience:  a moving story, well performed by Lumina.

As is well known, The Crucible is set in the period of the Salem witch trials in 1692-93.  It’s also an allegory for the McCarthy hearings on Communism (1953-54) during the “Red Scare.”  I don’t know whether the term “witch hunt” for such persecution-by-investigation originated with Miller’s play; the phrase has certainly seen a lot of mileage since.

At the moment, however, I’m not interested in the politics or the story, but in an aspect of the staging that caught my attention, and reminded me of a couple of dramaturgically similar cases I’ve seen before.

The Austere Stage

Scene from The CrucibleI’m even less of an expert on the stage than I am on movies; but even I, as a layman, was struck by the simplicity of the stage setting.  There was no backdrop; walls and ceiling were black.  A series of tall panels vaguely suggesting a forest marked the left and right sides of the stage.  The performance depended on adroit use of a few simple props—a bed, a table, some cooking utensils—to indicate whether we were seeing a bedroom, a kitchen, or the anteroom of a court.

Black Box Theatre, Howard County,MD

Howard County Arts Council’s Black Box Theater

Apparently this is a “thing.”  As people with a wider background in theatre probably know, there’s a style called the “Black Box Theater” (which was literally the name of the particular theatre where this performance occurred).  Wikipedia says:  “A black box theater (or experimental theater) consists of a simple, somewhat unadorned performance space, usually a large square room with black walls and a flat floor, which can be used flexibly to create a stage” (emphasis and link omitted).

 

It seemed to me that in The Crucible this stark environment served well to focus our attention on the characters and their interactions, rather than on the surroundings.  Actors wore period clothing, but otherwise there was no strong sense of historical setting.  That seems especially appropriate in a case where the author intends us to see not only the events happening in a particular time and place, but also their analogue in 1950s American politics, or other situations.

That reflection reminded me of a couple of other times when I’ve seen a show that worked better on a relatively bare stage than in a movie.  As a rule, the movie version of a show like Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music has the advantage of being able to present the setting with greater realism and vividness:  we can actually see the Midwestern plains or the Austrian mountains.  And today’s CGI technology can set before us almost any imaginable background.  But sometimes we don’t want to emphasize the particular setting.

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha original playbillMan of La Mancha (1965), with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh, is derived from Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote.  The play is not intended as a complete adaptation of the novel; one might, in fact, argue that the authors make use of selected parts of the novel to build a story whose effect is quite different from what Cervantes intended (something I want to address at a later date).  It was the Wasserman-Darion-Leigh musical that strongly influenced me, starting in high school.

The musical begins with a frame story:  Cervantes himself is in prison, waiting to be examined by the Inquisition.  To pacify and intrigue the other prisoners, he draws them into an impromptu enactment of scenes from the novel (Don Quixote) he is writing.  The story-within-a-story focuses on Quixote’s absurd, yet ennobling, idealism in conflict with the brutal realism of everyone else except his loyal servant Sancho Panza; and on how Quixote’s eccentric view of the world influences a young woman at an inn, a prostitute named Aldonza, whom he insists on seeing as the noble lady Dulcinea.  As the inner story concludes, back in the dungeon Cervantes is called up to face the Inquisition.  He now ascends to meet his fate with courage as the rest of the cast reprises “The Impossible Dream.”

Man of La Mancha program (Shady Grove Music Fair, MD, 1970)I’ve seen Man of La Mancha on stage twice, once in 1970 with Howard Keel, and again with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2015.  The 1970 production took place in a theatre-in-the-round, which eliminated the use of any backdrops at all; though, as I recall, there was a long, impressive stairway that could be lowered from the ceiling to illustrate the opening and closing of the dungeon.  This comports with Wikipedia’s description of the original production:

The musical was performed on a single set that suggested a dungeon. All changes in location were created by alterations in the lighting, by the use of props supposedly lying around the floor of the dungeon, and by reliance on the audience’s imagination.

Scene from Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre Company:  note largely black backdrop

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production was not theatre-in-the-round, but used a similarly spare set, with a catwalk above and again, a stairway that could be raised and lowered.  Both the 1970 and the 2015 iterations were excellent and moving presentations of the stage play.

