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Story Matters

January 11, 2012

Last week Marielena Zuniga blogged about age and success of the writer.  I was so happy with her conclusion:  age doesn’t matter but even if it did, older might well be better.  Good news for me!  I’ve got more good news:  subject doesn’t really matter either – as long as the story shines.  I think it was my spate of holiday movie-going that got me thinking in that vein.

Readers of this blog know that I was an early fan of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, a middle-grade novel that had limited success in England.  More than twenty-odd years later, that unprepossessing novel led to an award-winning play in London and later New York.  On Christmas Day, Steven Spielberg’s movie of the same name opened and I lined up to see it.  Though the first-person narration of the horse – a large part of the charm of the novel – is lost in the movie translation, Spielberg doesn’t disappoint.  The spirit of the book with its emphasis on the futility of war is certainly there in both the stories of the noble horses as well as the people caught up in that horrible war.  The story of the horses recruited to fight that war was a little-known one that Morpurgo chanced upon in a pub when he got to talking to an old veteran of the war.  A bit of digging in such places as London’s Imperial War Museum and the kernel of the idea grew into a full-blown story that could even withstand the big screen treatment of a Spielberg.

In the same way, Brian Selznick discovered a large portion of his story for the middle grade novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret right here in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute when a generous museum curator showed him a very early mechanical man (called an automaton) that could draw pictures and write poetry. Tying the mechanical man to early moviemaker Georges Melies was not an obvious choice but Selznick makes it work in his totally innovative 530-page illustrated novel which was a natural to translate into film.  The novel even looks like a movie, if you can believe it, yet it’s not a graphic novel but a novel “in words and pictures.” 

These two novels may be aimed at children, but they don’t sugar-coat the truth.  Hugo’s loving father is burned to death in a museum fire.  In War Horse, Albert’s father is a drunk who flirts with cruelty to both his son and his son’s beloved horse Joey. 

Who would image that a story about a horse that goes to war would become a major motion picture?  But then who would see the appeal in the story of two orphaned kids in Paris in the 1930s, one of whom knows how to fix things – especially clocks – and is desperate to also fix the mechanical man who could provide him with a message from his dead father?  The mechanical man does have a message but not in the way Hugo Cabret imagines.  It’s an intricate, riveting story – a one-of-a-kind. 

Both novelists latch onto an obscure story and make it their own – which in both cases is to say a fascinating one.  The moral?  Look for the story that fascinates you, however unlikely it may appear on the surface.  Chances are there are lots of folks who will agree with you.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 13, 2012 9:44 AM

    What an insightful post, Gretchen. I agree with you about the importance of story and the need for a writer to believe in his/her story to make it shine. Thanks for the reminder.

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