The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories
By Christopher Booker (Continuum)
As the giant ape climbs to his doom in Peter Jackson’s new King Kong, a friend who doesn’t normally cry at movies was sobbing his heart out beside me. And he wasn’t the only one. What is it about this story that has touched audiences for seventy years? Is there something, moreover, which echoes other, older stories? I can imagine – probably there is, somewhere – a cod-Marxist reading: Kong represents the proletariat, its exploitation highlighted by the Depression, murdered by capitalist greed. But I don’t think that would be why my friend was crying. Not that he’s unmoved by the horrors of capitalist greed; but the purely symbolic death of revolutionary hope wouldn’t, I think, be so moving. He (okay, my eyes were moist, too) was touched by something deeper.
Christopher Booker, in his massive work, The Seven Basic Plots, which took him thirty five years to write, has an answer. “Denham and his all-male crew represent the ego-consciousness of modern American civilisation, cut off from the instinctive world of nature... all the limitations of one-sided masculinity... The small inhabited peninsula of consciousness is cut off by a mighty barrier from the dark interior of the unconscious... and now the feminine value, the anima, has passed into that unconscious realm, in the clutches of the shadow of the dark masculine... Despite seemingly being a monster [Kong] reveals he is open to the femininity the heroine represents...” Back in New York, “America’s ego-consciousness hits back... Again and again, these anonymous little representatives of modern man, his pride inflated by the power of his technology, zoom down on the helpless monster... [T]he monster was by no means wholly a monster; in some respects less so than those little modern men.” (pp 377-379)
These thoughts sum up everything which is insightful and interesting but simultaneously annoying, one-sided, ideologically warped or simply banal about Booker’s conclusions. His framework is entirely that of the psychological theorist Carl Jung – and one of the irritating aspects of the book is his refusal anywhere to argue the case for this framework, rather than simply assert it (though, to be fair, it’s nearly 700 pages already). In this he follows another theorist of storytelling, Joseph Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces), whose work was a direct influence, for instance, on Star Wars. (Booker detests Star Wars, along with almost everything else written in the last 200 years, when the ego started to cut loose from the Self. Though he does rather like Terminator 2.) Puzzlingly, he says nothing at all about the large number of books published over the past couple of decades intended as guides to would-be storytellers, like the best-selling Story by Robert McKee. I had hoped Booker’s study might go deeper than these more popular attempts. Well, he certainly tries.
The seven basic plots are Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Many stories, Booker explains, combine these plots. Some – Hamlet, Oedipus – subvert them. But in fact he is more interested in the Jungian archetypes which underline all of them, and in how storytelling in the last couple of centuries has slipped its moorings, producing purely egotist literature which ‘loses the plot’ because it doesn’t understand its own archetypes.
It is of course true that King Kong is the story in which, it turns out, the monster is not the gorilla, but (modern, capitalist) ‘Man’ himself. Humankind has become monstrous because of a warped relationship with and connection to nature: what moves us is the image of this beautiful, gentle, even loving, majestic beast, innocent of any crime, being murdered by our civilisation, which is more brutal than he is. There’s an obvious environmentalist reading, too: it makes me think of actual gorillas, driven close to extinction by deforestation and hunting. But somehow, Booker is right, what moves us is a sense of loss, something we as human beings have lost, or have destroyed. That the monster is so nearly human – in form, in expression, in emotion – emphasises the point. There are almost identical plots to movies – in The Valley of the Gwangi a captured dinosaur is killed in a burning building. But a dinosaur isn’t as touching as an ape, and not only, I think, because it isn’t as furry.
But what I find less persuasive is the Jungian paraphernalia about masculine and feminine values, ego and Self, Dark Mothers, Dark Fathers, and so on. There isn’t space in a short review to unravel these concepts. But after a while, as Booker ploughs through more and more stories, applying his categories – pretty much every heroine represents the anima, apart from those who play an active role in stories who are usually prisoners of the dark masculine (like Anna Karenina, for instance); obviously Darth Vader is a Dark Father (like, duh); King Lear is a Dark Father imprisoned by ego-consciousness who moves towards being a Light Father (but it’s tragedy, so the liberation isn’t complete)... the easy applicability becomes the problem. It’s too neat. Boxing all these stories into these concepts ceases to be an exercise in understanding their appeal. Instead, one starts to think – if that’s all there is to it, if stories are so similar, why do we continue to like them, continue to be riveted to the twists and turns, care about what happens?
Booker is right that there are universal – as in, not historically or culturally specific – themes which are what make stories work. If there wasn’t something universal about Oedipus, for example – about the shock of discovering he has killed his father and produced children with his mother – we wouldn’t understand it at all. He is probably right that often, if not always, these themes are simply to do with the ‘story’ of life, and our wish to make sense of it. We are born, have parents, maybe meet someone we love, maybe have children, face ‘monsters’ both interior and exterior, try to deal with other people around us, try to be happy, and eventually face up to the fact we will die. And very many stories are about these things.
