When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

WHEN YOU REACH ME REBECCA STEAD

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.

There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)

NARRATION

First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.

“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.

I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.

Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.

REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON

Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.

I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.

Goodreads reviewer who also loved A Wrinkle In Time as a kid

Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.

Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.

Wikipedia

TIME TRAVEL

Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used  in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)

Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic.

(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)

GENUINE SUBVERSIONS

I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.

Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)

But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.

CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.

Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:

  • Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
  • Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Since both mother and daughter undergo a character arc, this is what John Truby would call a Double Reversal. You see it in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
  • Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
  • Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
  • Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
  • Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
  • Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
  • Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
  • Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
  • The Laughing Man — QuackerQuack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
  • The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
  • Marcus Heilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
  • Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
  • Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
  • Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
  • Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
  • Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
  • Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
  • Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
  • Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
  • Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.

— Sam Eddington

There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Betsy Bird

  • Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
  • The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:

I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.

  • Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
  • For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Miranda is the Every Child so her weakness is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.

She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.

Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.

Miranda has her own minor moral weaknesses.

[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.

Wikipedia

DESIRE

Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.

Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.

OPPONENT

Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)

The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.

A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.

Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.

Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.

PLAN

Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.

So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.

BATTLE

Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.

I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.

SELF-REVELATION

The Self-revelation comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:

Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.

Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.

I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)

Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.

The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.

Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.

Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

There’s a romantic happy ever after, though not for the main character. She gets her friendship happy ever after, plus the budding romance with Colin.

And for anyone who says you can’t get away with epilogues in middle grade novels, I present to you When You Reach Me as example.

The Electric Grandmother and Resonant Imagery

The Electric Grandmother is basically a Twilight Zone episode for kids.

The teleplay (and a short story adaptation of “I Sing The Body Electric”) was written by Ray Bradbury, and was later remade by the Disney Channel as a full-length Made for TV movie called “The Electric Grandmother”.

TV Tropes

 

The Twilight Zone for a contemporary audience is of course Black Mirror. I wonder if Charlie Brooker watched “The Electric Grandmother” growing up, as well as The Twilight Zone. “The Electric Grandmother” reminds me very much of “Be Right Back“, in which a woman orders a synthetic version of her deceased boyfriend.

I’m not the first to have noticed this, and Charlie Brooker counts The Twilight Zone as one of his influences.

It took me a few minutes to place the father, played by Edward Herrmann, who later played the grandfather in Gilmore girls.

The friend who shared this via YouTube remembers The Electric Grandmother fondly, and hadn’t forgotten the songs. Apart from the songs, the most resonant scene, remembered long after the name of the story and the plot is forgotten, is the one where the grandmother squirts milk from her forefinger.

grandmother finger milk

Every story needs a resonant scene like this — one which the audience remembers after details are long gone.

This Milk Finger scene resonates for several reasons:

  • The audience hasn’t seen this exact thing before.
  • Memory experts advise people to put dissonant things together in order to remember them. For instance, if you want to remember to buy cabbage at the supermarket, imagine the entire supermarket made out of hollowed-out cabbage. We can utilise this when telling stories, too. And next time you need to remember milk at the supermarket, maybe think of yourself squirting milk from your finger, like this scene from The Electric Grandmother.
  • This milk finger scene is the first time the audience sees what The Electric Grandmother can do. Until this point, the electric version of the grandmother has seemed just like the dead one.

RESONANT IMAGERY IN STORYTELLING

Is there terminology writers use to describe ‘the part of a story which remains with the audience’ forever?

At Fiction Writers Review, Elizabeth Meyer writes of ‘strange objects’, which is a good term for this:

Strange objects, objects that exist beyond our expectations, do all the work of ordinary objects; but by making the imagination work harder, by requiring the reader to see beyond the everyday, they also create an even more thorough engagement with the text. In “Congress” by Joy Williams and “Sewing for the Heart” by Yoko Ogawa, bizarre objects play dominant roles. In both stories, strange objects serve to mesmerize the reader as well as the characters themselves. Their strangeness fixes our attention, drawing us with curiosity deeper into the narrative while also revealing more submerged themes within the texts and illuminating the characters around them.

Strange Objects Part One

Part Two is here.

Meyer has gone further than the object itself, linking it to what I’ve also heard described as the ‘symbol web’. Though I’m not sure the milk finger in The Electric Grandmother is especially symbolic. It’s just… weird and memorable. In literary work for adults, I would certainly expect the strange object to be linked to the symbol web.

Related to all this, David Lynch uses a term called ‘The Eye Of The Duck’ to describe a critical moment in film.

I’m not sure Lynch would describe the Milk Finger image in The Electric Grandmother as an example of what he’s talking about, but it’s the closest I’ve come so far to a description of these moments/images in a story which feel perfect, and perfectly memorable.

He used the phrase in an interview with the “Daily David”, in which Lynch talks to an audience about storytelling stuff. You can also see it on YouTube.

Why does he call it that? Because when you look at a duck, you feel like its eye couldn’t be placed anywhere else on its body. The eye of the duck feels like it’s in exactly the right place.

Lynch compares film as a whole with the body of a duck and claims that every film has a scene that can be compared to the eye of a duck on a metaphorical level. The placement of the eye, the jewel, within a duck’s body is crucial because it would not make sense anywhere else. It “feels correct” and completes the overall appearance of the body. The very same thing applies to a film (the “body”) and a certain scene (the “eye”).

An eye of the duck scene is not necessarily readily identifiable.

The Eye Of The Duck is not always critical to advancing the plot forward. The insights they convey do not necessarily affect the story of the film to a great deal. Instead it affects the way the audience perceives the film. It’s a concept used by writers who don’t really believe in story structure. David Lynch has said that he eschews traditional story structure. These people (Chatman is another one) believes that an audience provides structure to a story if they need one.

