Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Twisting the tale

Interesting piece by Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent last week exploring why, in his words, 'we sometimes complain that a novel or a film has taken us for a ride...while at other times we celebrate the fact'.  Sutcliffe's article takes in a couple of recently-published novels, including Tim Pears's intriguing-sounding Landed, but is prompted primarily by Martin Scorsese's new adaptation of Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island.  The film's ending has, as he points out, provoked 'yelps of complaint' from some reviewers - although I've also seen some positive comments about the concluding twist.

I haven't seen the film yet, but I have read Lehane's book which also provoked considerable irritation among some reviewers  - the ever-reliable Petrona, for example, descibed it as 'the worst "cheat twist" I've ever read').  I didn't feel quite that annoyed, but, having largely enjoyed the book, I did find the conclusion disappointing, which I imagine was not the effect that Lehane was aiming for.  The question, as Sutcliffe suggests, is why. 

As a reader and as a writer, I'm not keen on the twist ending - mainly because it's so difficult to do well.  If nothing else, you have to be pretty confident that you're a step ahead of the reader - if the reader's kept pace with you, then your smart ending is likely to appear decidedly lame.  That's not quite the problem with Shutter Island (Lehane's too good a writer for that), but the book does face similar difficulties.  As it moves towards its conclusion, the reader is left trying to make sense of an increasingly puzzling narrative.  Various  interpretations are possible, but many readers will, by that stage, be at least toying with the option that in the end proves to be the right one.  In other words, I suspect the problem with Shutter Island is not that it has a twist ending, but that the ending isn't quite twisty enough.  My personal view is that Lehane has set himself an almost impossible task - because the reader is toying with possible explanations (each of which carries its own implications and significance), any definitive ending is almost bound to feel like a let down.   I would have preferred the book to have ended more ambiguously, but I realise that that would probably just have infuriated a different set of readers. 

It's interesting to contrast Shutter Island with another tale of pananoia with an island setting - Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man.  As I've mentioned before, the film's a perennial favourite of mine, which I never tire of watching, even though it's also heavily dependent on a twist ending.  Echoing Sutcliffe's question, why should that be?  The film's ending works, I think, partly because it plays with our expectations of genre and narrative.  We know how films like this work.  We may not know how the precise details will pan out, but we make assumptions about how this kind of film ends.  When it lurches in a different direction, it is - for the first-time viewer - genuinely shocking.  Interestingly, though, my experience is that knowledge of the ending then enhances subsequent viewings of the film.  While the initial shock has gone, we're left with a new poignancy, an awareness of what's coming which colours our view of the film's characters (particularly Edward Woodward's brilliant buttoned-up Sergeant Howie) and their interaction.  It's one of the few instances I can think of where a 'twist' ending transcends gimmickry and gives the preceding narrative a new resonance.  I'd be interested to hear suggestions of other examples. 

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