Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Prometheus and Retro-active Plot Construction

Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott
I didn’t really mean or want to do a double-decker posting on Prometheus, especially since, in internet time, the subject is practically passé by this point. But on the other hand, with a little perspective on the critical plateaus and overall opinions, it becomes to pinpoint where consensus lies, meaning it’s just about…now when I can say without too much hypothesizing what the general opinion of Prometheus' initial theatrical release is: a visually appealing but narratively flawed work, to the point where, for many (most?) people, the flaws in the plot break the movie entirely.

Without a doubt the story had some big issues, and it took a lot of thought and a lot of columns by other people for me to really grasp what the central issue with the story was. Prometheus is near-enough flawless in most attributes of the film medium. It’s expertly directed, its special effects are nonpareil, sound design and scene construction are fantastic and a glory to behold, and the acting is overall well done. Which means the most if not all of the complaints against the film fall to the script level.

Film is a collaborative medium, and as such, it’s almost impossible to parse out who’s really responsible for what and where the influence of the writer ended and the director began. So I’m not here to “blame” Damon Lindelof or Ridley Scott for the outcome of the script. Er…specifically. I mean, they at least share the blame, even if it can’t be fairly discerned what percentage of wrong each was responsible for.

Really, this post is more an observation and conclusion I’ve come to both from my own writing experiences and unintended research into the lives of writers and their processes. As such, thinking back over my viewing of Prometheus and is narrative struggles, I cannot escape the feeling that the root of many of the film’s problems arise from a retro-active form of plot construction that builds on the theme first, instead of sensibly plotting the story structure.

As I’ve said in previous posts, theme is very important in a story. Not just because theme sort of justifies the story—that is, lets the audience leave feeling that they had a reason to consume your narrative—but because it’s unavoidable. All stories say something, whether they want to or mean to. You just cannot have a narrative piece of art—be it book or film or television—without it saying something. That doesn’t necessarily mean the theme is profound, or deep. Themes can be pointless, silly, powerful, meaningless, muddled, and generally not thought out. The narrative can contradict the theme. The themes can contradict each other. But there’s no avoiding it. If you write scripts or novels or short stories and have a narrative through-line at all, you will, inevitably, have a theme. It is your destiny.

PICTURED: Incidentally, this is probably the worst
purveyor of contradictory themes in recent memory.
But some writers don’t mind having themes. In fact, some writers are really, really trying to hammer home a theme or point in their story. Some want their story to expertly extrapolate whatever theme they are interested in. And some people mistakenly build their movie around it.
So this is what I think happened with Prometheus, more or less. Sure, there are other script-central problems as well, i.e. the plot holes and weird character actions that no sensible scientist, much less a human being, would do. But those are things that needed a couple of rewrites (that apparently didn’t happen) to hash out. This retro-active theme-centered story construction, on the other hand, is an intrinsic part of the movie’s DNA, and fixing it would have required much more than a rewrite. You’d almost have to chunk the script away and start over.

I must articulate that this is a lot of speculation by me according to what I know about the process the script for Prometheus went through and my general experience of the movie compared to the comparatively minute things I know about writing. So all this is mostly speculation, got me?

But now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, there’s pretty strong evidence that Lindelof/Scott built this movie on the grounds of an overarching theme and tucked in the story around it. They wanted to say something about faith and belief even in the face of answers you weren’t expecting and about how you can’t know some things and a lot of philosophical ideas. The problem began when they started out with that in mind, and then tried to create the story from there.

Stories have the tendency to be organic things. You start to write something with this idea in mind, and then something else completely different occurs. A character you had planned to kill turns out to be more enterprising and survives, and you have no idea how in God’s name that occurred…and so when that happens, you have two choices: you can go with it, and see where it leads you, or you can go back and change the character to fit your original plan. Neither choice is bad, per se, just different styles of writing. The former is the way, say, Stephen King does it, and my example actually came from his story about how his novel Misery came to be, which was originally slated to be a novella where the main character died at the end, but upon the actual writing King discovered that his protagonist was much more clever and assiduous than he had anticipated. The latter is the way of outlines, constant revising, and character notes. Neither way is better than the other, and great novels have been birthed from both methods, but likewise, both methods have one thing in common, and that is an emphasis on plot construction to tell the story. Writer has an idea, has a way that it could make a good story, goes about making a plot (read: plan) to tell the story in a way that makes sense and is emotional affecting. There is nothing about theme even in here yet, and that’s because theme works best when it flows naturally from whatever story you’re telling.