The movie version of the musical (1972) was disappointing.  It didn’t help that the producers cast Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren in the leading roles, since neither of them could really sing—although visually Loren was a perfect Aldonza.  But even aside from the musical issues, the screen adaptation, depicting a green countryside (with windmills) and the inn where Aldonza works, seemed distinctly less effective than the stage version.

Man of La Mancha, movie sceneWhy?  Eventually I concluded that the whole point of the show—competing and radically different visions of the world—was undermined by the fact that the movie used real landscapes.  Viewing the story, one has to keep in constant tension the world as Quixote sees it (giant, castle, lady, varlets) and the world as everyone else sees it (windmill, inn, sullen and degraded woman, rough and violent muleteers).  In addition, with the frame story, it’s also necessary to keep in mind that this is theoretically being acted out by prisoners of the Inquisition in a dungeon.

So in this story, we have to keep three levels of realities before us at once.  But with the movie, the director had to commit to one or the other vision:  either film an inn and leave the castle imaginary (and the dungeon tacit), or vice versa.  Unless the movie simply filmed a production of the play—a compromise which rarely satisfies anyone.  In this particular case, the greater realism of the movie version actually blunted the effect of the story.

Godspell

Godspell play posterThe 1960s-1970s were the era of what one might call big-concept musicals—at the opposite end of the spectrum from the wholly frivolous musical comedies of the 1930s-1940s.  Like the folk Mass of the same period, Godspell (1971) sought to convey a fresh view of Christianity by putting it in the form of popular music and styles.

The play describes itself as “A musical based upon the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” though it doesn’t actually confine itself to that Gospel.  It’s structured as a series of musical numbers with skits illustrating classic parables, bookended by stylized, minimalist episodes representing the initial calling of disciples and the Passion.  The characters, except for Jesus and perhaps John and Judas, are non-Biblical, and the entire cast is dressed in colorful informal clothes reminiscent of the “hippies” of that period.

Godspell cast on stage

Godspell cast on stage: note black background

I saw the play at least once or twice back in the 1970s, though I don’t recall the particular venues.  Like Man of La Mancha, it was presented with a minimum of props and without backdrops.  The focus was on the music and the actions of the characters.  It wasn’t individual personalities or character development one focused on; the characters themselves are somewhat arbitrary, without history or backstory.  Rather, it appears they were deliberately designed to represent a group of Everypeople.

The modern style of the music, together with the lack of time and place cues (as in The Crucible) and the randomness of the costuming, serve to lift the play out of its historical place in first-century culture.  That abstraction made it more accessible to contemporary young people.  (Whether it still has that effect now, fifty years later, I can’t say.)  Rather than being distracted by the antique ambiance of robes and horses and Roman soldiers, the audience could perceive the Gospel stories in a new light.

Godspell movie cast, New York CityAs with Man of La Mancha, the popular stage play was promptly followed up by a movie version (1973).  The producers and director chose to set the movie’s activities in New York City.  The characters’ antics are seen against the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, the top of a World Trade Center tower, and other well-known New York locales.  Wikipedia observes:  “While the play requires very little stage dressing, the film places emphasis on dramatic location shots in Manhattan.”

In this case, the musical aspect of the movie was fine.  At least one critic considered the movie soundtrack better than the original stage cast album.  Yet, again, it seemed to me that overall the movie was not quite as effective as the stage play.  The realistic modern setting did not improve upon the minimalist furnishing of the stage play.  I concluded that, if the goal is to abstract the essence of the Gospels as universally applicable, regardless of time or place, the movie setting isn’t an advantage:  it lifts the action out of first-century Palestine, but ties it back down to contemporary New York.  The very spare, austere stage set helps the viewer make that abstraction.

Conclusion

I’m a great fan of CGI, and look forward to seeing a full-fledged dramatic presentation using virtual reality (VR).  Modern technology allows us to present almost any science fiction or fantasy setting—things we never see in real life—realistically enough for us to suspend disbelief.  But when we don’t want realism, simplicity may be a better approach.  Even in our high-tech age, the plain theatrical stage has its uses.

