Given the distant realms to which our imaginations journey on screen and in books, is ‘far-fetched’ now a redundant phrase?
Someone said to me recently that, for them, the movie Wild Wild West was too far-fetched because of the advanced inventions it featured. For those who don’t recall, Wild Wild West is the movie where Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Salma Hayek race across 19th century America to save their US President from the clutches of inventor-villain Kenneth Branagh. And yes, I’m sure that some of the inventions featured wouldn’t even be mechanically possible today, let alone in the 19th century – certainly not to the degree that the film’s special effects would have us believe. But I’ve also seen innumerable movies and read countless novels with far more unlikely scenarios, abilities, equipment and events. Haven’t we all? So then I wondered, what today is far-fetched?
In the worlds of our imagination today, both on film and in print, sparkling vampires can come out at twilight and strategic sharks can kill for freedom in our deep blue seas. Alien spheres can lurk for 300 years inside sunken time-travelling spaceships hidden beneath thick Pacific Ocean coral, symbolists can save the Vatican from terrorists armed with antimatter, and the very inception of our thoughts can be planted by dream-invading thieves. There’s no end to what we can imagine – that’s the beauty of being human. And there’s no limit to where we can and can’t travel thanks to speculative fiction – that’s why it’s called the ‘literature of ideas’.
But the question at the heart of all good speculative fiction…
…is itself a thought-experiment that requires fans of the genre to take a leap of faith. It’s all about speculating. So when we say something is ‘far-fetched’ these days, do we perhaps mean it more as a comment on our genre expectations? In his review of Wild Wild West, Roland E. Zwick describes the film as an “amalgam of fantasy and science-fiction gilded onto a Western format”, adding that:
“The disparate styles simply fight against each other, leaving no one in the audience – neither Western nor science-fiction fans – satisfied.”
Mixing disparate styles can work though – look at anything by Dean Koontz, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander or Cross Stitch…
If, as readers, we just go with the story we’re presented with, rather than expect something from its genre (or what we suspect its genre to be), it shouldn’t matter which style is mixed with which. And yet, as I mentioned above, I too have read and watched stories that seemed too ‘far-fetched’.
In particular, I remember a couple of scenes in Dan Brown’s Deception Point that struck me as so unlikely they jarred me from the text. Anyone who has read the novel will know which ones I mean. Luckily, however, by the time those scenes came about I also wanted to keep reading to get to the story’s resolution. So, although the scenes in question jarred me, the storytelling was good enough to keep me turning the pages. So perhaps by saying something is ‘far-fetched’ we actually mean it to comment on the individual novelist or screenwriter’s storytelling abilities?
Triple X: The Next Level was on TV the other night and, as well as being innately flawed by the absence of Vin Diesel (I like Ice Cube, but Vin Diesel is better as xXx), it presented viewers with some pretty far-fetched physical feats. Unlike Dan Brown’s Deception Point, this time it was too much for me and I switched off. Why? The human body has its limits of course, but from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, fiction frequently tests those limits, and I love each of those stories. So what’s the difference?
For me, the difference was that with Triple X: The Next Level, I could already guess the ending. The only reason I had for watching it was to be entertained. Once the entertainment value stopped, so did I. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief and just say, okay, I know this isn’t really possible, but I also don’t care right now… the storytelling simply wasn’t good enough for that, not for me.
Of course, you might love Triple X: The Next Level, but I’m sure there are other stories you didn’t enjoy for similar reasons… because, as I’ve come to realise, it’s not the story itself that today’s modern audience would ever consider ‘far-fetched’ – it’s the way that story is told. Good storytelling, keeping readers and viewers glued to the page or screen by keeping them guessing, is vital if you’re going to push the realistic limits of your fiction. A good point to note, or to remember, for all writers (seasoned, acclaimed or emerging), irrespective of genre, when attempting to convey ‘far-fetched’ notions to their intended audience.
What about you? What stops your suspension of disbelief? When was the last time you stopped watching or reading a story, and why? Share, if you dare…!