Updated: Feb 28, 2019
And that's why we can't get enough of them.
I have this particular lens through which I often view stories. It really doesn't matter to me what medium the story is being told through. I can be watching a movie or TV show. I can also be reading a book or short story. In any case, this interpretive lens (or way of interpreting a story) is one I find quite engaging.
In short, I tend to look at stories as a microcosm of life. What I mean by that is that I think that most stories offer us a miniature version of life. In this way, stories can hold up a mirror to life and help us make more sense of what we're experiencing.
Stories As Microcosm
It can be easy to see this idea at play in a film like The Shawshank Redemption, which I've mentioned before. While most of us watching the film are not in prison, there is a real existential angst portrayed in the film that I think anyone can relate to because we all are dropped into the world without any real choice on our part. We're born and then we have to make sense of things. We might not be incarcerated, but we're stuck in our bodies, most of us are stuck on this planet, and there's plenty of limitations imposed upon us. We can choose to engage in relationships or not, to let dark experiences crush us or not, fight to see beauty in life or not, so forth. The characters in Shawshank have to do all these things. Ultimately, I think the film focuses its microcosm on the importance of profound friendships. And in this specificity, it displays amazing universal power.
Some other great examples of dramas that really work well through this interpretive lens are Room and Silence.
But we don't have to only look to such films to see other ways this idea of a microcosm of life can play out. Many genre films fit well into this interpretive lens too. A horror film like It Follows offers up a lot to contemplate in terms social norms surrounding sexuality and how we can be terrorized by such norms. A sci-fi movie like Her can present an exaggerated microcosm of our technology-addicted lives. Most superhero movies are trying to make sense big ideas like good and evil and questions of ethical responses to chaotic forces of greed, corruption, and terror--none more eloquently than The Dark Knight, I might add.
Small Worlds are More Manageable
I think that we often relate to characters in these films because we see them navigating a world that, while different than ours, still seems quite familiar. The reason for this is that stories are ultimately built from our common need to make sense of the world. Our brains are hardwired to crave information that might give us some example of how to survive our own challenges and dangers.
Lisa Cron writes, "I've heard it said that fiction (all stories, for that matter) can be summed up by a single sentence--All is not as it seems ..." (pg 12-13). That's certainly a reality we are confronted with in many ways throughout our life. In her book, Wired for Story, Cron presents compelling evidence from neuroscience that our brains latch onto stories as a means to glean from them crucial information that might help us survive similar situations. I discuss this more in my book, Short Films 2.0, in an effort to help filmmakers better understand how our brains naturally connect with stories.
But how does this relate to seeing stories as a microcosm of life? As we work to make sense of the world, it can be helpful to see a smaller, more manageable version of our world set before us. It could be a movie like Ordinary People or it could be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I think of the reasons I keep coming back to the Harry Potter books is that I see in Harry's journey a mirroring of so much of what must be dealt with in life. I think it's no coincidence that in my most overwhelmed times I have come back to those books as means to simultaneously escape and help make sense of big changes going on in my life. Harry confronts evil, discovers lasting friendship, finds belonging, empathizes with and stands up for the marginalized, finds a mentor, doubts his mentor, discovers that his knowledge of other people's motivations is quite limited and much more. Man, I need all of that regularly.
We Need All the Help We Can Get
When we're in the middle of navigating life's challenges we need all the help we can get. Having something much smaller than our world and the span of a lifetime through which to parallel our life experiences is incredibly helpful. This is where stories--and this interpretive lens--prove to be incredibly helpful. In a very short amount of time, we experience and learn so much through narratives and characters.
Have you looked at stories this way? Does this make sense to you? What stories have most helped you make sense of the world?