Like any good writer, I was supposed to write something new but ended up binge-watching the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on Netflix. When I’m not writing, I read a lot, and the professionals tell you a good writer must read, read, read and not squander there creative days in front of the TV. But one scene did get me thinking; is reading important to great storytelling?
I assume everyone has seen the Fresh Prince, or at least they’re familiar with the premise of the show. But for those who aren’t acquainted with the series, here’s a quick breakdown. Will Smith, a troublesome teenager from Philadelphia, is sent to live with his rich aunt and uncle in their Bel-Air mansion. The difference between the two environments is evident from the first scene of the first episode of the Fresh Prince.
It was this first episode that had me thinking about what great storytelling involves, it’s about characters and environments interacting and evolving together to lead from point A to point B and the tension between the two. The series itself is an example of great storytelling.
The Fresh Prince
In the first episode of the Fresh Prince, an immature Will Smith must get to know his posh and seemingly snobbish family. However, their differences prevent him from forming any real bonds with his Uncle Phil and cousin Carlton. To add to Uncle Phil’s concerns, he’s hosting a gathering with his partners from the law firm, until Will shows up and embarrasses Uncle Phil. He goes as far to introduce Will as his “nephew, by marriage.” Will’s lack of formal education and immaturity embarrasses an Uncle Phil who Will views as stuck up.
After the dinner party, Uncle Phil confronts Will about his shenanigans. Naturally, Will defends himself with humour, but Phil reminds him that it’s that mentality that has got him into trouble in the first place. Will calls him out and tells Phil he forgot where he comes from and going as far as calling him soft.
I grew up on the streets just like you, I encountered bigotry you could not imagine. Now you have a nice poster of Malcolm X on your wall, I heard the brother speak, I read every word he wrote. Believe me, I know where I come from. So before you criticise someone, you find out what his all about.
-James Avery – Uncle Phil in the Fresh Prince of Bel-air
Will responds to this incredible monologue by an astonishing actor by demanding the chance to tell his side of the story, but Uncle Phil refuses. ‘Believe me, I know what you’re all about,’ he says and walks out of the living room. Will slumps down on the piano and begins randomly pressing keys before playing “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. An astonished Uncle Phil stands in the doorway and chuffs, realising he may be guilty of the same mistake of judging Will before he got to know what he was about.
Alone, this is a brilliant scene, but its compounded by the memory of the final episode of the series in which brings everything full circle. Will never saw Phil in the doorway and transforms from the immature teenager into a university student on the cusp of graduation without knowing Uncle Phil saw his potential from the very beginning. This forms the core tensions throughout the series with Will doing something stupid, and Phil seemingly stopping him from doing anything fun.
In the final episode, a mature and older Will Smith struggles to find a flat despite assuring the rest of the family he has found an apartment. This was the reason Uncle Phil and his aunt decided to sell the house and move to New York. When Uncle Phil learns of Wills flat troubles, he asked why he lied, to which Will replied, ‘I just didn’t want you to think I was the same stupid kid I was when I first move out here.’
To which Uncle Phil tells Will that he has no idea what his first impression of him was in a scene that I was reminded of while watching the first episode again. Brilliant writing. The transition from point A to B, and the change in characters evident in two scenes, six years apart. Great storytelling.
Where’s The Catcher In The Rye Movie?
So why do so many writers emphasise reading if we can find evidence of great storytelling in places such as an American sitcom from the 1990s? In many ways, films and TV series are the ultimate beacons of the show don’t tell rule, but sometimes, telling is needed to simplify a reader or a viewer’s understanding of the story. It’s all well and good, showing anger or happiness, but the thought processes and characters experiences that led to this emotion may not be as transparent. Some films use devices such as a narrator or a flashback to fill in the gaps, usually at the cost of pulling the viewer from the current action.
Compare this to a novel such as The Catcher in the Rye where the story takes place in the mind of a young Hayden Caulfield. In the written form, there’s a lot more room for a writer to explore the deeper thoughts and personality of the narrator. The reader feels emotions and experiences a connection with Hayden even if they haven’t experienced Hayden’s plight. For the reader, the story feels internal as though they are a part of the journey. However, the downside of this style of writing is there’s a lot less action involved which may explain why nobody has made a blockbuster film of the Catcher in the Rye.
Is it possible to produce a great piece of literature from copying a visual media?
One of my favourite films of all times, Fight Club, is one film regarded by many to be a film that’s better than the original book. Like The Catcher in the Rye, fight club happens within the mind of the narrator. However, in Fight Club, the narrators remain unnamed. At the end of the novel, the narrator realises that he has a split personality and is the main antagonist as well which works better with the visual representation as the viewer can witness the manifestation of a mental disorder. This is an essential tool in relating to an audience because most of us have no idea what it feels like to be a sleep-deprived schizophrenic with another personality.
In novels such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and the Harry Potter series, the page number can run on to enormous lengths which if copied scene for scene in movie adaptations would create a film over three hours long. Extreme durations drain the attention span of viewers. These films would also feel less dramatic. However, films such as these can still show all the vital information despite cutting scenes from the novel by facial expressions and scene settings. The written print of stories doesn’t allow these little scene builders to show everything the readers needs to know, and so additional scenes may be required to show characterisation and explain the context.
I believe great storytellers must read great writers because there’s more to a great novel than the story. There’re themes, and symbolism that isn’t at the forefront of the story or the minds of the characters, but they delve into the ideas present in the real world. Game of thrones deals with sex and power just as well as 50 cent’s power show does, albeit with different settings. But a great writer writes for the beauty of writing — the balance between exposition and dialogue, the perfection of prose, and the organisation and structure of the printed piece, none of which we can find in visual media. Good storytelling is about balance, and good learning requires the same amount of balance.