Offshoots

In the last ten days I’ve seen two new movies spun off from existing fictional universes, but not part of the main story line.  Their success bodes well for the willingness of audiences to welcome independent stories in a common setting—offshoots from the main trunk, you might say.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts posterI found “Fantastic Beasts” unexpectedly enjoyable and rather touching—possibly because I came to it with low expectations.  It is, of course, set in the same world as Harry Potter, but focuses on different characters in a different time period (the 1920s).

The Potterverse, to my mind, is not all that compelling in itself.  The HP novels and movies are enjoyable, but that’s mostly because of the events and characters.  There are too many oddities in the worldbuilding of the Harry Potter stories to make that milieu a preferred destination, to my mind.  (Why does the entire wizard culture revolve around a prep school, and do wizards have no purpose other than to protect their own secrecy?).  So “Fantastic Beasts” didn’t exercise a strong appeal just because it was set in the Potterverse.

But I really liked the characters in this one.  For one thing, they were grown-ups, with adult concerns.  There’s nothing wrong with young adult stories, but after a while one yearns for adult companionship.

In particular, the likable Muggle Jacob Kowalski steals the show.  (The HP books are sadly lacking in sympathetic Muggle characters.)  And I was pleased that Queenie, who first appears to be a traditional dizzy blonde, turns out to be loving and sympathetic and competent.  Both the romances in the story were as pleasing as they were unexpected.

Rogue One

Rogue One posterThe newest Star Wars film is not only set in that same galaxy far, far away, but also tied in very closely with the plot of the original Episode IV, “A New Hope.”  Nonetheless, it’s characterized as a “standalone” Star Wars movie.  The characters are almost entirely new (though some familiar faces appear in cameos), and the plot is distinct from that of “A New Hope” right up to the point at which they tie together.

The movie is good, though I’m not quite sure of its long-term pulling power.  I found the character chemistry a bit more uneven than in the iconic original.  One doesn’t become quite as invested in these new characters, for a variety of reasons.  They have dramatic backstories, but for some reason those backstories didn’t seem to emerge on the screen quite as compellingly.  The plot zigs and zags extensively before it straightens out into the crucial track where it needs to connect with Episode IV – at which point it does become pretty gripping.  (Since the movie has only been out for a few days, I’m striving valiantly to avoid spoilers, which is why my observations are intentionally vague.)

The Reception

Both films seem to be doing well at the box office, and with viewers.  “Fantastic Beasts” has had a successful few weeks, and “Rogue One” had a boffo opening this weekend, as reported in the New York Times and Variety.  The Star Wars picture is getting highly favorable audience reviews—currently 84% on Rotten Tomatoes.

TV Tropes refers to this kind of independent offshoot with the term “Metaplot”—multiple independent works coexisting in the created universe other than sequels or prequels, while there is still an overall story arc that affects the plots of those separate stories.  The phenomenon is common in written works, including those science fiction “future histories” with works separated by long distances in time or space.  It’s becoming more common in the movies too.  For example, Erich Schwartzel in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 15) mentions the parallels in the Marvel Cineverse.

Conclusions

Dragonflight cover artIf we like the “look and feel” of a given universe, we may be glad to revisit that locale, even in the absence of familiar characters and storylines.  For example, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern has flourished through innumerable sequels, prequels, side stories, and odd departures of all sorts (Dolphins of Pern, Renegades of Pern, The Masterharper of Pern . . .).  People like to spend time on Pern.

Still, this attachment to a location or milieu only takes us so far.  When the original Pern plotline was concluded, and the new batches of characters were not quite as engaging as the first four, I confess that I gradually lost interest.  A well-loved setting can draw a viewer or reader in—but it still takes compelling characters and plots to please the audience in the long run.

That’s the primary lesson I’d take from the success of “Fantastic Beasts” and “Rogue One” so far.  Viewers and readers today seem to be more willing than in the past to invest in expanding universes as well as long story arcs—contrary to what one might call the “ADHD hypothesis” that no one today has an attention span longer than 140 characters.  This is good news for writers who are into worldbuilding.  But building a world people want to visit isn’t enough by itself.  We still need to tell a good story—no matter where it may be set.

Comfort Reading

Reading for Reassurance

Chicken soupYou’ve heard of “comfort food,” right?

