Saturday, December 16, 2006

Storytellers

I'm always thinking about stories and how they are told.

A great way to learn, I've discovered, is to read the same story twice. Or read the same story as told by different writers.

The four gospels, for example.

It's interesting to see what each writer chooses to leave in and leave out. How the the order of events gets changed around. How the writers differ in their descriptions of, say, crowd reactions. How they differ in their characterizations of the twelve apostles.

(Hint: Read one complete gospel each day. Otherwise they all blur together.)

Movie versions can be revealing, too.

Take The Passion of the Christ.

I wasn't surprised that it was controversial, but I always thought it was controversial for the wrong reasons. (Old news, I know, but now Gibson has directed another movie, Apocalyto, also not in English, and it got me thinking about his choices.)

To me, The Passion stands as a shining example of how a story changes in the retelling. Even in the hands of someone who believes the story is true. Even in the hands of some one who cares enough about historical accuracy use the languages of that time and place.

Like the Gospel writers, Gibson made certain choices about what to include and what to leave out and, perhaps most revealing, what to add.

Matthew chose to begin with Jesus' birth, Mark with his baptism, Mel with his arrest. I guess he assumed we were all familiar with the rest of the story, though he did throw in flashbacks to a few key events -- the Sermon on the Mount, the Woman Caught in Adultery, the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper.

In the case of the woman caught in adultery ("Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"), he chose to place Mary Magdalene in the role, which would explain why she appears so devoted to Jesus in the rest of the film. Historically accurate? No. But, in Hollywood parlance, the flashback "works." It makes emotional sense and makes for a better, more compact story.

To borrow a phrase from novelist Ken Kesey, "It's true even if it never happened."

The same could be said of this addition: As Jesus falls under the weight of the cross he must carry, we see his mother watching and recalling Jesus falling down as a toddler. Clearly, she wishes she could scoop him up again and comfort him as she did then. It's a touching moment and could even be true. After all, what mother hasn't comforted a child who has fallen? Was that really what Mary was thinking? Doesn't matter. It works, right?

Well, not for me, but never mind.

The most surprising addition, though, was a flashback to Jesus as a young carpenter who builds a table that is unusually high for the time period -- he has to explain to his mother how people will sit at the table using chairs he hasn't built yet.

Go figure.

Maybe Jesus was a visionary carpenter as well as a visionary teacher. Maybe his accomplishments as a furniture maker were simply overshadowed by his other insights. The high table forgotten; his admonition to love our enemies remembered.

We all remember that, right?

If not, all the storytellers have failed.

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