PICTURED: Is it just me, or do their heads look really creepy?
This can be a dangerous thing. It’s where the whole trope of Unfortunate Implications comes from, when themes that seem to be present in a work have gone usually unnoticed by the creators of the work itself. But at best, themes are naturally occurring parts of a story anyway, and if you’re telling the story and telling it well, the theme will sort of bloom along with the story--as a supplement, not an end in itself. It won’t be perfect, it won’t be tightly focused, but it will be there, and it’s the responsibility of the writer, after the first draft of the story has been completed, to sit back and think about what this story he’s written is trying to say, and then upon rewrites and further drafts focus the story and cut back the excess and fit the pieces together in a way that brings the theme(s) alive organically and naturally. But this should occur only after the other considerations of the plot have been fleshed out, meaning character motivation and action, plot holes, and sensibility of motivation. The story and plot have to “work” before the theme can be extrapolated, and this in itself can be a scary part of the process, because often making the story “work” means changing elements to the point that the theme(s) is entirely different from one draft to the other. And if you started your writing process wanting to get across a theme, you have now officially been backed into a corner, and you have two choices:

1)      Go along with the story as it has naturally grown, or
2)      Hamfistedly force your theme into the narrative anyway, even though it has barely any relevance to the overall plot, and articulate it through forced scenes of conversation where the theme is forced down the audience’s throats instead of occurring with the story.

Can you guess which tack I think the writers/creators of Prometheus took?

PICTURED: And yeah, sometimes fixing the theme means a lot of extra work.
Again, I wasn’t there, I don’t know all the facts, but the strangely out of place clunkiness of the theme of this movie is redolent of a desperate attempt to shove a theme into a movie whose narrative had spun away from such considerations. Which is why everything that has to do with Prometheus’ theme of faith and not knowing the answer and mystery and all that is relegated to blatantly obvious expositional conversations between people, i.e. Shaw’s dream and the pre-sex convo between her and Halloway. These conversations not only didn’t gel with the rest of the story, but they also made very little sense in the context of the movie, which was almost entirely focused on other things not related to the idea of faith. And that usually happens when a story is built with a theme as the central driving force of a story, instead of, you know, the story.

So my advice to all young writers is to take Prometheus’ example to heart. I’m sure my three readers in Malaysia can come up with movies and books where the theme was the starting point and a masterpiece came out of it. There are no hard and fast rules in art, after all. But you have to be aware of what type of work you’re making. Allegorical works like Animal Farm might be able to get away with starting with the theme first and build from there (and really even that’s a bit iffy, because the list of truly successful allegories pretty much ends after Animal Farm). Likewise, works that are focused more on tone (a lá Tree of Life) or on a single character story can often—not always mind you—get away with building from a theme rather than a story, but even then it’s difficult.

PICTURED: Can also get away with starting from theme, though
a lot of the plot came from a previous narrative structure--in this case the book--anyway.
But Prometheus is neither of these things. For all its enthralling visual beauty, it’s relying on a traditional plot structure with action and climaxes revolving around characters and the conflicts they come into. Which is fine; I mean, what else was the movie going to be? But understanding that, there are certain limitations that are put on the story. Limitations is the wrong word—call them considerations, of which one of them is that in a movie concerned more with narrative, the narrative itself must make sense internally, before any ancillary considerations (read: theme).

And you know what? If you focus on a compelling, sensible narrative, you will get some themes out of it. Themes that you can then flesh out and make sense. They might not be what you want, but you’ll probably end up with a better movie. You need not look any farther for this than the original Alien, which had nothing in the realm of profound philosophical themes. The themes in Alien were of corporate conspiracy, and sexual subtext. The fear of rape, the result when all sociological necessities are removed from a species. Are these themes as heady as the ones attempted in Prometheus? Maybe not. Did they have more of an impact? Indubitably.
So the moral of the story, kids? Just write a good story. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It doesn’t have to be “important” or tackle “big issues” or anything. It just needs to be compelling. To make sense. To have conversations that fit into the flow of the story, and characters that don’t do stupid stuff just for plot convenience. Make the narrative make sense, and your themes will be all the better for it.