Some are about other things, though – or things not simply reducible to the story of life. One of my favourite movies is Spartacus. Of course to work, be moving, engage us, make us care what happens, it has to be populated by ‘real’, believable people. Maybe Crassus is a Dark Father; maybe Varinia is the anima; maybe Spartacus triumphs over death by being able to ‘see whole’. But surely what moves us, among other things, is a story about freedom, and about humanity’s refusal to be enslaved without a fight, which can’t be defined in Booker’s terms – or it can, perhaps, but only by missing the point.
Booker doesn’t mention Spartacus. To take an example which he does: he loathes Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, made into a film by Milos Forman. “[T]he central figure, Mozart, [is] shockingly presented as a giggling and ridiculous little dirty minded grotesque... [Shaffer turns] the composer into this embarrassing travesty to gratify some obscure purpose of his own psyche... Thus, instead of recognising the human Mozart as all of a piece with music which is one of the supreme expressions in history of the values of the Self, the story sought to degrade him into an infantile caricature. By doing dirt on Mozart, it was unconsciously violating the Self.” (p 387). The Self, it should be understood, for Jung is distinct from the ego, and represents, basically, oneness with nature.
One shudders to imagine the play which would have resulted from treating Mozart in the way Booker recommends. Shaffer’s ‘obscure purpose’ was to deal with something far more interesting: the story is told by Mozart’s contemporary, Salieri, who is not only confronted by Mozart’s genius, but also by his own fundamental mediocrity. That Mozart is a childish brat only makes this worse. It’s a marvellous study of a man realising he will never be as good as he wants to be, and faced with a rival who is effortlessly brilliant. This is a human story: this is about something most of us have to deal with in our lives – that other people are cleverer, more talented, more interesting, or whatever it might be, than we are. Maybe Booker’s never had that experience.
It has to be said that this is the most casually sexist and homophobic book I have read in many years. Masculine and feminine principles/values, etc, are apparently not meant to be literally masculine or feminine (though why call them that, then?). But throughout, Booker treats ‘feminine’ as equalling intuitive, nurturing, etc, while ‘masculine’ is strong, disciplined... (‘Right wing’ is more masculine, and ‘left wing’ more feminine, by the way – and both, therefore, one-sided and insufficiently at one with the Self).
Worse, one of the expressions of the increasing ego-consciousness of western civilisation is an obsession with bad and ugly things: “certain themes continually reappear: the sexual act; nudity; a small number of four letter words, relating to bodily functions, either sexual or excretory; masturbation; homosexuality; sexual perversions; madness; drug-taking; acts of cruelty and violence; rape; cannibalism; finally violent murder or suicide.” (p 478). These, clearly, are all things of which he disapproves and signs of literary decadence. He (if only implicitly) doesn’t like homosexuality because the proper resolution of a good story requires the joining together of the masculine and feminine – in order for a new stage in the cycle of life to begin. Aside from anything else, such an approach makes the appeal of stories which deal with these subjects hard to explain. If Brokeback Mountain is just about egotism, how come people are moved by it?
Part of Booker’s purpose is to sum up the psychological state – and deficiency – of contemporary culture. (One assumes he has managed to be at one with his Self. He really ought to tell us who his shrink is). He tries to trace the evolution of storytelling along with the evolution of the species from a ‘state of nature’ – by which he appears to mean hunter-gatherer societies. There’s a sort of New Age-ish flavour to this image of ‘Man’ gradually losing touch with instinct as ‘he’ develops agriculture, cities, and so on which is for sure not his intention. And little of his account seems to have much basis in evolutionary theory, anthropology, archaeology, or anything else. But, I suppose, it makes for a good story.
Booker’s framework ends up less a source of enlightenment than a straitjacket, leaving whole areas of literature and storytelling fundamentally either inexplicable, or reduced to an uninteresting ‘essence’. There are useful things about the book – it’s a great crib for classic stories you might not have read (though not always reliable: a man who thinks Star Wars is “set in the distant future, when... our galaxy is ruled by one government” (p 42) is obviously not to be trusted). For sure he has read and tried to digest a huge amount of literature – though most, if not all of it, Western.
And he’s asking a profound and important question. It seems to be a very basic aspect of our humanity that we ‘tell stories’: every culture has its myths and legends and tradition of storytelling. Why do we do that? But Booker’s thirty five year labour has resulted only in a partial answer, and one which ultimately impoverishes a good deal of what it sets out to reveal.
