The Ego Has Landed

Nov 21 2011

Plotting the course of storytelling over the past 200 years

In The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker argues that storytelling has changed dramatically over the last 200 years, and that he focus on the inner state of a hero(ine)’s inner state and eventual transformation has shifted to a focus on more outward (material) transformation, gradually moving the plot away from the primal archetypes towards more ego driven narratives. For example, in the film Limitless (2011) a Faustian bargain at the start of the film evolves into a wish fulfilment fantasy in which the hero suffers no ultimate penalty for his bargain nor does he undergo any serious ‘transformation’ or ‘enlightenment’.

Such a focus on ego has led to many darker versions of the basic plots, where the hero(ine) undergo no transformation to reach a happy ending, leading to darker versions of the plots where the hero(ine) destroys themselves, lesser dark versions of the plots where the hero(ine) only superficially appears to achieve the ultimate goal, and sentimental versions (typical of modern cinema) with only outer and no inner transformations leaving an empty shell of a story.

Dark or sentimental

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is a great film although highly sentimental in its development, as Charlie Chaplin undergoes no real inner development despite his trials finishing the film as an immature hero with a happy future (if his wish is fulfilled). Although this is a version of the ‘Rags to riches’ plot, the hero undergoes no real transformation or development. Similarly many newspapers rely on creating modern ‘Rags to riches’ stories which focus on the cult of celebrity projected in the outward material trappings of success and often the ensuing destructive forces which catch those caught up in their own ego fantasy (think Amy Winehouse and others).

There are many very dark versions of the ‘Overcoming the monster’ plot, including Frankenstein and Moby Dick which are modern classics where the hero and monster are reversed during the story so that the hero at the start of the story ends up becoming the monster at the end, destroyed by his own egotism as the monster disappears.

In my discussion of the ‘Quest’ plot, I used Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example of the plot,  although it contains many dark elements including the lack of pure motive (and a focus on ego) for the quest itself and the ultimate destruction caused by unleashing the forces contained in the treasure which Indiana Jones seeks. Darker versions of the ‘Voyage and return’ plot include Kafka’s The Trial where the story focuses purely on the hero as someone alone in a strange world who never does return from this world just as another Kafka character in his famous story Metamorphosis.

Much modern ‘Comedy’ is a burlesque of itself, frequently seen in opera’s such as Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow and The Mikado and others by Gilbert and Sullivan where the outer form of the plot follows the comedy structure although there is no inner meaning and no moral to be learnt (apart from the importance of laughing). Many of the most successful modern TV sitcoms revolve around the inflated ego of its central character - think of Fawlty Towers, Till Death Us Do Part, Dad’s Army, Yes Minister and, of course, The Office.

Many modern examples of ‘Tragedy’ revolve around very dark and egocentric characters such as Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s book or Bonnie and Clyde as played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. In the final scene of Bonnie and Clyde, there is no redeeming lesson as the couple die in a volley of bullets.  As an audience we empathise more with them than with their string of victims, but in reality the two central characters are immature and selfish.

Plots for egos

Two new genres have appeared in the last century which define two new plot structures (although most examples continue to show elements of at least one of the seven basic plots). These plots are driven by the egos of the hero(ine)’s as the focus of their stories.

The ‘Mystery’ plot is a relatively recent phenomena (apart from Daniel’s sleuth-like skills in the Apocrypha) and first appeared in the 19th century with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (which was based on a slightly earlier story by E.T.A. Hoffmann). The basic plot is that the hero (typically an outsider) comes into a situation to uncover a crime or resolve a mystery and bring back order. It was perfected in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (some of my favourite reading since I was young), starting with A Study in Scarlet in 1887 (brilliantly updated by the BBC as A Study in Pink last year). Although we see other plots used in many Sherlock Holmes stories (‘Overcoming the monster’ of The Speckled Band and The Hound of the Baskervilles or the ‘Quest’ to uncover The Musgrave Ritual), the central focus is on the powers (and peculiarities) of Sherlock Holmes as a voyeur on the lives of those who seek an answer to an unfathomable problem (or justice against a terrible criminal).  Citizen Kane, often rated as the best film of all time, is also a mystery story at it’s heart, and there continues to be an endless stream of TV detective series and crime novels.

Another, less common, modern plot is that of the ‘Rebellion against the “one”‘, typified by George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World published just after and just before the Second World War. In these stories a rebellious hero is ultimately crushed by the overwhelming power of the forces he opposes (brutally in the case of Winston Smith in Orwell’s chilling story). One of the most famous TV commercials of all time plays on the same theme in opposing the big brother of IBM and others.

The final ego trip?

Modern storytelling revolves around the egos of its heroes and heroines, sometimes to the detriment of the deeper messages and meanings of the stories we tell. This is exemplified no better than Existential philosophy and some of the movements that sprung from it. Although he denied that he was an existentialist, Albert Camus’s absurdist novels owe a great debt to the themes of this philosophy and, in particular, the concerns and paradoxes of individual freedom.  Camus was a great novelist (and won the Nobel prize for literature in 1957 (his writings on capital punishment and human conscience were cited in the award ). His first novel, L’Etranger (translated as The Stranger or The Outsider) is shocking in its depiction of a ‘hero’ who kills an arab with no clear reason  (hence The Cure’s song), indulges in long monologues on individual freedom and the absurdity of human life and faces the death penalty with indifference. The detached and unemotional state of the central character is unnerving and sometimes repulsive, and one of the best examples of the centrality of the ego to modern storytelling.

The dominance of the ego continues in current literature and film. The last film I watched, In Time,  has a fascinating central premise of replacing money with personal time and the early parts of the film show the impact of this on everyday lives (most tellingly when the hero’s mother dies seconds before he can give her more ‘time’). However the film ultimately wanders into a Justin Timberlake ego fantasy as he and his partner in crime (Amanda Seyfried) indulge in an orgy of robbing banks of their time (money) in scenes very reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde.

Many of the world’s current intractable problems (financial crisis and most importantly the environmental crisis) show the dark side of our egocentric view of the world, believing that we are always in control of our destiny and can do whatever we want with no thought for the long term future of our children or the planet. I’m not sure where it will all end, but I recommend that you go back to the older versions of tragedy rather than the latest Hollywood blockbuster to find some clues. You might discover a message much nearer the real truth.


The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker (2004)

2 responses so far

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