Storytelling has always fascinated me. It recently came to my attention that my favourite movies are all stories about stories being told. Three that come to my mind are The Princess Bride, The Fall, and Big Fish.
The Princess Bride is about a grandfather telling a story to his sick grandson, the same story that his father had read to him when he was sick, and the same story he had read to his son: and now he tells it to his grandson. The story is one that assembles all the fantastic and marvelous elements of fairy tales: fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, and miracles. In this tale about a fairy tale, we find ourselves constantly presented with the small private smile of a storyteller who realizes that his tale is childish and yet will never apologize for it. The young boy at first disregards the tale, thinking it silly: to him, it’s just a “kissing” book. And yet by the end of the story, he finds himself gripped by this self-aware tale. He wants to hear how true love wins. The story, told by a loving grandfather, has changed the boy he told it to.
The Fall is another tale about an adult telling a story to a child. A young girl with a broken arm is in the hospital, and meets a man with a broken back. The man begins to tell her the most marvelous adventures about a group of men who swear to revenge themselves upon the evil Count Odious. The main character in these tales is played by the man himself. But while the girl listens to the tales, she is unaware that, in the tales, the man is justifying both his desire to commit suicide and his bitterness against those he perceives as his enemies. He attempts to manipulate her into getting him the means to commit suicide by refusing to tell her the end of the stories unless she does things for him. But when she gets further injured and nearly dies during one of her unwitting missions of his suicide, he is broken by grief and begins weaving the tales into death and destruction, killing off all the characters you’ve come to know and sympathize with over the course of the movie. She begins crying inconsolably when he does so, and begs him not to tell the story that way, pleading that the story wasn’t right, that this is not how you tell stories. To comfort her, he changes the story. He finishes with forgiveness, not death, and here’s the best part: in doing this, in changing the story to the way it should be told, he finds himself letting go of his bitterness, and finding comfort despite his losses. By telling the right story, he himself has been changed.
The third movie that follows this pattern is Big Fish. I initially avoided it, since it was a Tim Burton movie. I had come to view his stories as the products of a dark and warped imagination. But this movie proved me at least partially wrong. We see a son and father estranged, never speaking to one another, because the son has become fed up with the fantastic tall tales his father told him about himself. He is angry that his father only tells him these palpably false lies instead of the truth about his history. But when his father begins to die, he sees the need for ultimate reconciliation, and goes to talk to his father. To help us understand his father, he tells the story of his father’s life to us as it was told to him. We find a tale about a man constantly thrust into the most improbable situations, yet always coming out victorious and heading into further victories. He seemed “meant for bigger things.” Closely twined with his life story is the story of his pursuit of a single woman whom he falls in love with. He works seven years just to be told her name, like Jacob and Laban. When he finally catches her, he compares it to landing a big fish, the kind that no one has caught before. Through the rest of the movie, we are constantly presented with examples of his love for and faithfulness to his wife. But still the son does not believe the stories. He begins investigating his father’s past life for himself, and meets one of the characters from his stories. She tells him the truth, and it is a story that is remarkably similar to his father’s stories. Finally compelled to believe, he returns home, only to find his father in the hospital on the brink of death, in a coma. His father, late that night, wakes one last time, and asks his son to tell him a story. Drawing on everything he has learned from his father’s tales, he weaves a final story about his father escaping the hospital and going down to the river, miraculously cured, seeing every person he ever met during his life, every character he told of in his stories, all smiling, all happy. And at the funeral, miraculously, he sees his own story come true. Every person his father ever knew or told about has come to the funeral, and all are happy, all telling stories the way his father did. He finally realizes that his father was always exactly who he said he was: a person who mattered – a big fish. The son, again, has been shaped and changed by his father’s stories.
Each of these tales appeals to me because I firmly believe that the world itself is living out a story right now, and telling the right story, telling a story that follows the way the world really works is one of the most powerful experiences we can expose ourselves or our children to. Stories that show us stories being told are a great tutorial in how to live aright.
So go, put a once on a time, and weave a true story for someone.