Until next time,

Mr. E

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prometheus and Hate-Crit

So I saw Prometheus Saturday night. Final conclusion? Good but not great sci-fi/thriller with beautiful direction, some good performances, and some distinctly chilling moments. A solid B+ overall.

Then why is this movie getting lambasted as the worst thing since Transformers 2?

The short answer: the internet age. Every bit of the overblown asperity towards Prometheus can be traced back to it: the nitpicking, the hyperbolic moans of decrepitude, the fandom outrage. This sort of recursive buddy-on-buddy flagellating could only occur in a world where thousands of fans can come together on a common server and lambast the crap out of something that doesn’t deserve it. There’s an entirely new realm of criticism out there, folks: it’s called hate-criticism (or hate-crit for those three people who still use the term “po-mo”) and it is a fascinating little bugger.

See, Prometheus is a solid B+. It’s not great, it’s not perfect. It’s marred by some thematic clunkiness, some idiotic character moments, and a sometimes-weak script. But these flaws keep a movie from achieving true greatness. They do not make a movie the worst thing since Hiroshima. Yet Prometheus is getting criticized for not being perfect, then being decimated for its imperfections to the point that we suddenly have an entire substrata of people implying that anything less than perfection equals a truly horrible movie. Which is unfair for everybody, including these fans, because it robs them of enjoying something, and instead adds another three points of stress to their already stroke-risked brain capillaries.

The biggest and most obvious reason for the prevalence of hate-criticism in the internet age is that hate sells. Heck, Pixar basically had the final word on this in Ratatouille some six years ago: hate is fun to write, and fun to read. Furthermore, it’s easy to write, and there’s a much big vault of language to be used to criticize something than to praise it. I mean, really, when you’re praising something, what more is there to say than: Hey, the script is really good! Hey, the direction is really good! Hey, the acting is really good! Sure, you can extrapolate that out, but very rarely is it going to be entertaining, and even more rarely is it actually going to be funny or immersive. makes their living off of this: you can build an entire website of being snarky and tearing apart bad movies. And people love to read this stuff, including yours truly. Redlettermedia’s Star Wars prequel reviews, for example, are some of my favorite internet-based videos ever.

PICTURED: The Average Hate-Critter

There are probably complex psychological reasons behind the love of hate. Some basic schadenfreude is probably lurking around in there, perhaps just a lashing out of disappointment, perhaps a fear of not being heard unless the most ridiculous and inaccurate of superlatives are used to describe whatever is being unwarrantedly hated-on. But I truly think the ease of hate has a lot to do with its ubiquity, as well as the attention it garners. There’s a certain amount of solemnity involved with fairly evaluating a movie, and as we know, solemn things have a much greater chance of being boring, and that just doesn’t track well with the internet culture, which can easily pop on over to one of the other one trillion websites bouncing around in the ether. As such, the ‘net makes its living off of highly-opinionated people coming up with the cleverest ways they can think of to prove their worth by showing how well they can rip something to shreds with what is admittedly very innovative use of language.

This, in turn, has led to a devolution of our cultural criticism where nothing can be good because it doesn’t live up to our own perceived self-evaluated notions of quality, quality based on a cycle of hate criticism that everyone likes to read, and which therefore leads to good but not great movies such as Prometheus being raked across the coals for no reason other than reactionary hatred based on an unattainable figment that the writers of such criticism have set up for themselves because of their practice in nitpicking the very stuffing out of every movie they see and then posting on it for the world to masticate.

Which leads to my next point: the insidious nitpickers. Again, this is a paradigm of criticism that couldn’t be accomplished as little as twenty years ago. You could have a few, oh, let’s call them nerds for conversation’s sake, discuss and rip apart a movie. But now there are outlets for thousands of people to comb over every square inch of frame and point out what doesn’t make sense, where there are plot holes, where the acting’s bad, where the music doesn’t fit, where the script is weak—and so movies are held up to a nigh-unreachable standard by an entire culture that’s communicating with one another and cycling downward into a spiral of hatred.