(Others say that although David Lynch prides himself on having no structure to his stories, he actually follows story structure pretty conventionally.)

It will be the scene which sticks in your memory long after you’ve forgotten the rest. For me, an eye-of-the-duck Twin Peaks moment is the dancing dwarf in the red room, but I also remember the phrase, “It’s on the turn” to describe a piece of fruit (and use it often).

Lynch’s medium is film and TV, but Flaubert came up with a very similar phrase to describe ‘the exact word or phrasing’ in a text: le mot juste.

HOW TO COME UP WITH YOUR OWN EYE OF THE DUCK

Lynch advises storytellers to remain open to ideas. Sometimes something suddenly feels complete after a new idea, when you’d assumed it was finished before. Dive within. This ‘eye of the duck’ doesn’t come from the intellect but from intuition.

“Stay true to the ideas. If you love them stay true to them… Maybe some fish comes that is not part of this dinner. Put it away and save it for another time… If something needs to be said twice there’s a feeling, a knowing that it’s correct… Stay on your toes because a thing isn’t finished until it’s finished.”

This is important advice because sometimes, in this age of minimalism, writers are urged to cut, cut, cut. But sometimes, even if a scene exists purely for its aesthetic value — not because it adds obviously to plot, character, theme or setting — you should still keep it there.

 

Black Mirror Season Four Storytelling Takeaways

Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide. Each story says something about our relationship to technology and how technology affects our relationships with others.

SEASON FOUR: USS CALLISTER

LOG LINE: A virtual woman wakes up on a Star Trek-esque ship where the crew praise their all knowing and fearless captain.

Think Inside Out but for adults. As in the Pixar film for children, we have two separate plot lines running in parallel but intricately linked — one taking place in the ‘real world’, the other an ensemble cast of characters who exist only in one of the real world characters’ heads. The ‘main character’ of the ‘real world’ layer is different from the ‘main character’ in the fantasy layer, though I talk more about character function below. As is the case in Inside Out, I feel USS Callister does lag a bit in the middle, but I know this opinion isn’t shared by all types of viewers. Unlike Inside Out, one of the storylines in USS Callister is a happy ending, the other a tragedy.

USS Callister

I’ve seen approximately five minutes of Star Trek in my life, which was enough — given its pop cultural status — to know that the game spoofed in this episode was Star Trek. There’s nothing subtle about that. This genre spoof was the source of its humour — the buttons where it doesn’t matter which one you push, it’s all the same, to the smooth crotches sans genitalia, which is a comment on the sexlessness of Star Trek, but also a comment on the inhuman asexuality thought to be a defining characteristic of the show’s super fans. Continue reading “Black Mirror Season Four Storytelling Takeaways”

Animal Characters Can Still Be White Dudes

i can't be with people and i can't be alone

Previously I delved deep into how jokes can be broken into categories, using a taxonomy proposed by the writer of The Onion. Today I will talk about an implicit rule of comedy to do with gender and also race: White dudes are the Every Person. Any ‘extra’ identity muddies the joke. This rule is less talked about, but is starting to be acknowledged. Next, it needs to change.

animal white dude default from Bojack Horseman

The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, explains for us all why gender diversity is such a tough hurdle, and why the subjects of comedy are still — despite an increasingly woke population — white and male:

In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.

My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”

I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.

The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.

Boring Old Raphael, Tumblr

Bob-Waksberg goes on to say that this thinking is everywhere.

White Dude As Default In Children’s Stories

It is also everywhere in children’s literature. In fact, it may be at its worst in stories for children. Bob-Waksberg even brings up The Lego Movie as his prime example — a big budget film which is first and foremost designed to draw in a young audience, with a large adult audience as bonus.

The LEGO Movie was my favorite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.

That’s why Jon Klassen’s characters are male. That’s why Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug characters are male. The main guy in Pig The Pug is even called ‘Trevor’ — the most non-descript, white, male Australian name possible. That’s probably why Oliver Jeffers writes a story about a boy called Wilfred and not a girl called Wilhelmina.

Bojack Horseman isn’t entirely problem free. It’s still about the problems of a white dude, as clearly explained by Eleanor Robertson at The Guardian.

But I have heard interviews with various comedy writers whose default position is this: My books are not gendered. This boy could be anyone. Even academics will argue that Winnie-the-Pooh is gender free. (Winnie-the-Pooh is sex free, but cannot be gender free because we have not settled upon a gender free pronoun in English as it’s widely used.)

It is remarkably rare to find a writer who will acknowledge the reason for why their main character is white and male. It is even more rare to find a writer/illustrator acknowledge that even though their character is an animal, that animal is obviously coded as white.

double spread from This Moose Belongs To Me

That’s why the creator of Bojack Horseman is so unusual. He is talking about a specifically comedy example of an implicit rule of writing, but writers have long called this “The One Big Lie Of Storytelling“. According to this rule, audiences can’t cope with too much new stuff in a single story. It is a particularly cynical view of audiences, but not without basis. (And in case I need to clarify, I do not subscribe to this rule. But I have heard it. I have heard it round the traps, and I know that writers subscribe to it.)

White Dude As Default In Speculative Fiction

Alongside comedy,  the genres of fantasy and sci-fi suffer badly because of this thinking. That’s because if the audience sees anything other than a patriarchy they must work extra hard to work out what’s going on. If speculative fiction is about the real world, only highlighted by dint of its being transplanted to an alien setting, both writer and audience must work very hard because:

a. They’re already working hard to form a mind-picture of this new world

b. Even just imagining an alternative political set-up in this real world of ours is beyond the imagination of most.

