My office manager tells me that she dislikes “Frozen” more than any of the other Disney movies because it is “too realistic.” “We don’t watch Disney for realism!” she protests. When Prince Hans turns out to be a slimy jerk, or when the nobles from the surrounding countryside show up to exploit Queen Elsa’s powers and take over the kingdom in her absence—“that’s too gritty!” Disney movies, she argues, are supposed to be pure fantasy. The prince should be a prince. The villains should be clearly identified, and vanquished in the end. They shouldn’t hit too close to home.
I loved “Frozen,” actually (I’m a sucker for animated films, and I don’t think I’d ever use the term “gritty” to describe anything Disney puts out), but I get what she means. (My last post was about exactly that.) I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and I pick children’s stories often even though I don’t have kids, because I figure that they’ll be innocent for the most part. I picked up the first in the “Series of Unfortunate Events” because it was so popular a little while back… and I guess I have only myself to blame, because the title told me what to expect. Still, what I didn’t expect from a kid’s book was pedophilia. (!!) Not directly, mind you, but by implication: a child was coerced into marrying an old man via the threat of killing her younger siblings, should she refuse him. I kept listening, thinking Violet HAD to get out of this. Then, at a moment when the story seemed to have some semblance of resolution, the narrator said something along the lines of, “If you like happy endings, dear reader, then I advice you to stop listening now.”
“Thanks for the warning!” I said aloud. Eject.
So this brings me to a recurring theme: what, to me, makes a “good” story—one that is not just entertaining, but doesn’t cross what I consider to be the line of acceptability? Personally I think the line for what constitutes acceptable realism in entertainment, especially in children’s entertainment, falls somewhere south of “Frozen,” but way, way north of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
I recognize that there has to be conflict in order to propel the plot… otherwise you don’t have a story. But now that I think about it, my office manager was on to something: the stories I find “unacceptably” realistic are those that do hit close to home. I don’t like reading about people dying of cancer (and especially not in excruciating detail) because I’ve been through that. That’s not entertainment to me. But I don’t mind reading about a virus released upon the entire world population destined to destroy us all if (so-and-so hero) doesn’t save the day… it’s extreme enough that I can’t identify with it.
However, there are also topics that I haven’t lived through personally (thank God!), but they are still common enough in human experience that I don’t think they can be called entertainment either. Pedophilia falls under that category. Especially a children’s story shouldn’t highlight such a thing—I would hope kids would be allowed to retain their innocence as long as possible. They grow up too fast as it is. But I honestly don’t think it’s appropriate material for almost any story, save maybe a dark crime drama that doesn’t go into a lot of detail. For my tastes, a story can peripherally mention certain depths of human depravity only enough to move the story along and establish the character of a villain, but cannot go into great detail about it. Otherwise they’ll give me nightmares. (The last James Bond movie, “Skyfall”… couldn’t handle that villain. Same with the last Batman movie, Bane. No thank you.)
And then they need to end happy. Or if they don’t, they at least demonstrate that a main character’s sacrifice brought about some greater good. Or if not that either, they should at least convey some sort of cautionary tale. If there’s neither resolution nor redemption nor a lesson told in parable at the end, how is that entertaining or valuable at all? I do not understand the concept of indulging in fiction that leaves me heartbroken and none the wiser.
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