One of the problems with Bookers interpretations is that clearly they don;t take into account the intentions or the unconscious assumptions made by the authors or directors. Also he doesn't seem to have any idea about viewing stroies in terms of genre or form. I mean you would read and interpret the English hisorical novel in a rather distinct way form a film. Whereas literary criticism has tended to be either more formalist or more psychological film theory and criticism has seized on the image driven nature of film. That is not to say that the dialogue and soundtrack are not important - they are crucial to making the film the art-form - high, low or otherwise of the 20th century. /many of the ideas used to interpet film are derived from dream interprtation and psychological theorists such as Freud or Jung to be sure. However later theories have looked at ways that film uses images to deliver meanings beyond superficial appearances. Remeber all of those bits in old John ford, John Wayne movies. PErhaps the calssic amongst these is the moment where the authority figure inthe film sees the sister in law of one of the men fetch his coat. As she does so she srtkes it. The idea is of an affection for the man. Simple but effectiver. there are millions of such moments in moveies. Booker doesn;t seem to have cught on to such a semiologicial way of interpreting images in one of the most important of story telling mediums.
Which brings us back to Kong and Freud. Both much maligned figures - although I go along with Viv Stanshall who quipped "Kong - must have been a great bloke" (!) Surely the reason why Kong has such resonance is that this is the figure of a) extreme masculinity emasculated by its experience of the feminine - see the note at the beginning of the film about Beauty overpowering the Beast. Kong is thus so obsessed that he is incapable of escaping from or dealing withthe challenges posed by the society of the ants, as it were, until his final downfall at the hands of civilisation gone berserk. "Those whom the Gods wuld destroy they first make blind" and Kong certqainly is blind to anything else but the girl, basically, right up to the end when he is shot down.
b) Kong represents in basic terms the semi-humanised image of the Id. Ho hum. Freud. Problem? Shouldn't be. Kong represents the basic human instincts and energies in undiluted form. This is the second part of the appeal. Basically however "lovable", poor ol' Kong, has to die to resolve the contradictions at the heart of modern bourgeois sicety and its basic prison house, the family and bourgeois notions of love and sexuality as something which can be made safe, tamed etc. Yup, Kong is the fall guy for modern Bourgois society and its oppressive conventions. Basically the reason we all either think King Kong is great or cry or hate it or get a bit freaked by it is that it is a brilliant bit of work and it "talks" to all of us in the most basic way and in terms which we can't fail to understand or find powerfully moving no matter how hard we try.
It sounds like everyone should give Booker's work a miss, there are plenty of other works on literary or film criticism that are better. So nice one for explaining that , Clive! But then think about it. However did they get that film past the censors, I mean a giant ape and a woman - you do realise the implications of what Kong's "love" is about in the context of a still segregated American society. Unspeakable love. You could even give it a gay reading!
Rufus T Firefly, parvenu (upstart!)
Literature and films, TV, etc are different, and there are levels of 'appreciation' of them which must differ - obviously, a book doesn't have images in the way a movie does, it doesn't have music, actors, and so on. But it does seem to me legitimate to wonder what is nevertheless the same. There will be differences between a stage and film version of 'Hamlet'; but it's a fair enough question - what's so consistently appealing about the *story* of 'Hamlet', regardless of its form (and independently, also, of the use of language, etc)?
Similarly, I think it's reasonable to wonder what lies beneath genre. Genre has rules, and often storytellers violate them at their peril - though not always. But that seems to me a different level of question. There could still be patterns underlying genre. More than one level of analysis might be legitimate, too. Film noir, say, doubtless draws its themes from a particular historical context. The Western, too. But there might be 'archetypes' (for want of a better word) underlying them. The context of the original Kong is for sure a valid question when discussing the original Kong. But there's clearly something powerful and moving about it outside that context.
Is it that Kong represents the Id? Masculinity emasculated by the feminine? Maybe. Something about 'the feminine' (or is it a more gender neutral 'love', actually?) taming untamed passion, sure: The Beast falling for Beauty. According to the film itself (both the 1933 one and Jackson's) it's then 'Beauty which killed the Beast' - except it isn't: Beauty, 'the feminine', is actually entirely innocent of his death. It is everything about civilisation, modernity, humanity-not-in-a-state-of-untamed-passion *except* Beauty, or love, which kills Kong. Love is what redeems him, and what makes his death tragic.
But I'm not sure I understand why, if it's the Id - or the Self- being gunned down by the Ego this would make anyone cry. I don't really understand that story. One about the Id being penned up, or repressed, and consequently going nuts - like Dr Jeckyl, or Forbidden Planet - I get that. But not really that account of King Kong.
There is, indeed, a vast amount of semiological analysis of film (and TV, too). It always seems to me, though, that almost all of it is either desperately boring, or pretentious, or just plain stupid. I've stopped reading 'film theory' books about films because they never seem really to tell you anything. Give me an interview with a film-maker, any day.
And semiotics/structuralism/post-structuralism's domination of Media/Film studies, etc, has trained young people to talk about film in a terribly knowing, but fundamentally dehumanised, way - obsessed with technical processes (what does this wide shot tell us? isn't that a marvellous cut?) at the expense of the *human story* which is the heart of the film - if it's any good, at least. Against that, Booker's starting point - what's underneath - if not his Jungian conclusions, seems right, to me.