That’s why Game of Thrones is a white patriarchy, and why almost every big, popular fantasy series is also a white patriarchy, where dragons are a thing, where time travel is a thing, but where only one kind of oppressive system of politics works.  We recognise this political structure immediately, because it’s all around us in our everyday lives. Because it’s all around us, it is invisible within our stories. This lets us sink into the fantasy of the rest of it.

(When I say ‘the audience’, I mean the popular, ticket-buying audience who cite ‘entertainment’ as the main reason for engaging with story. That’s all of us at least some of the time. For most people it’s us almost all of the time. We don’t want to work too hard for our stories.)

This rule of storytelling needs to change, and I’m glad to see young, woke writers with a decent platform, like Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talking about it. I hope he keeps talking about it.

For those of us working in children’s literature world, little kids have not yet learned to question jokes about female characters. Humans are not born harbouring gender stereotypes. The place to start changing this expectation of male as default in storytelling is with picture books. Writers: don’t assume that simply by making your characters animals you are suddenly free from all gender and racial constraints.

The Duck Brothers Courage The Cowardly Dog:

“The Duck Brothers” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog features opponents who are revealed to be not really bad, which makes for a comical battle scene. The battle scene is noteworthy for including a wide variety of small battles.

the duck brothers

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE DUCK BROTHERS”

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is unable to convince Eustace when Muriel is in danger because of his lowly status as an anxious dog.

DESIRE

He wants to save Muriel.

OPPONENT

alien-space-ship

The opponents in this story come in the form of an alien spaceship, later revealed to be alien duck brothers who — though this part is never explained in the story — have abducted Muriel (and then Eustace) by mistake. They seem to speak in some approximation of an Irish accent. There would be several reasons for this:

  • Irish accents have comedic value
  • There’s a history of gangster/crime films featuring Irish brothers. E.g. The Boondock Saints (1999), which would have been in theatres when this episode of Courage first aired.
  • During the mid 20th century Irish families tended to have very large families.

The duck brothers are constantly arguing like children. The gag is that one or both of them keeps laying eggs, which is unmanly and emasculating. (Side note: If sexism weren’t a real thing this wouldn’t be a joke that people even understand — the brothers are lowering their status as manly ducks by doing something usually only performed by their mothers and sisters.)

The chef looks like he would be an opponent. He is hairy and wears a singlet and wields a giant knife. But he is revealed later to be just a regular guy with a reasonable temperament.

fake-enemy

PLAN

As ever, Courage’s first move is to tell an adult, whichever of the adults happens to be unafflicted by the bad thing. This is a necessary step in children’s stories. When a child is in great danger and still does not tell any adults in their life, there has to be a reason for this already established. Perhaps the adults are terrible people, for instance. (And even then… We know Eustace is not going to believe Courage’s story that Muriel’s been abducted by aliens.) At the very least the author needs some lampshading — usually in the form of a conversation: “Mom and Dad will never believe this!”

One point about horror stories for adults in which a child character tells the responsible adult something and the adult doesn’t believe them: Don’t try to write it straight. The following is from someone who reads a lot of story submissions in the horror genre:

MOMMY, THERE’S A MONSTER IN MY CLOSET

Children are a bunch of goddamn idiots. This is a fact. So it makes sense that, in fiction, whenever a kid complains to their parents about a monster in the closet, the parent laughs at how dumb they are and sends them back to bed. (Sidenote: if any of my hypothetical kids ever came to me with a monster problem, I would be so excited, like, you have no idea, it’d be a dream come true.) But in these stories, of course there’s really a monster in the closet, and of course it wants to eat the kid. Or, sometimes, it actually wants to eat the kid’s parents, and it convinces the kid to lure them into the closet. An alternative to this story would be instead of a monster in the closet, one of the kid’s toys is eeeevil. There are enough stories about children scared in their bedroom. Please write literally anything else, you unoriginal scumbag.

LitReactor

Eustace at least checks out the surroundings but -- bad luck -- the aliens aren't there right at that moment.
Eustace at least checks out the surroundings but — bad luck — the aliens aren’t there right at that moment.

Eustace rolls over and falls back to sleep, of course, so in true Courage fashion, who keeps a close eye on the action and jumps in whenever he sees an opportunity. First up, jumping onto the back of the ute.

BATTLE

Muriel, controlled by a device on her head, drives to a compound reminiscent of something out of a SF movie. We see a gated compound in Interstellar, for instance, or in the Netflix series Stranger Things. In SF, these factory-like establishments behind guarded gates are most often found near smallish communities where the residents live on the poverty line.

establishing-shot
Establishing Shot: Duck Brothers
interstellar-house
The house in Interstellar is similar to the house in Courage The Cowardly Dog. As is the fact they live near a mysterious, gated compound. Of course, Interstellar was made many years after this episode of Courage.

True to form, the writers choose a typical childhood game for the battle sequence. This time it’s piggy in the middle, after Courage locates the duck brothers inside a compound and tries to wrestle their controller off them.

piggy-in-the-middle

This is the device that is controlling Muriel’s movements.

There is also a food fight, this time with the duck brothers using their eggs to throw at Courage. “Aren’t you glad for these now?” one brother asks accusingly.

duck-brothers-food-fight

Another battle comes about between Courage and himself. Once wrestling the remote controller off the duck brothers he is unable to work it.

muriel-walking-on-the-ceiling

Another concurrent part of the battle scene centres on Muriel and Eustace (who has been captured and controlled off-screen) dancing awkwardly as the ducks seem to be playing with them like kids play with remote controlled toys.

remote-controlled-dance

SELF-REVELATION

The duck brothers are not evil. They are just like Courage — only trying to get a loved one back.