Which is myopic considering almost every single good movie, and probably most of the classics, can be torn apart or nitpicked to death due to the most miniscule of plot contrivances, holes, or simple contradictions. They are in every movie. And humans, with their seemingly infinite ability to pull something out of nowhere, can extrapolate the most inane and nonexistent issues.

PICTURED: Oh, please. What a cheap special effect. And look!
It has no eyes! How can it see? What idiot came up with this design? Jesus.
Take Alien for example. Accepted to be a masterpiece. Accepted to the sequel to Prometheus. Accepted to be the standard by which Prometheus is judged. And yet, if people wanted to, they could complain about it just like any other film. They could remark on its ambiguity (WTF is that ship, why isn’t it being explained????), on the stupidity of the characters actions (why do you care so much about that damned cat/why are you sending Harry Dean Stanton off alone to get the damn cat?????), on its basic premise (pfffft whaat? It’s just a slasher movie IN SPACE, what a dumb, unoriginal idea), on the design of the ship (how could that be aerodynamically sound for leaving the atmosphere????), on even the iconic birthing scene (Whaaat? That would never work in real life!!!!). And on a host of other things. If people wanted to. Why don’t they? Because Alien had the distinct advantage of coming out in 1979, before an era where it could be dissecting like a dead cat (or a dead Harry Dean Stanton) by everyone and their outspoken mother.

But Alien didn’t come out in 2012, so it was spared that indecency, and instead became regarded as one of the great films of all time. This allowed it (and its well-regarded sequel) to become a huge source of fan interrelations. There is a remarkably large fandom for this franchise considering that it’s not, you know, an epic continuing story a la Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, and is a horror film to boot, and as such people are going to compare the two movies side by side, since it’s a prequel by the same person with a lot of similar elements.

And at this point the final facet of hate criticism comes to light: the fandom itself.

What I’m saying is by no means new or unique, but is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s sprung from the well-known Star Wars Fans Hate Star Wars Essay (easily found with a Google search, but I couldn’t get to its original page so I didn’t site it), and the documentary film The People vs. George Lucas, specifically a certain section where an interviewee discusses fan rage.

It’s one of the strangest parts of fandom, but its existence is indubitable: fans of franchises love said franchises so much that they hate them. Like the snake Ouroboros, they become so obsessed with whatever it is they’re obsessed over that they create an ideal in their mind of what it should be, regardless of what said work actually presents. Inevitably, the very work they love can’t live up to the love they give the very work, so their passion turns in on itself and then devours itself, love turning to loathing as a franchise, prequel, addition, whatever, cannot measure up to the ideal version of the thing they love, incepted from the passion for the thing they love.

In other words, Prometheus was doomed from the start. There was no way it could be a masterpiece, no matter how good the film was. It’s not good enough to be a masterpiece in the first place: it’s too legitimately flawed. But even if it were a masterpiece, it could still never be a masterpiece, because it would be eviscerated by every obsessive fan out there who has built up their own notions of what a film that is even tangentially related to their passion should look like. Meaning that these fans cannot enjoy what turned out to be a pretty good and absolutely stunning film visually in its own right, because of how much they love and therefore loathe the original.

God almighty, but human being’s are complicated aren’t they?

I’m not saying that works shouldn’t be dissected, or :shudders: deconstructed. I’m not saying that bad films don’t deserve to be smashed with a critical sledgehammer. All I’m saying is that we need is a little perspective. A little objectivity. If a person doesn’t like the film, fine, that’s great—but can we not at least acknowledge its strengths, even while we acknowledge its flaws? Or is every film condemned to be put through the thresher of overhype and fan outrage? This is one of the most beautiful, textured films of the modern CGI era; it has good performances and very interesting elements, and truly terrifying moments. Alongside of that, it has a few plot holes, some stock, one-dimensional characters, and some weird, idiotic character decisions. Is the latter enough to overwhelm the former? That’s up to the viewer. Does the latter entirely negate the former? No. Does the latter make Prometheus an abomination? For the love of all that is holy, it does not. And I think people would go through life a lot happier if they’d realize that.

