Time for rambling on an extended metaphor.
George MacDonald once wrote: “If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it.”
He has stirred my soul to music many times, yet I know, for some, he only strikes a discord. Does this mean they have no music in them?
I think not. It is all about the tuning.
I came to this metaphor while driving one night and I have been turning it over in my mind ever since. The existence of the phrase “strike a chord” tells me that I’m only now catching on to a very old idea. I wonder if the thought occurred to the first human ever to play an instrument.
Literature, music, art, and people are often associated with melody and discord in the soul, but I think every experience plays on us. Places, smells, colors, and noises in nature and the world around us create “sound” in this way.
Unlike instruments, however, humans are not passive in this process. It is here that the metaphor breaks down, though not completely.
It would be senseless to argue that I can only react a certain way to something because of my predisposition. I don’t simply mean changing my mind, as that can be subconscious, a change in circumstances which changes my tuning (and my tuning changes ceaselessly). I am speaking of awareness of my reactions. The music or discord retains its instinctual nature, but it does not have to rule me.
Why does the scent of reindeer lichen stir my soul to depths of joy? Why does the sight of corrugated steel make me a little ill? The reasons, or even understanding that there are reasons, give me power to explore my own feelings and avoid being judgmental when the feelings of others contradict my own. This also allows me to hold an opinion that is not based on my feelings. This kind of understanding seems to be missing from many political arenas and social conversations. I am not a relativist, but I do believe that attempting to understand the “other” point of view is vital for civilized discourse.
How this ties into storytelling:
What resonates with people in a story has an instinctual quality. The persistence of cliches, archetypes and tropes is a symptom of this. Tropes would not exist if they did not play certain chords on a segment of people and this makes them handy tools in storytelling, but tools that require careful use. But that is a post for another time. :)
Details, description, and theme are also powerful influences on a reader. My personal philosophy of writing, at present, demands that I balance effect on the audience with my own preferences, while the integrity of the story itself trumps both. I have very little control over what chords I strike in an individual, as authors I read have little control over my reactions to their work. That is something that every writer should accept for the sake of sanity. No matter how good a job we do in writing, some people are not going to like what we create.
In speaking with the inspiring blogger BeKindRewrite, I realized that the musical metaphor has some bearing on my reaction to beloved books turned into films. I have discovered that the key, for me, is tone. One cannot expect a film and a book to strike exactly the same chords in a person. However, differing details between the works may be acceptable if the tone of the film is similar to that of the book.
“Lord of the Rings” trilogy: Peter Jackson’s film interpretation of the story differs from the books in many respects. He changes characters, plot devices, and lines, sometimes to good effect and sometime to bad. So why do I like the films as an interpretation of the novels? I resonate in much the same way when I read one of Tolkien’s sweeping scenes and when Jackson pans in on Meadowseld with the strings-heavy Rohan theme playing. The same is true of the new “Tintin” movie, the “Princess Bride,” and the 1995 film “Persuasion.”
Then there are the films that strike a very different chord in me from the books on which they are based. It does not follow that they are bad films or that I dislike them (though some I dislike very much). Examples of this include the new “Sherlock Holmes” films, the 2005 “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice,” and horror of horrors, the 1978 “Watership Down.”
I have rambled all over the place with this idea, and could ramble still more, but I think I should draw to a close. I have come to a two-fold conclusion in this exploration:
1. An awareness of the music and discord within us all can make me more tolerant of the opinions of others. I may still have views regarding the quality of an artistic work, but I can easily accept and respect the fact that what makes music in one person, may make dissonance in another without the need to devalue the opinion of one.
2. To anyone who transfers a work from one art form into another: Heed the tone. If you can get that right, you are more than halfway to your goal.