Courage comes to the rescue, walking into the chef’s kitchen and taking back the duck.

“What am I supposed to cook now?” asks the burly chef.

“Strudel,” replies Courage in an uncharacteristically deep voice. (The whole episode is a parody of extreme masculinity.)

The chef thinks this is a great idea.

thug-chef

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

next-morning
Next morning in Nowhere

The three duck brothers have been reunited. The audience is used to a complete set of three from a tradition of fairytales and The Rule Of Threes. When we find there are three brothers instead of two that makes perfect sense to us and feels complete.

three-duck-brothers

three-eggs
The brothers continue to bicker about eggs and masculinity, and we can assume they always will.

Back at home, Courage and Muriel are putting the alien duck brothers’ device to excellent use. They are using it on Eustace — who turned up earlier at the compound wearing it — to get them breakfast in bed.

eustace-breakfast-in-bed

In a Refrigerator Moment, we realise there is a gated compound in Nowhere, housing a chef who — for some strange reason — has alien specimens lining the walls and who likes to cook duck but who will settle for strudel. (Hitchcock coined both ‘McGuffin’ and ‘Refrigerator Logic’. He was a man who really understood story.)

 

A Brief History Of Science Fiction

Along with fantasy, horrors and Westerns, science fiction is one of the highly metaphorical categories of story.

SCIENCE FICTION A BRIEF HISTORY

WHAT IS SCIENCE FICTION?

THE UNIVERSAL EPIC

Science Fiction is about human evolution on the grandest scale, literally the universal epic.

Science fiction stories often use the myth form, not only because myth is about the journey but also because myth is the story form that explores the most fundamental human distinctions. What Is Meant By Mythic Structure?

Science fiction is the biggest of all genres, as huge as the universe and beyond. That’s why it’s so notoriously difficult to write well. It has a broad, loose structure that covers vast scales of space and time.

Science fiction is the most creative genre, because you can take nothing for granted. The writer must literally create everything, including the space-time rules by which human life itself operates.

THE MODERN PROPHECY

Howard Suber points out that science fiction is the modern ‘prophecy’ story, which has been popular forever.

As is true for any prophecy, one must understand not only the specifics of what is predicted but also the yearnings and fears they express.

— Suber

THE FICTION OF IDEAS

Ray Bradbury broadly defines science fiction as ‘the fiction of ideas’. He also thinks science fiction as a genre is not taken seriously enough.

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. […] Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible. […] The mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery. […] I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.

— Ray Bradbury

FEATURES OF SCIENCE FICTION

A typical science fiction film has a form as predictable as a Western, and is made up of elements which are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde schoolteacher from the East, and the gun duel on the deserted main street.

STORYWORLD

Science fiction is defined more by setting details than by other story elements.

Place

Sci Fi is often set on other planets, in outer space, or on a future version of Earth. But these settings are not limited to sci-fi. In war films, also, the setting takes place on ‘a front’ — in sci fi and Westerns it takes place on ‘a frontier’. Dramatically, these are equivalent places. At the front/frontier, the organised forces of society are weak, get in the way, or trap the hero.

Technology is a major component of the setting.

Time

Sci Fi requires an extrapolated or theoretical future science in order to fit the genre.

SCIENCE FICTION AND GENRE

GENRE BLENDS

As long as there is science, technology and a future/alternative history, the conventions of almost any other genre may be blended, including comedy, action-adventure and mystery.

HARD VS SOFT SCIENCE FICTION

An ongoing debate in the science fiction community is about the merits of “hard” vs “soft” science fiction. And the role of gender is significant here. 

Hard science fiction tends to be a boys’ club, while soft science fiction can be seen as more accommodating to female writers. There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.The Digital Reader explains that SF written by women is more likely to be called fantasy:

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction. As Damien Walters has observed, women’s writing is “dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction”.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY

The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along . . . The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition—then develop its consistent, logical consequences.”

— John W. Campbell (1910–1971), American science fiction writer, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Many disagree with this distinction. That was written in the 1960s and speculative fiction has come a long way since then. Obviously this explanation has implications for the gender divide described above.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Time travel! Romance! Japan! If you love the films out of Studio Ghibli you’ll love The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, too.

ARC PHRASE

An arc word/phrase is also known as a ‘leitwort’, which literaully means ‘lead word’. In order to be an arc phrase and not just a catch phrase the phrase must help define the tone of the entire work, or at least the plot arc.

‘Time Waits For No One’ is a fairly cliched English phrase, but perhaps a Japanese audience finds it a little more exotic, like we find Chinese characters exotic when we tattoo ourselves with them. This idiomatic expression is written across the black board, presumably after an English language lesson, and explains the basic message of this tale: Even if you had the ability to go back in time and change things, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about the basic nature of fate.

The first fire in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The first fire
transferred fate in home economics in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
transferred fate in food technology class

The magic in a very early Twilight Zone episode called One For The Angels (in fact this is the second episode ever) is such that even if you yourself manage to avoid death, the fate must be transferred to someone else.

Proud of having outsmarted Mr. Death and now virtually assured of immortality, Lou is informed by Mr. Death that “other arrangements” must now be made, that someone else will have to take his place. Mr. Death chooses a little girl, one of Lou’s good friends who lives in the same building. When she is hit by a truck Lou immediately offers to go with Mr. Death but is told it is too late.