Until next time,

Mr. E

PICTURED: Plus, it has Charlize Theron in it. Come on, now.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Pseudo-review/discursive Ramble on Prequels, Midquels, and Sequels

So I just finished Stephen King’s new novel. How was it, you ask?
First off, let me remind my three Turkish readers that I’ve never read a bad King book. Some are better than others, some are a lot better than others. Some are pulpier, some are closer to “high art” (whatever that means). Some, I think, will stand the test of time better than others. But no matter what, King entertains, and that’s the heart of the matter.
Second off, let me assure readers that there are spoilers here, so beware.
 As such, the book is a fun, easy, interesting read set in the universe of his Dark Tower series. And what a depressing thing that is.
 Allow me to explain.
 The book right from the beginning had me really pondering the nature of prequels and midquels throughout the realms of entertainment media. This alone makes The Wind Through the Keyhole an interesting example, because it is set at what is, in my opinion, the tipping point of The Dark Tower as a whole. That is, it is set right before the series starts truly sucking.
 Now as always, there are varying opinions on this matter. Some don’t like The Dark Tower at all. Some think everything from the first sentence to the last is the greatest thing ever put to paper. Some think the series began to go downhill as early as book 2, some think it was great until the end. But like the Star Wars prequels, which demonstrate another example of this phenomenon, the general consensus is that The Dark Tower took a severe decline in quality somewhere during book four. Where this point lies is yet another point of contention among fans; though in my opinion, the trouble really starts after Roland finishes his tale and the group stumbles upon nothing less than a complete working facsimile of the Emerald Castle from the Wizard of Oz.
Oh boy.
See, this was really about this time that King was formulating the idea that all of his books are part of one big multiverse, which fits with the idea that the Dark Tower upholds and centers all levels of reality. That’s fine, but it turns out that the conceit really drags the last three books down—in conjunction with two other main hindrances to The Dark Towers’ final three novels: 1. King being hit by a van in 1999, and 2. His desperation to finish the series thereafter.
Before the final three books, The Dark Tower series seemed to be something that King did because he wanted to. Like he was having fun writing the books. You can sort of tell this by his publishing schedule: the man was averaging about five years between books, even among growing demands from an increasing audience to know the end of the story. It’s pretty much the equivalent of the wait A Song of Ice and Fire fans had between the fourth and fifth books—except repeated ad nauseam.
 But the reason for it is rather straightforward: King writes when he’s inspired. It’s one of the things I admire about him. He writes what he wants to write, when he wants to write, and for the most part it seems like he just wants to have a blast while telling a good story. The publication schedule of The Dark Tower, if anything, indicates King was writing the books when he felt he had the story straight, and when he was really dedicated to putting out the best book possible; but around the publication of Wizard and Glass he starts really delving into this idea of the multiverse; fine, cool, clumsily handled at the end a bit, but the stuff where the ka-tet walk through the world of The Stand was really interesting and it could have definitely gone somewhere.
 Then the accident happened.
 Now, let me be the first to say that I am in no way blaming Sai King for anything that happened in his writing after this traumatic, horrific event. I have little doubt that it was one of the worst things that ever happened to him, and I cannot imagine the physical pain and anguish that he went through upon his recovery. What I am about to say is in no way a criticism of his style, a denigration of what he was able to accomplish, or a diminution of the agony of his recovery. Frankly, I find it amazing that the first thing he did upon being able to actually, you know, do stuff again was to sit down at the computer and start banging out stuff on paper. It’s a dedication and a love of writing that I could only aspire to. This critique is only meant to focus on the series of books itself, and why they ended up they way they did.
With all that said, let me, as respectfully and understandingly as possible, go ahead and postulate that this accident almost undoubtedly negatively affected The Dark Tower’s last three entries, which all came out after King’s accident. It did so in two ways: the first, the emphasis on the number 19.
 Again, this issue begs me to reiterate that I understand. I do. King was hit by the van on June 19, 1999, it was obviously a traumatic, life-changing event—an honest to god brush with death. I don’t know the man (and probably never will) but I can imagine that something of that import would severely change your outlook on life. But the fact is that the emphasis put in the number 19 in the last three Dark Tower novels came out of nowhere, introduced in the weirdest, most clumsy way possible…it really just makes no sense.

