It has occurred to me, just now, that our modern myths and legends are stories such as Walker, Texas Ranger and Andromeda. You know the kind. These shows, no matter how inventive they are, all fit the same pattern: the good guy always wins. You could say that he is destined to win. Bad things can happen to him, but if he didn’t win, people wouldn’t watch the show. The Pretender, JAG, Renegade…I’m not sure what came first, but perhaps it was The A-Team. And suddenly we have a proliferation of media in which justice is served and the good guy comes out on top. What can we call these shows? Some of them are probably classified as “dramas”, though I think to have a drama you can’t have the certainty that something good is going to come of it. (In fact, in movies, it seems that a drama has to have a sad ending…if it’s happy, it’s more than likely going to be put in Blockbuster’s “comedy” or “romantic comedy” section.)
And so what label do we stick on these things? I’m going to have to stick with “legend” or “myth”. Obviously what happens in these shows could not happen in real life. No one wins that consistently. And yet we love it…there’s not one of us who doesn’t at least secretly like one of these types of shows. Well, except maybe Sean, but he’s weird ;>
This line of thinking came to me because I’ve been working on a paper comparing Laurence Olivier’s 1944 version of Henry V to Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version. Branagh’s version felt more sophisticated to me; King Harry was hardly perfect, but I loved him anyway. He felt like a real, true person. Olivier’s Harry was quite idealized, and there were even parts cut out of the original story that could have made Harry look bad. So to me, Olivier’s film was mythic in nature; it put King Harry on a pedestal and worked hard to keep him there, and in so doing made him two-dimensional. Sure, he had a personality, but he didn’t feel like a real person. Branagh, on the other hand, was brutally honest in most cases, staying in general quite loyal to the original Shakespeare script. He used a bit of artistic license to enhance the effect of Harry’s trials on the audience, and I believe that on the whole he was successful.
But does that make Olivier’s version bad? I’ve been thinking about it, and I have to say no. It’s pretty obvious that people need myths. Why would they be so popular otherwise? We want something to believe in, want it so badly that we will suspend our disbelief in the ideal so that we can be told fantastic stories about great men and women who can do anything they set their minds to. We want heroes.
And just because something is popular doesn’t make it bad. It might mean that it has something to do with what it means to be human.
Now I’ll content myself to await all the emails from the cynics crying things like “Oh God, if Christina Aguilera’s ‘music’ is part of what it means to be human, then just shoot me now!”