What You Learn as a Dungeon Master

How I Got Into This

I jumped in fairly early on the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) bandwagon.  TSR published the original D&D rules in 1974; I persuaded my brother-in-law to run an initial game for my friends and me, as I recall, sometime around 1977.  Playing was fun, but what really attracted me was running a game.  It’s the worldbuilding, of course.

I started my own campaign on June 22, 1979.  Ultimately it ran for about 28 years realtime, fifteen years internal (game) time, and two generations (I ended up continuing the game for my kids and their friends).  The last recorded adventures occurred in 2008.  That’s beginning to seem like a long time ago . . .

Being the “Dungeon Master” (“DM”) or Game Master was great fun—but a heck of a lot of work.  Eventually I gave it up in favor of writing, which scratches somewhat the same storytelling itch.  But running a game also teaches some memorable lessons.

Before we take a look at what one learns as a DM, I’m going to provide a very quick overview of how D&D works, in case anybody out there isn’t familiar.  Those of you who already know can join us again at the next subheading below.

How D&D Works

Many different diceD&D is the best-known example of a “tabletop RPG,” or role-playing game.  Unlike an online RPG, it’s played by a bunch of people sitting around a table.  All you really need to play is pencil and paper, and some odd-looking dice.  (In fact, when my son and his buddies suddenly demanded I show them how to play D&D while on a Scout camping trip, I did without the dice; borrowed a couple of coins from someone to toss for randomizing.)  Typically, though, players will use other aids, such as miniature figures and a whiteboard or similar surface to make it easier to visualize what’s going on in a battle.  And rulebooks—did I mention rulebooks?  More on that below . . .

In chess and many other games, each of us is playing an army, more or less.  In Risk, each player embodies a whole country.  In Monopoly, we might consider each player an individual (that little stout guy with the top hat?), but it might as well be a corporation; the arbitrary placemarkers, the shoe and iron and racecar and such, don’t have personalities.  But in a RPG, each player plays a person, and the individual characteristics and personality of that person make the game what it is.  We’re playing a role, as the name tells us.

Kids playing D&D in the movie E.T.Each character in an RPG has a set of characteristics:  numerical scores for strength, endurance, dexterity, charisma, and so on.  (Remember in E.T. how the D&D-playing kids insult each other by saying things like “Zero Charisma”?)  Same with the monsters and other entities, and the people the players meet on their adventures—“non-player characters” or NPCs.  A complex set of rules govern how these factors interact:  if my character swings a sword at the dragon, what are my chances of doing any damage, and how much?

Yet, unlike chess or Go, D&D is free-form.  Any player can try any feat they can think up—and the DM has to figure out how to deal with it.  “I grab the rope and swing across like Tarzan, slashing at the dragon as I pass over it,” one player might say.  It’s up to the DM to decide what chance the character has of succeeding—which is why the DM is sometimes referred to as the “referee.”  If the innumerable rulebooks don’t cover that specific situation, the DM has to come up with something.  (For example, in my long-running game or “campaign,” I eventually had to invent a table to determine the chances of getting pregnant . . . But that’s another story.)

In other words, each player plays an individual character, but the DM “plays” the entire rest of the world.  The DM decides where the players start out (“You meet at an inn”), who they meet, how the innkeeper or the martial-arts trainer or the ogre down the street behaves, what the climate’s like, the politics and social structures—everything.  You can borrow some of this from a pre-designed game module, which Wizards of the Coast (today’s successor to TSR) will happily sell you.  But in the end, the DM provides the entire world in which the players carry out their exploits.

Note that the DM isn’t playing against the characters.  I’m not competing with the players for game goals.  Rather, my job as a DM is simply to create a background and a storyline in which the players can have fun, deciding for themselves what to do.  It’s a novel perspective.