PICTURED: The Accused

Basically the book starts and suddenly the ka-tet is noticing and pondering the fact that they are seeing “19” everywhere, when nothing like this had ever been hinted at in the previous four novels (excluding the re-release of The Gunslinger, where it’s given a passing mention to at least, I guess, try and give the sudden emphasis on “19” in books 5-7 some connection to the previous books). And again and again, I understand. It takes the most basic form of human sympathy to see why King included this new theme of “19,” especially in light of the revelation in book 7 that the characters in the novel are constructs of King and that their existence depends upon him finishing the that the introduction of 19 in book five is supposed to coincide with the sudden interest in the number 19 that the characters’ “creator” has…but that doesn’t negate or mitigate the fact that “19’s” introduction to the novels is rather poor. The reveal about King’s status within the universe of the novels doesn’t even come into play until book 7 anyway, so we have two straight books with the characters acting and focusing on something completely outside the parameters of what we’ve come to understand about them in the previous four books with no explanation whatsoever, and that hurt the books.
But even that might have been okay if King had not rushed the damn things, and that’s problem number two.
Again with the disclaimers: this following section is purely conjecture on my part. Certainly it’s presumptuous to assume that I can know the mind and thoughts of a man whom I’ve never even seen in person, much less talked to. Yet I think from the evidence at hand that it can safely be inferred that King felt the weight of his own mortality after 1999, and suddenly a book series that was averaging a new addition once every five to six years suddenly has its last three entries cranked out in 2003 and 2004 (Note: Mind you, these are six and seven hundred page books, with number 7 topping out at almost 1000 pages, and the last two, two mind you, were published in 2004. –Mr. E), along with a new kind of desperation that had hitherto not been seen within the tone of then novels. Books 1-4 seemed to be written by a man that was inspired to write an epic tale. Books 5-7 appear to be written by a man who’s worried about his own demise. Which I totally, totally, totally understand…but remember, we’re looking at the novels intratextually.
Not to Bring George R.R. Martin back into this again, but for those who would want the man to hurry up and finish off A Song of Ice and Fire as quickly as possible, I would suggest you look at the last three books of The Dark Tower and really ask yourself what you truly desire. Fact is, this desperate feel to the last three books explains a lot of things, especially regarding book seven, The Dark Tower (the actual name of the book), including the weird metafictional element-- something so out of place and derided that King’s almost been convinced to take it out of the next edition entirely(1)--the introduction of a deus ex machina character from another book who can conveniently “erase” things out of existence, the clumsy introduction of the series “true” second-in-command villain Mordred, who dispatches previous (and well-loved) big bad Randall Flagg with almost dismissive ease and then basically doesn’t do anything else but die of dysentery or food poisoning, the causal deaths of almost all the main ka-tet, including Eddie, Jake, and even Oy, the abandonment of Roland by Susannah, the anti-climactic final battle with the Crimson King, which was built up to be some super-colossal thing but eventually turned out to be a Santa Claus on a balcony throwing grenades and cackling like the witch in wizard of Oz, the weird passive-aggressive “letter” to the fans after the faux-ending of the novel (on the heels of a dedication thanking them for all the times they read him, no less), and finally the brow-furrowing fate of Roland upon entering the actual Dark Tower…all of that can really be explained away by the fact that the man, upon recovering from a traumatic, life-threatening, and in some ways permanently crippling accident sat down and wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of two thousand pages in less than three years, in a series that was average a five hundred page book every five or six years.
PICTURED: What the Crimson King was built up to be.
PICTURED: What the Crimson King turned out to be.
To bring this long diatribe back to my original point, this has always been the problem with midquels and prequels, and even flashbacks, of all works of this sort. You can’t read The Wind through the Keyhole without at some point thinking: “Yep, crack that joke Eddy. You’re gonna be dead in three books.” Or look and Roland and think, “Yeah, you don’t know this yet but for the most part this is going to be ultimately meaningless.” Or read about Oy and think of the hideous way that he eventually was killed off. It gives the book this odd feeling I can’t quite explain…like traveling back in time and watching someone go about their life the day before they’re brutally murdered.
