Thursday, November 08, 2018

Value of Backstory?

I recently got around to watching the Star Wars movie SOLO. On an e-mail list I subscribe to, someone asserted that it was a mistake to produce a film devoted to Han Solo's backstory. In this person's view, the great appeal of Han was his persona as an interstellar Man of Mystery. My reaction was just the opposite. The main thing I liked about the movie was that it revealed answers to questions left unexplored in the original trilogy. How did Han and Chewbacca become partners? How did Han win the Falcon from Lando? What's the Kessel Run, and how could achieving it in twelve parsecs be explained in a way that makes sense? I'm the type of reader/viewer who wants everything ultimately revealed and explained. Enigmatic stories can be fun, but I also want the fun of seeing them clarified in the end.

Thomas Harris's prequel to the Hannibal Lecter series, HANNIBAL RISING, has received a lot of criticism on a similar premise—that it undercuts the numinous mystery of evil embodied in Lecter's character in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Here, I must admit the critics have a point. In SILENCE, Lecter is presented as an almost preternatural monster, not quite human. (His six fingers, oddly colored eyes, and animal-like sense of smell reinforce this impression.) It would be almost impossible to create an origin story worthy of this characterization without resorting to the outright supernatural.

Then there's Disney's MALEFICENT, which not only reveals an antagonist's early life but effectively transforms her character from the way it appears in the original film (SLEEPING BEAUTY).

What do you think about prequels that create backstories for established characters? Should an author keep the "mystery" intact or offer the enhanced depth a well-crafted backstory can provide?

By the way, speaking of interstellar scoundrels, one of the frequent errors in fiction and film that grates on me the most is the tendency for careless writers to say "intergalactic" when they mean "interstellar." It's even used in J. D. Robb's Eve Dallas novels where the intended reference is probably "interplanetary." Well, granted, we're mostly in Eve's viewpoint, and she has a Sherlock-Holmes-like indifference to any scientific facts that don't relate directly to her profession as a homicide detective. But in most cases the author or scriptwriter has no excuse.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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