D&D is a fantasy-based RPG, in which players take on the roles of warriors, wizards, healers, rogues, and the like.  There are RPGs of all kinds, from science fiction variants to those set in the present day; even, heaven forfend, Cthulhu Mythos RPGs (to hark back to the last post).  A group of players may take their characters through one adventure after another, improving their skills and “leveling up,” accumulating loot and buying better equipment—or dying and losing it all.  In which case, unlike real life, you simply “roll up” another character (randomly generating ability scores) and start over.  Games can be as varied as the DM’s imagination allows—and that’s where the DM’s personality and expertise come in.

What a Player Learns

We can start with what the D&D player, as well as the DM, learns from the game.  If you think of this as an educational exercise for kids (and why not?), one thing they’ll pick up is a general sense of probabilities.  For example, a twelve-sided die (“d12”) goes up to a maximum score of 12, just like two conventional six-sided dice (“2d6”).  But if you’re rolling a d12, you have an equal chance of getting any of the possible numbers (including 1), whereas with 2d6 you have a greater chance of rolling a 7 than of getting a 2 or a 12.  Look!  We’re teaching them math.  No, really, honest . . .

Wizard casting fireballIf the DM is any good, the player will also pick up some basic physics.  When a wizard casts a fireball spell, for instance, the rulebook specifies how much volume the resulting fireball takes up.  I suspect every player group eventually goes through that painful learning experience where their wizard confidently hurls a fireball in some confined dungeon chamber or hallway . . . only to find that as it expands in the limited space, the fireball bounces back and barbecues the wizard and his allies as well as the hapless orcs.  After that, they’re more careful.

Which brings up the question of how to keep things realistic, which is mostly the DM’s responsibility.  Of course, the game isn’t going to be realistic, strictly speaking.  I’ve not encountered many dragons or orcs strolling down the street in real life.  But like any story, a D&D environment needs enough coherence to achieve that “willing suspension of disbelief” that makes the experience enjoyable.

Worldbuilding

When I created my D&D world or milieu, the Relitaria, I had to decide whether to change the laws of physics.  (It’s a fantasy; you can do that.)  Maybe it would be fun to have breathable air extending all the way out to the planets, so you actually could fly to the Moon on a giant moth.  But I decided it would be way too hard to figure out what would happen in a complex situation if I started making up an entirely new physics.  If my players decided to light a fire and make a hot-air balloon, I’d have to stop and try to figure out how lighter-than-air craft worked under my ersatz laws of nature.  The real world enforces consistency; my fictional universe would have no such guarantee.  So one thing I realized is—it’s easier to stick with the laws of the real world, with minor adjustments.

Maintaining that kind of internal consistency pays off, in the end.  At one point I took my players off on an interplanetary adventure (in a scientifically plausible universe!) that I thought might awaken interest in a science fiction RPG.  But while my players did okay, they didn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with the offbeat offworld adventure.  I finally concluded that I’d built my fantasy world so consistently that throwing in an entirely different kind of setting undermined their suspension of disbelief.  Of course, I’m only speculating; but I chose to take that reaction as a compliment, in a backhanded sort of way, to the coherence of the Relitarian setting.

Make Your Own Kind of Rules

Gettysburg board game, box coverOn the other hand, one thing that quickly becomes apparent in running a D&D game is the trade-off between realism and playability.  I’d seen this before in the Avalon Hill-type simulation wargames.  As my buddies and I moved from Gettysburg (1958) to D-Day (1961) and onward, the rules and initial setup became so complex that it would take all day just to read through the rules and set up your pieces, without even starting play.  That might result in a very good simulation, but not an especially enjoyable afternoon.

In a similar way, if we focus too sharply on realism in D&D, we can bog down into spending all our time looking up rules and telling the players what they’re allowed to do, which isn’t fun for anybody.  A good DM gets a feel for when to stick closely to the rules, when to ignore them, and when to improvise a little.  This experience comes in handy when, for example, you’re raising children.

When we’re inside the rules, as it were, making and remaking them, we also begin to develop a sense of why rules are made and what kinds of rules are best.  We recognize more clearly that rules are there for a purpose, and it’s by that purpose that they must be judged.  If a rule is making the game less rather than more fun for the players, maybe it’s time to jettison that rule—and the impartial DM is free to do so.  The same principle may apply with respect to those mutual and enforceable rules that we call law.  If a law is doing more harm than good, it may be better to change the law; although changing laws requires a more careful and balanced set of procedures than those of the lone autocratic DM.