To compound the problem, for the most part adding more information to any story is just going to convolute it until it collapses. This is one of the biggest issues in comic books, whose continuity is almost untenably intricate already without additions to the backstory of characters. This, of course, doesn’t stop authors from adding them anyway. Sometimes, it’s okay. Other times, it’s stupid, as in something like Batman: Fortunate Son. Linkara gives the review more masterfully than I can, but in the end, this is the kind of thing that really is the denigration of prequels and midquels and even flashbacks: so we suddenly learn the Bruce parents are tight-assed blowhards who won’t let Bruce listen to rock music, and this is why rock music angers him so much as Batman. Um…okay. Unfortunately, since Fortunate Son is canon, we now are stuck with the canonical fact that a) Bruce’s parents, tragically killed, were also assholes, and b) Batman has something so idiotically minute as rock and roll added to his list of things to fight against, along with, you know, the gangs and the criminal psychopaths.
The problematic nature of prequels midquels is easily matched, however, with the spectrum of fandom reaction to them. Now this reaction is true of any addition, period, included planned sequel works. But it’s fascinating the hoops fans jump through to blatantly ignore less quality portions of their passions, up to arguing with and dismissing the author himself.
The most famous example of this is inarguably Star Wars, in which a wide swath of the fandom, including yours truly, is adamant that the series consists of the original three movies only, and that those “other” films were made by some deranged fanficcer high on peyote. Funnily enough, Star Wars actually lends itself to this type of self-denial much better than many other examples. It’s easy to separate two series, one made in the late 70s/early 80s and one in the late 90s/00s featuring different styles of acting, story and special effects, not to mention tone, theme, and overall value. The disjunction between the two trilogies and the large time span between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace makes it pretty easy to forget that those “other” films exist or have any bearing on the story as we see it.
Basically, the Star Wars series, since each trilogy is its own self-contained story, separated by over a decade, with dissonance in practically every stratum of style a movie can but judged on, is easily truncated, denied, or forgotten depending on how much or little the individual fan likes each set of movies. This act of self-elision is much more difficult with, say, a book series that pops out one right after the other, a la Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, especially when each book is part of the same overarching story. The two sets of stories in the Star Wars trilogy are indelibly related, of course, but each one has its own arc, and the similarities between the two are purely distinguished by the prequels “effect” (i.e., the existence of the Empire, Vader and the Emperor’s characters) that they had on the original (Note: although, in the case of the Star Wars universe, it might be a unique case of the after trilogy informing the prequel trilogy, which involves such philosophical conundrums of history and its ripple effect that I don’t even want to get into here. --E). Even so, dismissing an entire half of the canon film universe requires a particularly skillful form of mental gymnastics, and that’s with one of the easiest cases of willful self-memory-denial in the history of fandom. When you have a series of books that just falls off the cliff it’s much more difficult, because you’re dealing with the exact same story and characters, with (relatively) little time between, within the same arc and whatnot, leading to Olympic-levels of mental gymnastics to deny the existence of direct sequels within the same story (i.e., The Matrix sequels, every “Ender’s Game” novel after Speaker for the Dead [and sometimes including Speaker for the Dead], the last chapter of Harry Potter book 7 [and sometimes all of Harry Potter book 7], hell, even the last book in the Twilight series).
 This in turn brings up a lot of questions about who really “owns” writing and how much power a writer actually has and whom writing is actually for, etcetera, but that’s another post. To this end, this entire long, rambling, badly-structured post has been a prelude to a pseudo-review of The Wind through the Keyhole, and why it works and yet still feels like putting a left boot on your right foot, and the preceding paragraphs are the entire reason for it: I’ve already brain-bleached and hypnotized myself into believing what I want about The Dark Tower’s continuity. That is, the first four books are the good ones, and the last three can be pretty well-oh, I don’t know, bleached, let’s say. There’s nothing definably wrong with The Wind Through the Keyhole as is—there’s just this niggling feeling in the back of your mind, especially if you didn’t much care for the final three installments. You know where these guys are headed and it makes the whole think seem, well, pointless.