— Wikipedia

Continue reading “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”

Film Study: Contact (1997)

contact book

I recently found a copy of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact at the second-hand store. I already knew that Carl Sagan was a brilliant thinker and that he wrote this book of fiction as a way of playing with some ideas he had about what might happen if humans were to make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligent life form. I’d enjoyed the film when I first saw it in the late 1990s, so bought the book and gave it my best shot, but had to conclude that brilliant as he was in many respects, Sagan was no storyteller. His novel is a meandering, narrative mess. (The book was a bestseller despite this, and because of its fascinating ideas.)

Contact-movie-poster

Professional screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg took Sagan’s ideas and applied basic storytelling structure to his tangle of great ideas and in 1997 released the film version, which is a lot more engaging than Sagan’s novel and scores 7.4 on IMDb.

I’d only recommend a compare and contrast of the book and screen versions of Contact for a great case study into how a great idea can suffer unless you apply (consciously or subconsciously) some basic ‘rules’ of great storytelling.

James V. Hart has also worked on Hook, Dracula and more recently Epic.

Michael Goldenberg has worked on Harry Potter, Green Lantern and Peter Pan, so also has a lot of experience adapting books. (Yes, I know that Peter Pan actually started as a play, which J.M. Barrie novelized his own self…)

Let’s see what Hart and Goldenberg did to this story, which had several major challenges: Listening for E.T. is actually very boring to watch. Scientists finding funding for their projects could also be very boring to watch. Yet these things needed to be shown. There is also the challenge of imagination: If storytellers are going to depict an actual alien world, this has to somehow be both believable and amazing. Although the aliens’ refusal to have much else to do with humanity is a bit of a letdown, I do think the alien world depicted is sufficiently thought-provoking to last in the viewer’s mind long after we’ve forgotten the intricacies of this really quite complicated plot.

Character Web

First of all, there’s a really clear 4-corner character opposition, with all four opponents affecting each other and demonstrating the themes.

CONTACT 4 Corner Character Opposition

When it comes to Truby’s 22 Steps, I count more than that, because the hero has several self-revelations. Also, there seem to be two separate but related threads — one involving the bigger job of communicating with the aliens and the other concerning the personal struggles of Ellie here on Earth. Some might call this the ‘romantic subplot’. But it generally works better not to think in terms of main plot and subplot — instead, both strands of this story are equal in strength.

Self-revelation, need, desire

Dr. Ellie Arroway at the end will be forced to concede that there will always be unknowable things. That science can’t prove anything more than religion can when it all boils down. At its heart, this therefore feels like a Christian film. Now I wish I’d made it all the way through the book so I could see what Sagan’s message was.

However, why read a messy book when you’ve got Goodreads?

Contact GR review

Then there’s the small fact that Carl Sagan hated what Warner Brothers did to his story and wrote them a letter about it. It’s such a shame, in my opinion, that the scriptwriters used their storytelling skills to tell a completely different message. There was no need for that… or was there? Do they know something about Hollywood that the cynical atheists among us refuse to accept? That a large audience would not be happy — and would not pay tickets to see — a story with a non-conservative tale. I wouldn’t be surprised if no one was especially happy with the way Contact turned out. Here’s a bit of the development hell story of getting the thing made.

At the beginning of the story Ellie believes that if she only listens hard enough she, or someone else working for the same cause, will find some life out there. She’s even done the stats on this, which she tells Joss on their first date under the stars. Joss comes out with the line, “Well, if there’s no life out there, that seems like an awful waste of space,” or something along those lines. This line is repeated at the end of the story.

Ellie Joss first date

At the beginning of the story Ellie is wrong about the power of science. She thinks even dead people could probably be contacted via science. We’re shown this when, as a little girl, after the funeral, she tries to contact her recently deceased father on her radio equipment. The link between little girl Ellie and adult Ellie is reinforced by the clothing choice; at the funeral Ellie is wearing a red hooded sweater. The reason for this is two-fold: It marks her out as alone against all the people appropriately wearing black, and it stands out as a bright and memorable colour for the adult version of Ellie who is pre-character change. Notice we see Ellie wearing the adult version of the red hoodie near the beginning of the arc:

CONTACT, Jodie Foster, 1997, earpiece

Ghost (backstory)

Whereas the novel’s structure is basically chronological, starting with Ellie’s childhood of course, the screenwriters decided to drip feed Ellie’s background via a number of flashbacks into her childhood.

Young Ellie
Ellie as an 8 year old

At first we’re told that she has no mother. We are told much later (by some rather ham-handed dialogue exposition from the mad professor) that Ellie’s mother died in childbirth. In a subsequent flashback we see Ellie’s father dying. We are told later that it’s by myocardial infarction (heart attack). The screenwriters know that the audience will want to know exactly how Ellie’s parents died, in the same way we’re always interested in knowing the means of death of our favourite celebrities. (Audiences want to know how people have died even if the means of death turns out to be not all that interesting.)

So that’s Ellie’s ghost. The death of her parents. We are shown nothing of how she is brought up between the ages of 9 and when we next see her, as an adult. We are to assume therefore that she is all alone in the world. This aloneness becomes a metaphor for Earth, which is itself alone in the universe. Ellie stands for humankind, which is realized literally when she is chosen to represent humanity on her mission to Vega.

Ellie and her father
Ellie with her father, who encourages her in her scientific endeavours.
beach picture
This drawing of Pensacola is an example of Chekhov’s gun. We’ll see how significant this place is to Ellie when she lands on Vega.

