Peter M Howard ::

3-9April2011 :: This Week

10Apr2011 [weekly]

In which I read and watch and listen, and wonder about genre

On Genre

Never Let Me Go got me thinking (once more) about genre. I was partly prompted to see the film after seeing David and Margaret on At The Movies denigrate it as "scifi", with David insisting that it took too much suspension of disbelief, and Margaret suggesting it should have had a "futuristic" setting. I suspected, though, that it shouldn't really be watched ("read", in the parlance) as science fiction, and that doing so, especially as critics with an automatic bias against science fiction, may have prompted their reaction.

In watching the film myself, I found my suspicion validated, but it's not so simple to just watch it as a literary film. On the whole, the "scifi" simply provides a setting for a literary tale, a simple story about friendship and love and shared lives; similarly, setting that story in an otherwise low-tech society (much of it looks and feels like it's taking place in the fifties and sixties, though it's supposedly an alternate seventies to nineties) forces one to watch it as though a period piece rather than expecting the conventions of scifi. It is, after all, emphatically not a film about farming cloned organ donors, and so, at least in the language of film, it's difficult to say that it's science fiction.

This is where things break down though. Genre in the written word is classified very differently to genre in film. In some senses, genre in film is where the written word was a couple of decades ago. In film, "science fiction" tends to mean that all of theme and setting and look are identifiably "scifi", and even plots are expected to unravel a certain way and characterisation relies on known types. Cross-overs like Never Let Me Go confuse conventional critics. In the written word, however, the genre boundaries are blurred and critics are slightly more accustomed to this. "Speculative fiction" exists as a handy label to ascribe to works in the middle — Never Let Me Go and Atwood and Murakami can all be shelved in the literature section, because they're literary stories even when they appear in a scifi setting — the setting provides only room for speculation. A whole other series of conventions put, for example, some of Banks' work in the scifi shelves. The issue of classification is particularly vexing me as I near the completion of my own story, neither scifi/fantasy nor literature nor thriller, but with elements of each; "speculative fiction" is as good a label as any, but it doesn't seem to mean anything. (I also like "weird fiction" myself, but suspect the label mightn't attract everyone.)

But back to the film. Taken in itself, the filmmakers have done well to present a literary tale, with a few elements being embellished with the conventions of scifi (eg, one can read into the scene in which the school children buy old and worn children's toys, coming from a "bumper crop", with the implication that with a population living much longer, few children are being born out in the real world; this is never stated, but is reinforced in scenes in the real world in which we never see anyone under the age of thirty, with adults looking suspiciously at our young protagonists, and with no feel of joyful families and children). Similarly, by presenting the scifi premise upfront, one should only have to suspend one's disbelief in one case (ie, that this story takes place in a world in which children are systematically cloned to be organ donors), with the story extending from there.

Aside: Plenty is written in film theory about the suspension of disbelief, but the most important thing is that if that suspension is important to the premise of the film, and to the audience's understanding of how the story plays out, it needs to be done up-front; this would be the main reason the filmmakers shifted from the novel's approach by getting this knowledge out up-front; once we know we're in a slightly alternate reality, we should be able to roll with it. However, it's also critical that we're not asked to suspend our disbelief repeatedly; in this example, we're given one basic difference between our world and the film world, and we can't be asked to later incorporate other major differences into our understanding of the world. I would suggest that Never Let Me Go passes on this count, but that it's probably aided by a knowledge of the conventions of the genre (speculative fiction, in this case, requiring some knowledge of literature and of science fiction), else later revelations feel incompatible with the premise.

This is all an ongoing exploration, at least inside my own head, so while I'm glad to get some of this out, I'm aware it's not entirely complete or coherent yet. I'm going to have to pick up Kazuo Ishiguro's original novel too, and see how his use of the conventions compares.

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