 The framing sections (the first ones anyway) are definitely the weakest parts of the novel, and I think this is, in part, why. King’s trying to slip back into the skins and feel of characters he hasn’t written about in eight years. This causes an odd jarring sensation—probably not unique among authors who attempt this sort of midquel thing years after the fact—where the characters presented are almost like fan fiction caricatures of the actual characters in the original novels. King’s trying to remind us that these are in fact Eddie, Susannah, Jake, Roland, and Oy, and so of course we have to have Eddie cracking rather lame, out of place jokes and Susannah speaking in a rather discomforting ebonic slang when she gets riled up. These things in themselves aren’t bad, it’s simply that there’s very little depth to flesh them out. The jokes Eddie cracks are bad, and they simply seem to be there to fill some sort of character quota. It’s as if someone who isn’t King is writing in the style of him with his characters and saying to himself, all right, I have to make sure I have Eddie Dean espouse some hideous comedy because that’s a defining mark of his character riiiight?
 The book picks up the further into the narrative you go. And then after the inner-frame stories end, the book ends with barely any more focus on the original characters before they continue on their quest into three unfortunate sequels. At the same time, for me the—by far—most enjoyable section of the novel is the story of Tom Stoutheart, whose tale creates the eponymous “Wind Through the Keyhole” bedtime story that Roland’s heard since childhood. It’s a really well structured adventure story, and deals with the North Central Positronics Corporation and all the aspects of the Great Old Ones much better than 5, 6 and 7. I honestly always liked the idea that Gilead and those great medieval aspects of Mid-World came after the fall of a much more technologically advanced civilization, and likewise I’ve always been a fan of stories where such mysterious attributes of the world are kept, you know, mysterious. The Wind through the Keyhole pulls this off as well as in any portion of The Dark Tower series, and the character of Tom is well constructed and fleshed out—you cheer for him when he suceeds, and you sense his wonder when he comes in contact with technology far beyond his control or understanding.
 The framing story used to tell The Wind through the Keyhole is also good, though not really that compelling. It’s mainly a way to get Roland and the kid in the story alone so that Roland can espouse to him “The Wind through the Keyhole” like the grizzled old raconteur he is. That being said, I think if it hadn’t mostly been a means to get to “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” which is inarguably the emotional and stylistic heart of the book, I believe it had the makings for a very good standalone tale. As it is, there’s something superficial about it, something a little dry and, well, dull. Not bad, exactly—but the more I dwell on it, the more I think King simply wanted to write “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” and for some reason thought he had to tie it in to The Dark Tower’s main continuity and hide it in not one, but two layers of framing devices—
PICTURED: ...within a framing device within a framing device within a framing device.
 Which begs the question of why “The Wind Through the Keyhole” and the story of Roland and the Skin-man weren’t standalone tales? King has referred to this novel as “Dark Tower 4.5,” but I really don’t think I agree with that, mainly because the characters from the original series are entirely inconsequential to the novel. Really, the only things they’re there for is to introduce the concept of the “starkblast” (Note: A cold front with stark in the title/Winter is Coming/Game of Thrones reference? Must remember to investigate further. –E) and hole up in a building so that the other two stories can be told. That’s it. Really, there is no good reason for them to be there. Which makes me wonder why King didn’t go all Different Seasons on this mug? Make it an anthology of works pertaining to Mid-World and The Dark Tower mythos. Have Roland and the skin man be one (more fleshed out) story, have “The Wind Through the Keyhole” be another, then add in a couple more. They could be about anything, anything at all in The Dark Tower’s rich and complex history. Anything. Roland, his father, the Crimson King, Arthur Eld, Gan, the tower itself, the Great Old Ones, All-World, End-World, Gilead, Alain, Cuthbert, Cort, the founding of the gunslingers, whatever—there is so much in this world of The Dark Tower that can be extrapolated, it just seems a little narrow to me for King to be using the same characters over and over again; especially framing it in a story that’s already done, where we know the fates of everyone already (and don’t want to think about them very much, either). It’s a strange thing to say, but of all the things that King would limit himself on, The Dark Tower, which is by far his most vested, expansive work, is probably the strangest.
 So after all that bellyaching, would I recommend The Wind Through the Keyhole? Of course. Repeat after me, my friends: I have never read a bad King book. The Wind Through the Keyhole is nowhere near his best, but like every single part of its canon it’s a fun read; the eponymous story is definitely the best part of it, and fortunately it takes up a majority of the book’s length. Is it going to win anybody over to King’s work, or does it make up for the weaknesses in the final three books? No…but taken on its own, it’s a worthwhile purchase for any King fan.

Until next time,
Mr. E