Storyworld

Ellies Room from Contact
An American 1960s girl’s bedroom

This storyworld is an alternative reality of the 1990s. We’re shown clips of President Clinton talking about the aliens. (All I could think of was how well chosen the sound bytes were — he was no doubt talking about something else!) Technology also, with the big CRT monitors, places this storyworld firmly in the 1990s.

This is also a very American story. We’re shown a montage of TV news bytes to get a sense of what’s happening all around the world; basically, whatever could happen is happening somewhere. Mass suicides, religious uprising, chaos. Many simply don’t believe there’s been any contact at all.

The New Mexican desert is a good place for Ellie to be because it shows just how alone she is on her mission. As she looks down into a ravine (where she sits in a fairly Buddhist pose when she discovers the contact) the filmmakers are able to recreate the biblical Mount Sinai scene. Because of that story of Moses, filmmakers often use elevated landscapes whenever their characters have a revelation or get some sort of insight.

Weakness & Need (Problem)

Psychological Weakness: She has already lost her mother. Soon after, she has also lost her father. As an adult woman she is basically alone, both personally and in her field, which many consider a waste of time.

Moral Weakness: Driven, perfectionist, prioritizing her work over relationships with other people, as demonstrated early on when Ellie prioritises her work over going out with the handsome Palmer Joss. (The morality of Hollywood movies is very conservative. Characters are obliged to do certain things.)

Ellie Joss after sex scene

After sleeping together for the first time:

Joss: “How about dinner tomorrow? I know a great dive.”

Ellie: “No, I don’t think so.”

Joss: “Ellie, did I miss something?”

The most morally reprehensible thing Ellie does in this film is speak angrily to people in authority when asking for science funding. (Kent has warned her not to be too fiery.) She immediately apologises and explains she’s been giving this same speech for 13 months and that this is her last chance. This is a very female thing to do, but the audience expects it, and a conservative audience has trouble identifying with female heroines who get too uppity and full of themselves.

Inciting Incident

I can’t decide if there is only one inciting incident, or two. Maybe it’s both, in the two slightly separate threads — the ‘alien thread’ and the ‘funding battle thread’

  1. Drummond pulls the plug on Ellie’s project, listening to the sky.
  2. There appears to be intelligent life only 26 light years away. But then, as suddenly as they found it, they lose the signal. It comes back a few seconds later. Now they have to decipher the signal. It’s all prime numbers so can’t possibly be natural.

Desire

Ellie desires to find intelligent life on another planet.

Ally/Allies

Ken Clarke – Ellie’s blind, German speaking colleague. Clarke’s blindness lends him some of the features of the ‘blind seer‘. He has big vision, just as Ellie does. We’re to imagine this is because his vision is not corrupted by the realities around him here on earth. He also has near superpowers, able to smell people, walk around without bumping into anything and he just happens to speak German.

Palmer Joss – the romantic interest, was going to be a priest but couldn’t cope with the celibacy. “A man of the cloth, without the cloth.” Joss is actually a fake ally opponent for much of the story, but inadvertently saves her life.

Fake ally opponent
Here is a great still which demonstrates in visual form the character dynamics: Joss is literally “right behind” Ellie, he’s whispering into her main opponent’s ear.

Opponent

The first opponent introduced to the audience is David Drumlin.

David Drumlin

Drumlin is the chief science advisor to the President of the United States, and a person who throughout the movie thwarts Ellie’s research efforts and then tries to steal credit and influence away from her when she actually is successful in finding a message from extraterrestrial intelligences. No surprise that Drumlin is an old white guy. He has every privilege possible when it comes to getting ahead professionally and a position of authority in politics. In fact, gender is Ellie’s curse. It’s no accident that Sagan decided to make Ellie a woman — he must have known that a woman working in science is more likely to be considered crazy for thinking big.

More On ‘The Curse’

The idea of a curse in storytelling comes from the fairytale tradition. In modern stories, the curse is rarely bestowed by a witch; it’ll be something like gender/race/size or any intersectional variation. It would be nice for female audiences to see more stories where a female hero doesn’t carry her gender as a curse, but we’re still not at that point, and certainly weren’t at that point back in 1997. Ellie’s curse is depicted most clearly inside the White House, where the politicians are very obviously avoiding her gaze, talking over her and contradicting what she says. This comes hot on the heels of the scene in which Drumlin is asked to address the media even though it was Ellie herself who made the discovery.

Lest this be considered a fully feminist tale, Ellie is saved by a rich man, who has already cracked the code. Ellie’s main opponent is not overcome by Ellie, but is killed by another man. The only other woman in the story — the black, female politician — is presumably on Ellie’s side because of the shared curse of gender. Ellie’s main psychological weakness is that she is alone — the audience is encouraged to root for her finding a life partner, in the same way we are encouraged to root for her finding life on another planet in the mirror plot, so that Earthlings won’t have to feel so alone. In my opinion, the male characters get the best lines — the ones that get repeated and are therefore important. Joss gets to say the bit about space being a waste if there’s no aliens living out there. There is the classic makeover of a glasses-wearing science type of woman during the ball. (It’s very rare to see a good-looking sciencey heroine without her also dressing up and revealing her true beauty at some point.)

Drumlin believes Ellie is wasting her time and she won’t be taken seriously as an astronomer if she continues with it. His motives are therefore clear; it’s the obligation of the storyteller to understand the motives behind a villain. This guy genuinely seems to believe — or to have fooled himself into believing — that he has Ellie’s best interests at heart. He’s infantalising her.

Joseph the Zealot. This guy stands for the general population who are against Ellie’s discovery because they don’t want scientists to be the mouthpiece to, what they think of as, god.

Joseph the zealot
Notice how often evil people are either black or albino?

