Cult Fiction II: The Literature of Our Time
In the words of Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison, “Film is the literature of our time.” But what is literature? If we accept that film is, or can be, literature, and that literature is different from non-literature (journalism, biography, documentary, or junk), what qualifies as literature?
Literature is the art of writing incorporating imagination and emotion. Prose literature implies telling a story (narrative) in which something happens (plot) to certain people or creatures (characters) about whom the audience cares, set in time (past, present, or future) and places (real or imaginary), told in a way that suggests meaning beyond the action or character development (ideas, issues, values, motivations, themes) and using techniques associated with storytelling and writing (allusion, foreshadowing, flashback, imagery, symbol, metaphor, pathetic fallacy, etc.) Stories may vary in plotting structure (chronological, cause and effect, flashback, shattered time lines) and points of view (from the all-seeing “I am a camera” inside-the-head-looking-out to an internal or external narrator).
Films may be adaptations of stories or books, or written directly for the screen. Additional techniques including casting, acting, costume design, sounds of music, special effects, and voice-over, lighting, or camera work are used to help tell the film story. Films may be emotionally uplifting or depressing, depending upon plot, characters, and themes. Contrary to some popular definitions, it is possible for literature to have a happy ending as well as inconclusive or sad resolutions of the plot.
Films and novels as literature are forms of entertainment. Films in the Action genre tend to appeal to audiences with masculine and adolescent interests because of their conventions--thrills through speed, chases, explosions, weapons, and anger triggering retaliation and revenge. Feature films as literature target an audience for whom explorations of feeling and thinking are part of the enjoyment. Literary entertainment implies depths of meaning or elements of style which continue to give pleasure when re-visited, in memory or conversation, or by re-viewing or re-reading. A film as literature is a banquet; it offers courses, layers of life experience, with a dessert of idea or theme that viewers enjoy long after they have left the theatre or turned off the power switch. A good film provides a lingering glow, like wine, that makes us feel good to be human, glad to be alive. Literature, no matter which medium transmits it, highlights our shared experiences and celebrates what it means to be here, human, of this Earth.
Surprisingly, for some viewers, First Blood meets the literature criteria. Although undoubtedly an action movie, John Rambo is a rounded character, troubled, idealistic, who reluctantly confronts injustice when it will not leave him alone. Rambo’s character develops; he himself changes as his actions change the world around him. A closer reading also detects literary allusion, imagery, metaphor, symbolism, and the inclusion of serious themes which help make this movie a feast worthy of celebration. ©
Read more about John Rambo and his creator, David Morrell, in Cult Fiction III, IV, V, and VI.