Saturday, December 18, 2010

Survival Fiction, FTW!

I don’t know why, but I have always had a fascination with survival fiction.  Not necessarily the post-apocalypse type, but the stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere type.  In fifth grade, I found this book in my desk one day (no clue who left it there and no one came to claim it) called Just A Little Bit Lost, and read it about twenty times – it remains the oldest paperback in my library.  In seventh grade, I read The Cay for a class assignment, and reread that one into the ground, too.  Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, Lord of the Flies, stories in which one or a handful of characters who are not used to living without other people and civilization are forced to survive on their wits and instincts alone.  Even The Hunger Games books have many elements of survival fiction that gives it a certain draw for me (as if it wasn’t already awesome enough).

I think this genre is a bit harder to carry over to movies, though.  In addition to being well written, in a movie the story has to also be well directed and performed.  Ok, I know that kind of goes without saying in a movie versus book comparison, but I think it’s harder still with survival stories because there is less dependency on other performers, and the director and the actor need to both know what to do and how to do it in a survival situation to make it seem plausible.  I liked Castaway because it did a good job telling the story, seemed like most if not all of what he did would have been the natural progression of things, and Tom Hanks is awesome.  I’d believe he could survive stranded on an island for five years with no one to talk to but a volleyball.

In any survival fiction, though, there is always a danger of the story falling flat and getting boring.  How many ways are there to insert drama into a story where there is a clear formula: get lost, build shelter, find plant food, figure out fire, learn to fish, learn to hunt, probably encounter some dangerous wildlife, probably also have to deal with crazy weather, somehow get rescued.  There.  I just wrote the plotline of every survival story ever.  So why do we keep reading about them?

For one thing, if it’s not done right, if it’s not believable, has flat characters, and is just a straight up sequence of those events, then I usually lose interest.  For example, if you take two sticks and rub them together like people say in order to try to make a fire, it won’t work.  If this works in the story, then it’s a clear indication that the writer/director at least doesn’t know what he/she is doing.

I know this won’t work, and that throws into question anything else this story might have to offer.  It’s a tiny thing, and maybe I’m too picky.  I just can’t suspend my disbelief enough to bring myself to watch something that I know has no research behind it.

If the story is done right, that is, if it is accurate enough that I can’t spot inaccuracies (which really isn’t hard to do since I don’t think I know that much about survival, despite getting my girl scout badge when I was ten), has strong characters, and a unique layer of conflict or struggle, I totally get into it.  I can imagine that I’m one of those British boarding school boys tearing each other apart for resources (ok, maybe not a boy, but among them anyway).  And how crazy would it be to have to learn to survive on an island with an old fisherman without the use of my eyesight?

I’m not sure what the actual draw is to survival stories.  Even Bear Grylls (“Man verses Wild” – yeah, I watch survival TV programs, too) has said that one of his childhood fantasies is to be stranded on a deserted island.  Maybe it’s because it might be useful information?  Far be it from me to suggest that someone should read a survival fiction book or watch a survival fiction movie and then go get themselves stranded in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but an emergency hatchet, but there is some sort of sense that, should you find yourself accidentally alone on an island after your entire tribe has fled and left you and your little brother behind, some of the stuff you read in the books or saw on the movie might help you survive.  For some reason, even though I really don’t think it would be too enjoyable to even be lost on a hiking trip with the guy I had a crush on and five pounds of oatmeal, I find it fun to think about.

Edit: Picture!  This is the book that I was talking about.  Not bad condition, either, just some page yellowing, and a few creases in the cover.  Hey, I was in fifth grade, you can't expect me to have taken immaculate care of everything...

Such and exciting tagline, isn't it?

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