Drumlin ironically gets his comeuppance thanks to the only other character in the film who can be called a villain: a religious zealot based in Panguitch, Utah. (Panguitch is an actual place. I wonder if they were thrilled to see themselves represented in Hollywood.) Joseph is first seen 58 minutes, 10 seconds after the start of the movie — the critical one hour crisis point (as Howard Suber calls it). This corresponds to Truby’s step nine — changed desire and motive. Ellie has the minor revelation that most of the world is going to be against her; people are not suddenly going to quit their faith in god. But this revelation only galvanises her decision to stay true to her own atheist, pro-science self.

Fake-ally opponent

We don’t initially realise that Joss is going to be a stumbling block in Ellie’s career, but we do get a jolt when we see that in the few years since Ellie knew him he’s written a bestselling book on theology and that his worldview is diametrically opposed to Ellie’s scientific one.

Changed desire and motive

“We’re gonna raise some money ourselves and go to New Mexico.”

Listening at night

The audience thinks she’s going to call the cute guy she slept with once, but she puts his number aside and makes calls about work instead.

Revelation and decision

Funding is withdrawn. Ellie can no longer keep listening for life unless she finds a private investor. She’s going to have to fight for this.

Plan

Ellie plans to find money come hell or highwater. After 13 months of making presentations she eventually gets the money to go to New Mexico. She is told that her proposal sounds more like science fiction than science.

Mystery

Not every story needs a mystery, but the writers obviously knew that a story like this one — where the most visually interesting scenes happen only at the climax when she lands on Vega — needed every trick in the book.  So we get both an opponent character web AND a mystery. Who is the unknown person funding Ellie’s project? (The one looking at her through the video camera when she delivers her impassioned funding plea.) We’ll find this out later at the same time Ellie does.

In fact, this film is listed on IMDb as being a mixture of three genres: drama, mystery and sci-fi.

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

Behind the scenes, people working in the government (probably listening to Drumlin) decide to lease the telescopes out to other projects because they don’t consider Ellie’s SETI project quite sane.

Attack by ally

Ken Clarke when they realize the telescopes have been leased to others: “Just let’s face it, it’s over.”

Apparent defeat

Without telescopes they can’t continue their research, even with funding.

Drive

Ellie continues to listen for life even though her project is about to be closed. A lesser character might get drunk at this point and change careers. Alone – literally on a hill (like the bible story) – and in a wonderfully storybook coincidence of timing which the audience nevertheless accepts — Ellie hears something unnatural  in the skies. She rushes off in her car shouting into her walkie talkie.

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

Back in the computer lab with her colleagues, Ellie indeed comes across as obsessed, talking quickly and excitedly. She kisses her computer. The aliens are sending back German TV broadcasts from Hitler’s era, the first television signal of any strength.

Audience revelation

Contact mad professor

Someone has broken into the database. She is told to meet at a remote point in the middle of the desert. She goes there by helicopter. We see a mystery person has arrived by plane. His name is Mr Haddon. “I consider you one of my valuable long term investments.” He’s been watching her for a long time. “I can help deal you back in.”

“I didn’t realize I was out.”

Ellie attends a prestigious event where she talks to Joss about theology. It is hammered home (revealed) to the audience that Joss might actually stand in her way.

Storyworld (how it has changed)

At this point of the movie we see what’s going on around the world (with a montage of TV news clips).

She drives slowly past the religious zealot and sees what she’s up against.

Revelation with the zealot

Second revelation and decision

Ellie realises she might actually get the chance to visit aliens. The mad professor guy is about to die and he wants to fund someone’s going to Vega. He’s been cracking the primer for the machine the aliens sent, realising it’s in three dimensions.

Attack by opponent

Ellie has hoped the person to go to Vega on the American mission will be her, but now she has to fight her way onto the space ship. Drumlin has removed himself from the selection panel and will be one of the candidates.

Attack by ally (again)

As ally, in this scene, Joss has a fatherly conversation with her: Just checking you know you could die, kinda thing. “You’re willing to give your life for this, Ellie. Why?” Ellie explains that finding out stuff about other intelligent life is worth a human life.

You could die Ellie

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack (again)

Joss admits this later in the film as a way of tying motivations up, but he is deliberately undermining Ellie because he doesn’t want her to leave him.

When Ellie is asked by Joss about whether she is a spiritual person she is honest, and we all realise this was the wrong thing to say, if she wanted the job:

PALMER JOSS (Matthew McConaughey): Madam chairman, I have one more question. Dr. Arroway, would you consider yourself a spiritual person?

ELLIE (Jodie Foster): I really don’t understand the point of the question. I consider myself a moral person.

PALMER JOSS: Do you believe in God, Dr. Arroway?

ELLIE: As a scientist I, we rely on empirical evidence, and in this matter I don’t believe there is data either way.

COMMITTEE CHAIRPERSON: So your answer would be that you do not believe in God?

ELLIE: I don’t understand the relevance of the question.

ANOTHER COMMITTEE MEMBER: Dr. Arroway, 95% of the world population believes in a supreme being in one form or another. I believe that makes the question more than relevant.

ELLIE: I believe that I have already answered that question.

Apparent defeat (again)

Dr Joss comes to her hotel room and asks her how she can be so arrogant as to not believe in something bigger when 95 per cent of humanity does. She is not chosen. Instead, her opponent David Drumlin is chosen, because he’s said the right things about  god. We see him giving his departure speech.

