Storytelling, an art as old as man’s ability to communicate, is an art that is quickly dying. Not storytelling in and of itself, but the ability to do so well. One need not look farther than all the constantly recycled, repackaged, revamped products of Hollywood for proof of that. I recently overheard a film major say, “Movies are all about the visuals. You can’t really say a movie is bad just because it doesn’t have a good story, because it’s all about the visual aspect of it.”
By box office numbers, he might be right. Avatar, a film whose storyline has been called out as a reincarnation of Disney’s Pocahontas or Fern Gully, still managed to become the highest grossing movie of all time because of its visual spectacle. (The highest grossing runner up, Titanic, is arguably in a similar boat… pardon the pun.)
A poll conducted by the Associated Press-Ipsos in 2007 reported that the average American claimed to read less than four books a year, with 25% of those surveyed saying they hadn’t even read a single book, whereas the average number of movies the average American sees per year is thought to be between 5 and 8, not including movies watched at home. With this growing prevalence of movies over books as the average American’s preference for receiving stories, it seems to me that filmmakers almost have something of a responsibility to be good storytellers.
My roommate, who is an elementary education major, returned from one of her days of classroom observation in shock over an exchange she’d heard between one of the kindergartners and the teacher. When the teacher asked him why he refused to play on the playground with his classmates, the boy answered that he didn’t know how—that he wasn’t used to using his imagination because all he ever did at home was play the videogame Halo.
Besides the fact that the game garnered a rating of M (Mature) and no 5-year-old should be playing a videogame intended for those over 17, there’s something tragic about a child so young who doesn’t know how to just play. In general, children seem to have the innate ability to spin stories at will, as though they were spiders, and stories their web, quite possibly with more ease than screenwriters and authors who have spent years learning and perfecting their craft. I remember spending endless hours as a child with my friends creating dynamic characters and complicated storylines that only ended because it was time to go home. Even then, we could have easily picked up where we left off the next time we saw each other, and often did.
A survey conducted in January by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that the average 8-18-year-old child is exposed to nearly 11 hours of media per day, which hardly seems healthy. First of all, with that much time spent immersed in electronic media, where do children possibly have time to imagine on their own? Secondly, I believe that good storytelling ought to inspire others to be storytellers, but it seems that most stories today, regardless of medium, foster instead a dependence on the sub-par storytelling of others, or even stifle the imagination (TV and film are particularly more “stifling” than books, which encourage visualization of the words on the page).
Bad storytelling, I think, has several causes. First, we seem to have lost the appreciation for and ability to tell simple stories. Not shallow, not amateurish, but simple. There’s a beauty in stories such as Antoine De Saint-Expéry’s The Little Prince, which don’t rely on labyrinthine plot twists or high language or probing the darkest depths of humanity to reflect truths.
With the proliferation of post-modern and relativistic thought, maybe the reason for the disappearance of simple stories sharing simple truths is that so many storytellers do not know themselves what “truth” is in the first place, and are therefore left to use style rather than substance to craft their works. Not to say that style isn’t important, however, nor do I mean to imply that those who do have a grasp on truth are automatically gifted storytellers. While there’s truth in abundance in Christian fiction, for example, I think most of us would agree that few of the novels on the shelves of Christian bookstores can also be considered art.
Current storytellers have produced very little that is likely to stand the test of time like the “classics.” Will there be any stories left 100 years in the future that we created today? Will stories that were once beautiful continue to be worn down by sequels and remakes and adaptations in a never-ending game of literary “Telephone,” or does the art of true storytelling stand a chance for revival?