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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Show the Heart, Tell the Mind



Last time I wrote, I contended that Christian writers should preach in their fiction. But I think we all agree that we shouldn't be preachy. There's a difference between preaching and being preachy.

This week I'd like to talk about two movies that opened in theaters last night. One, you've heard of: The Hunger Games. The other one, October Baby, is lesser known. 

I read The Hunger Games several years ago, and last night I saw October Baby.

Two stories. Two messages.  

Both preached, but only one felt preachy to me.

Let's look at Suzanne Collins's story first. The Hunger Games books, as great as they are, have their faults. The story world is as three-dimensional as a map drawn by cavemen. The action, particularly in the last book, reads like a violent video game on a shot of 5-hour ENERGY. But one charge no one has laid on the books is that they are preachy.

Is this because Collins has no message? Nope. Her anti-war message comes out, loud and clear. In her books she's saying that war is bad. That we have met the enemy and he is us. That there are no good guys. That even the winners come home broken.

Collins has said in interviews that growing up as an army brat affected her. Her father was gone a lot when she was little. She waited for him to return. She worried. When he finally came home he suffered with nightmares.

It is no surprise, then, to find an absent father in The Underland Chronicles and in The Hunger Games trilogy, or to find soldier characters who are hurt and haunted by the brutalities of war.

And yet, the books are not preachy. No one says, "War is hell." Or, "War is costly and even the winners go home broken." Collins gets all that across by keeping that rule we all learned first: Show, don't tell.

That's what fiction is all about. Right?

Last time, I quoted Pullman as saying, "'Thou shalt not' might reach the head, but it takes 'Once upon a time' to reach the heart."

That's just another way to say "telling" reaches the head, but "showing" reaches the heart.

Collins shows people dying. She doesn't need to tell us war is bad. We've suffered through it with Katniss. We watch the broken warriors limping off the field of battle.

With October Baby, on the other hand, there was some telling. I hate to discourage anyone from seeing it. It was a wonderful movie that accomplished what it set out to do and the acting was very good. I'm glad I saw it instead of The Hunger Games. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't preachy in places.

I don't think I'm giving away any spoilers, but if you are going to see the movie, you should watch it before you read any more. Because if you read my complaints it will probably take away from your enjoyment of the scenes I discuss.

Still here?

OK, then…

October Baby is about a nineteen-year-old girl who finds out she was adopted. Worse yet, her birth mother aborted her. She sets out on a road trip to find her birth mother. It's a good movie. Very good. There were a couple of flaws, though. There's a clichéd scene in which a priest tells Hannah she has to forgive. That's preachy because the priest wasn't put into the story early enough. He feels contrived. And why contrive something like that unless you want to preach? Which is exactly what happened.

But I want to look at the preachy scene that came about when the writer got some telling in, via the nurse who was present at Hannah's birth. The movie had effectively shown that unborn babies, aborted at twenty-two weeks gestation, are living human beings. The young woman is standing right in front of us. A living person. If we didn't think abortion was murder before, we have to ask ourselves now, what it is exactly. This girl was alive and her mother tried to kill her. There's no other way to look at it.

So I was disappointed when the nurse said something like, "They said it was a mass of tissue. That's all. Just tissue. Not alive." And then later, "You were born and I didn't see tissue. I saw a living person," or something along those lines.

This is preachy. It's telling. It's appealing to my head. It's making a logical argument.

And it's out of place in a novel or a movie.

If the main character already knows a thing then the reader has already seen and there is no need to tell, just to make sure readers get it.

Preaching in Christian fiction has been a hot topic this week. Check out Becky MillerMike Duran, and Mike Dellosso if you want to hear more arguments for and against the practice.
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 is the local liaison for SCBWI in Cobb County, Georgia. She has published short works in a number of places and has received an SCBWI Work in Progress grant. She can usually be found blogging about young adult novels at sally-apokedak.com                                                                                                                  

10 comments:

Gina Holmes said...

Interesting article, Sally. I've been thinking a lot about this subject lately in my own work. When I think of the books that have touched me and changed me, they have a blatant Christian message, but it works because it flows naturally. Safely Home by Randy Alcorn was as Christian as you can get but nothing about it felt shoehorned. I don't want my stories so un-preachy they're not powerful. Finding balance isn't easy but it's necessary to greatness.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Sally, love the way you keep your finger on the pulse of what's going on w/YA fiction. I was wondering if I was the only one who felt you can't really "church up" the worldview in The Hunger Games (much as I loved the series...well, the first 2 books).