Storytelling With Real Characters

We can put on a rudimentary D&D campaign by just imagining some kind of ruins—the stereotypical “dungeon”—full of randomly assorted monsters and treasure, and setting the players loose to investigate.  But a really interesting campaign, one that keeps the players genuinely engaged over time, requires more than that.  We want ongoing dangers and plotlines, recurring characters who are interesting in themselves, scenes of wonder, scenes of horror, comic relief.  We want, in other words, the same things that draw us into any fantasy story.  Because the DM is not just defining a stage setting, but developing a story in which the players will want to participate.  So DMing engages the storytelling function too.

But not in the usual way.  We hear authors bemoan how their characters won’t cooperate and stubbornly go off in their own directions, much to the author’s dismay.  (And I want to take a closer look at that metaphor, one of these days.)  But in a tabletop RPG with real live players, the characters really are self-willed and prone to go off in directions the DM never expected.  One mark of a really good DM, then, is to be able to roll with the punches and adapt smoothly to whatever may happen.

In one adventure, I had arranged for the bad guys to frame the player-characters for a dreadful murder and then escape into the distance, full of fiendish glee.  That was fine; but a couple of my players were unexpectedly determined to give chase, and they kept it up much longer than I’d expected.  In fact, they ran right off the edge of the detailed map I had created for the session.  Now what?

Map with compass and coinsFortunately, I had long ago laid out the large-scale map into which the detailed map was fitted; so I had at least some idea of the kind of country they were heading into.  Within that known context, I could invent on the spot the particular scenery or towns along the road—quickly scribbling them down so I could go back later and fill those details in on the map, so that next time the players passed that way, they’d see the same locales as before.  (Consistency, remember.)  Eventually I got them to give up on the chase, and we could get back to the further events I had planned out . . . more or less.

The dramatic appeal of the story is also subject to the group’s whims.  At one point, my dauntless players, carrying a MacGuffin and hotly pursued by enemies, made it to the cavern of an elderly wizard with whom they were acquainted.  My idea was for the wizard to point them to a rear exit, and insist on staying behind to engage the baddies, perishing nobly in a dramatic rearguard action.  What happened when the wizard outlined this self-sacrificing plan?  Our cantankerous player-character warrior socked the wizard, threw him over his shoulder, and carried him out with the players as they escaped—ditching my tear-jerker moment altogether.  It was perfectly in character for this warrior; all I could do was grin and abandon my original plan, devoting myself instead to finding a way to make sure the players made good their escape despite the lack of a delaying rearguard.  Sometimes a poignant scene turns into a pratfall, and we have to roll with it.

Well-Planned Improvisation

These incidents exemplify the need for a combination of careful pre-planning and the ability to improvise at will.  It was because I had the large-scale map already drawn that I was able smoothly to interpolate the necessary details.

Oral argument in courtroomThis is true in all kinds of other areas.  The same combination of skills comes in handy in a negotiation, where we need to be familiar enough with the issues and possibilities so that we can respond promptly to unexpected counter-arguments or novel suggestions.  It’s the same reason that a lawyer prepares in excruciating detail for an oral argument before an appellate court, even though the judges are likely to start asking their own questions as soon as the lawyer starts talking and take the conversation off in a direction she couldn’t anticipate.  If we know the terrain, that gives us the best chance of being able to maneuver through it when the unexpected occurs.

This balance of traits is not unlike the metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog, as developed by John Lewis Gaddis in his recent book On Grand Strategy (2018).  The successful leader, Gaddis suggests, is the one who can be attentive simultaneously to the overall objective of a campaign, and to the practical details that must be managed to attain that objective.  This seems to be true in many more areas of life than just military or political leadership.

So I’ve learned a surprising amount about leadership, and coping with life in general, from running a D&D campaign.  There’s nothing we can’t learn from, and often put to use in surprisingly practical ways—no matter how fantastic the source may be.