Dealing with the Reality of Stories

Think of the last time that you read a book that enveloped you. Time stopped or turned to a dull roar, and even the armrest that you leaned against didn’t seem as real as the people you were reading about. Somewhere in the amazingly intricate pattern of your mind, you could see them as well as a familiar friend’s memory. You could feel their hurt, their wonder, like it was your own.

Think of the last movie that you saw that made you forget that you were sitting in a chair, not only removed but completely safe from any of the action that played out. For a time, you may have even forgotten yourself, following characters into their homes as easily and unnoticed as a sunbeam or a breeze.

There is a magic to storytelling, and part of that magic is its appearance of reality. Not only can it appear to be real, we often react to it as if it were real. Many of us have brought to tears by a heart-wrenching ending in a novel. Once I made the mistake of finishing Alexandre Dumas’ The Knight of the Maison-Rouge while waiting for a new ID card. I closed the book, quiet tears running down my cheeks, and wondered how the rest of the world could go on like nothing had happened.

Aye, but there’s the rub: nothing did happen. At least not in a physical sense. There were no rescue attempts, no people falling in love, and no one died. But it certainly felt like it, and part of me changed after I read that novel.

While we may not be wholly aware of it, many of us who love to read books or watch movies and television are spellbound. We simply can’t get enough of this kind of magic. That’s why we devour endless books, and if that verb choice seems too strong or oddly evocative of food, think about why we call marathons of tv shows a “binge.” In many ways, story is a powerful sustenance. If you’re a writer, a reader, or avid watcher, you know this in some way. But where the trouble comes in is when the appetite becomes more important than the food.

Perhaps this food metaphor is a direct result of writing around lunchtime, but I think it is a fitting one. I’ve been pondering writing about a subject like this for several weeks now, after I watched the finale of Netflix’s Daredevil. I watched several of the episodes (in a bizarre order for a time due to a glitch in Netflix’s autoplay feature until I realized what had happened). Daredevil, as a hero, has always been interesting. I will freely admit that I have never picked up any of the Daredevil comics. All that I know comes from urban lore and the various adaptations. In one scene, Netflix’s Daredevil captured what enthralls me about that story. The hero searches for a boy who’s been kidnapped by mobsters. He is dressed like the night, with a mask over his eyes—truly blind justice. Our viewpoint, the camera, moves through a dingy hallway, waiting for Daredevil to appear. When he does, he is quick and dangerous as the action moves into adjacent rooms on either side of the hallway. The camera does not follow. Most of what he does stays out of sight and when we do catch a glimpse of him, there is no dialogue, no distraction. He methodically works his way to the end of the hallway where the boy waits. But before Daredevil opens the door, he pauses. He breathes heavily. After all, he’s human. He slides the mask off before he goes to get the boy, to show that he’s human.

That scene was a brilliantly executed composition, a great utilization of film’s greatest asset: the camera makes the audience see what it must see, to stand where the creator wants, to go when the creator wants. And all of this can be done without words. Powerful. If all of Daredevil had been done in the same way, you would have seen here a glittering recommendation with underlined font to go see it. As it is, however, I cannot.

Daredevil is undisputedly violent. As someone who remembers watching war movies with her dad as a kid, I have a fairly high tolerance for violence in film. I watched classics like The Longest Day and The Memphis Belle, as well as newer films like Black Hawk Down. But while I have a high tolerance for it, I can’t let myself become desensitized. When we feel less, or experience less because what we read or watch, that’s when the magic of storytelling takes a turn towards the dark side.

I have not met many people who say that the violence in Daredevil is a good thing. I have met many who say it is a great show aside from the violence. One or two encouraged me to put up with it and watch on. But after the third time I turned away to avoid seeing a literally bloody awful mess, I had to ask myself, is this worth swallowing? Is the story important enough to excuse the horrible things that special effects creators have designed for me to see (or sometimes worse, to hear). And other questions: how often do I excuse what is damaging to me by focusing on elements that were truly done well instead of recognizing the book or movie as a whole? Can we really separate elements of a created world like that? To hold on to small pieces of what we like, forgetting or forgiving what we can’t stomach, don’t believe in, find unbearable?

It’s important to bear in mind that each person is different. We are affected in different ways; we are moved in different ways. One evidence of this is the nigh uncountable number of books, shows, and movies in the world. My decision to stop watching a particular show isn’t a call to end this series, or violent tv shows, or similarly difficult content. All that I ask is that you take a moment to examine what you allow close to your heart, into that terrifically complex brain.

I certainly don’t mean to say that we must love, heart and soul, everything that we read or watch. We don’t have to agree, heart and soul, with everything that we read or watch. We don’t even have to believe, heart and soul, in everything that we read or watch. There are always parts we like and parts that we don’t. Things we agree with and things that we don’t. What we must do is always remember that it is a whole world we are entering. We don’t get to choose to only walk on the grass and not breathe the air.

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