In Robert A. Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (1980), one character asks the others:  “Write down the twenty stories you have enjoyed most. . . . Make them stories you reread for pleasure when you are too tired to tackle a new book.”  (ch. 33, p. 349)

I’d never actually thought about it before I read that passage, but there is such a category.  There are times, especially toward the end of the day, when we want to immerse ourselves in a story, but not an arduous story.  Even if we’re currently reading something new that we like, we may not feel we can fully appreciate it when we’re tired out.  We’d rather relax into something less demanding.

The same can be true when we’re feeling emotionally drained.  Sometimes we pine for what we might call “comfort reading” on the analogy of “comfort food.”

We might be tempted to regard this urge for the familiar and reassuring as craven or self-indulgent.  But there’s nothing wrong with giving way to that impulse—some of the time.  We can welcome a new book as a challenge; but we don’t always have to be challenged.  Sometimes we simply need to recoup our energies for a while.

This is true in general, I think, but especially at Christmastime—so today seemed like a good time to bring up the subject.

Good Comfort Reading

What kind of stories one likes for “cocooning” will vary, culturally and individually—as the Wikipedia article cited above makes clear for comfort food.  In TV Tropes terms, “your mileage may vary.”  By way of example, here’s some of what I find myself looking for.

When I relax, I want something relatively light, not a matter of life and death.  A fan of adventure fiction spends a lot of time embroiled in saving the world, or the galaxy—or at least the imperiled main characters.  And a lot of science fiction deals with world-changing issues and problems.  That’s pretty strenuous.  It’s nice to be able follow a narrative where the stakes are not quite so high.

At the same time, there has to be enough substance to engage our interest.  A story in which nothing is at stake won’t hold our attention.  So pure farce or silliness doesn’t always fill the bill.

And for me, at least, it helps if the story is fairly “warm-hearted.”  Happy endings, sympathetic characters, a certain degree of kindness and encouragement in the air.  A cynic might have a quite different preference here:  a happy ending may not be congenial to his world-view.  But we sentimentalists want some of the milk of human kindness in our chicken soup.  (Well, maybe not literally.)

For this reason, romances make good hunting grounds for comfort reading.  Not necessarily genre romances; I’m put in mind of Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow, which is almost uncategorizable (social comedy? political commentary? science fiction?) but incorporates no fewer than seven separate romances in a scant 217 pages, possibly a world’s record.

In a good love story, something that matters very much is at issue—but generally only for the main characters.  This is why P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies are almost always romantic comedies.  His amiable main characters are never in very great danger, but rooting for their love affairs keeps us focused through the plot’s succession of hilarious absurdities.

Melendy children with Christmas greensPersonally, I also like children’s stories to relax with.  There’s a category of what I call “family adventures,” where preadolescent children get into a series of scrapes or difficulties that are interesting but never too serious.  Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet (starting with The Saturdays, 1941) is my paradigm example.  Some of E. Nesbit’s books, such as Five Children and It, have a similar air, but with a fantasy component.  (I’d cite Eleanor Estes and Edward Eager as well, but that would raise the mysterious question of why so many writers in this category have the initials E.E.  Same reason Superman’s girlfriends all have the initials L.L., I suppose.)

Christmastide Reading

Of all the times of the year, the Christmas season may be when one most wants to be reading something engaging but pleasant.  There are probably people who want to stage a “Game of Thrones” marathon on Christmas Day, but I’m not one of them.

There are of course the traditional comforting stories that are specifically about Christmas.  A Christmas Carol is one obvious choice (though the actual book is a bit spookier and more tough-minded than some of the adaptations)

Interim Errantry coverLess obvious favorites of mine include “A good-humoured Christmas chapter” from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (ch. 28); “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” from Diane Duane’s Interim Errantry; chapter 5 of The Wind in the Willows (“Dulce Domum”); Madeleine L’Engle’s Dance in the Desert and The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas; Elizabeth Scarborough’s Carol for Another Christmas; chapters 12-13 of Kate Seredy’s The Good Master; and Manly Wade Wellman’s “On the Hills and Everywhere,” in the collection John the Balladeer.  The only trouble is that some of these are quite short; they’ll barely last you through lunch.

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverBut even at Yuletide, we may not want to marinate in Christmas quite to that extent.  So I also cultivate a selection of books that strike (or encourage) the right mood, but don’t have anything specific to do with Christmas.  I’ve mentioned Wodehouse; Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have a similar combination of light-heartedness and warm-heartedness (I’ve often thought of her as Wodehouse crossed with Jane Austen).  Other kindly and entertaining tales not specifically about the season include Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign—one of my all-time favorites for all seasons—Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn.

Have any favorites of your own for Christmastime, or comfort reading generally?