Thanks for your honest evaluation of the movies!

sally apokedak said...

Gina, I ran out of room in this post, so I discussed it a little more on my own blog today. I think for a blatant message to flow naturally, we need to make sure the characters are not saying what their real-life counterparts would say (the priest and the nurse both said what people in real life would say), but we also have to make sure that the main character is driving the story. If the nurse in October Baby, for instance had said what she said in response to the main character angrily accusing her of murder, it would have worked. As it was, it didn't work, because the main character didn't say anything. She just listened.

I haven't read Safely Home. Thanks for bringing it up.

sally apokedak said...

Oh, I'm with you, Heather. The Hunger Games books were, at heart, anti-war messages dressed up as video games with a kick-ass heroine dressed in awesome, sexy costumes. Brilliant, really. I don't mean to take anything from Collins. I really enjoyed the first two books and wished I'd come up with the idea. And she writes action scenes like nobody's business.

But I don't see anything Christian about the books.

Have you read Ship Breaker? Really good. I didn't see any Christian themes in that book, either, but it has much deeper characterization and world building than Hunger Games, I think.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

No, but I'll have to check out Ship Breaker!

Did you read the Christianity Today post on this (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/movies/commentaries/2012/hungergames.html?utm_source=ctdirect-html&utm_medium=eNews&utm_term=9479964&utm_content=122346782&utm_campaign=2012&start=1)? The writer draws parallels w/Peeta and Christ...I'm just not seeing it. I think Collins had no spiritual message when writing this, but her worldview shines through clearly.

We just need to read these things with a discerning mind, so we can know how to discuss the concepts w/our kids. I'm still looking forward to the movie, though (but can't imagine how they're going to make the last movie fly w/viewers...).

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Sally, I just did a post elaborating on my thoughts. Feel free to stop over and chime in! I'd love to have you visit my blog! http://heatherdaygilbert.blogspot.com/2012/03/whats-message-in-hunger-games.html

sally apokedak said...

Thanks for the link. I hadn't read that article. I'd read others that had Peeta as the Christ-figure. After two books, I thought that both Peeta and Gale were types of Christ in some respects. They were both willing to sacrifice for the one they loved.

I've read that Collins is Roman Catholic and she's obviously well read so it wouldn't surprise me if she put in some Christian symbolism to deepen the books. But some of the wild things I've read that try to make these books into Christian books is, well, wildly improbable. It makes me wonder if people think they have to justify reading YA books or violent books. There is value in reading books that expose human nature, even if they aren't pointing to Christ.

And that's what I think Collins was doing. I think she was remarking on human nature. I don't think she was trying to point to Christ as our hope and salvation. I think her worldview was more nihilistic than hopeful.

What surprised me about the books was how empty her world was. Physically and spiritually. We really have no idea what the Capitol looks like or the districts. We see the street we're on, but we never get the big picture. The third book painted the world a little more clearly. The districts seem very small before that, I thought. And there is no spiritual life. No one worships any god. Which would make me guess that she wasn't wanting to comment on the world or on spiritual matters, but she was concerned with the cruelties that humans pour upon one another, especially in times of war. There was too much in the books that spoke directly to our involvement in the Middle East, to not think that was what she was remarking on.

Have you read the Gregor books? The Underland Chronicles. They are also about war. My kids and I were hooked on those, buying them as soon as they came out. Loved those books. The ending of that series was a little bit of a let-down, but nothing like the Hunger Games.

I suspect the Mockingjay movie will deviate from the book a bit. I hope so, anyway.

sally apokedak said...

Thanks for the invite. I've subscribed, liked, and followed. :)

Adam Blumer said...

What is the difference between preaching and being preachy? How can we tell the difference? Seems like a fine line to me. More instruction to explore the contrast would be helpful. If our books are going to have any eternal value, they need to say something meaningful (scriptural).

sally apokedak said...

Hmm. Just saw this comment, Adam. Sorry.

I did a post on my blog that dug into why I thought the October Baby scenes were preachy.

I hope to do a few more posts on the topic over here in the months to come. I agree that we have to say something meaningful for our books to have any eternal value.

Do you have an opinion on what the difference is between good preaching and being preachy?