Moral decision

Prior to the launch at Cape Canaveral Ellie congratulates Drumlin and wishes him luck with his mission. She had two choices. Characters often only have two obvious choices in stories, even when in real life there are usually many. Ellie could either turn up and be good for PR (as is expected of her), or she could hide away somewhere and have nothing more to do with it. Drumlin expresses surprise that she turned up, showing us what he would have done in her situation and allowing us to contrast their character.

As Drumlin points out, Ellie has answered the panel according to her idealism and it didn’t get her far in this case. He thinks ‘we just don’t live in that kind of world’ but she replies that ‘the world is what we make it’.

Ellie is an admirable character all the way through the story because she puts the cause ahead of petty personal injustices and egotism. (Also, female heroes aren’t really allowed to be assholes in Hollywood.)

Third revelation and decision

At this point the ship blows up. It comes to light very soon after the event that the Christian cult leader with the long white hair has caused the explosion in Florida.

Zealot was the murderer

Ellie goes to some house (her own or Kent’s?) and sees a screen set up. The mad professor guy is on a space station because he’s riddled with cancer and the weightlessness is helping somehow. He’s in cahoots with the Russians, which is how he came to be up there. He reveals that there’s another rocket launcher in Hokkaido, Japan. “They still want an American to go, Doctor. Wanna take a ride?” Of course the answer is going to be yes, so we don’t need to be shown that part. Ellie’s obsessive drive has already been shown.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

There is an actual gate — we see her walking onto the space ship and getting into what looks very similar to an electric chair.

The gauntlet is symbolised by the crowds of people lining the entryways of where Ellie is going. These are people fighting each other from both sides of the theological fence.

Visit to death: The Japanese give her a pill in case she would like to commit suicide in space. “There are a thousand reasons for you to have this with you, but mostly it’s for the reasons we can’t think of.”

Battle/Attack by ally

Dr Joss darkens her door again. “I know you don’t have much time. As soon as I found out about the machine I called the President….I had to see you one more time… The reason I don’t want you to go is because I don’t want to lose you. Now you find your way home, all right?”

Self-revelation (on planet Vega)

Ellie feels herself go through what she perceives to be a wormhole.  “It’s so beautiful. I had no idea!”

revelation

Object Symbolism

The compass pendant that Joss gives her flies off inside the spacecraft after she’s been thought he wormhole. She has lost her way in the universe and we feel that she’s very far from home. The compass flying away is also a symbol of her moral confusion — she no longer knows quite what to believe.

The aliens take her to Vega where she appears on a familiar beach but with a dark sky and ambiguous light source.

Her dead father emerges from a kind of mirage from forest alongside the beach. She realizes it’s not really her own father but the alien life form is communicating with her via his image. “We thought this might make things easier for you.” (She’s looking at a memory of Pensacola.)

map pensacola

This is very similar to Christian thought, in which the dead appear as they are remembered on Earth.

“You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone,” says the dad-alien, because in this film, a lot of the theme is conveyed via dialogue.

On Vega

vega dad

Attack by opponent (again)/Battle

The entire world is Ellie’s opponent. The headset only recorded static while she was on the other planet. Most people think she hasn’t gone anywhere and has hallucinated the entire thing.

“The IPV dropped straight through the machine. You didn’t go anywhere.”

It gets even worse when even the government realises they may have just wasted billions on a hoax. There is an enquiry into the difference between Ellie’s experience and the fact that those here on Earth noticed nothing. She feels she was away about 18 hours. The government thinks she’s delusional. Now she is accused of faking a signal from Vega, colluding with S. R. Haddon, in a final bid for immortality. (We are shown that he is dead.) As a scientist, Ellie concedes that this whole trillion dollar debacle might be a big hallucination.

Occam’s razor: “The simplest explanation is usually the right one.” This works both for and against Ellie; we see her utter it first in a conversation with Joss on the balcony at the ball, but we see her opponents in power use it against her when she comes back from Vega with an unlikely tale.

Ellie on trial
Ellie is no longer wearing red because she is no longer the red-hoodie wearing little girl. Nevertheless, the red table cloth lends the scene a bit of colour against all the black suits.

Second self-revelation

Ellie can’t make sense of what happened. As we see on the panel, she can’t explain scientifically something she felt was so real.

New equilibrium

The ‘new equilibrium scene’ is preceded by quite a few scenes of tying up loose ends. We see a classic ‘Or Was It a Dream‘ trope, used quite often in picture books (such as The Polar Express). The black female politician who was Ellie’s biggest champion at the White House discovers that the rocket recorded 18 hours of static. This is like the final illustration of a picture book in which the character went on some sort of — what we assume was — an imaginative expedition but when they get home they’re holding a magical keepsake. The new equilibrium for the world is that we still don’t really know anything.

“Our goal is one and the same; the pursuit of truth,” Dr Joss says sagely at the end, speaking of the divide between the god loving and the godless. In the end, both religion and science require faith, the movie tells us. As for Ellie’s relationship with Joss, now that the heroine has been brought down a peg on the atheism front, she’s finally at a point where she could happily pursue something with a Christian man. But we don’t really know where that one goes (thank dog).

Ellie Joss declaration of love

Ellie ends her story giving tours at the site of the telescopes (in New Mexico?) As she tells the children gathered around her, she doesn’t seem sure of anything, except that the universe is a pretty big place – bigger than anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us, ‘it feels like an awful waste of space.’ (Which is Ellie repeating a line Joss said when the two of them first met.)

As some kind of personal pilgrimage, she sits once again on the hill where she first heard the alien message, the one that looks down into the ravine. She picks up some sand and we can guess she’s thinking something like, ‘There are as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on the earth’. (There may also be an easter egg in this image.)

contact handful of sand