Here in Australia, season one of the ABC fantasy-drama series Once Upon a Time recently came to an end. The series concept is this: in the magical world of fairy tales, the evil queen lays a curse that transports everyone to Storybrooke, Maine. The evil queen does this to punish Snow White who, as a child, did something that blighted the queen’s future. In Storybrooke, Snow is mild-mannered teacher Mary Margaret. Also in town are Prince Charming, Red Riding Hood, the woodcutter, Cinderella, Pinocchio and many more, including the Machiavellian stirrer of the piece, Rumpelstiltskin, in the guise of antique dealer Mr Gold. Then there’s the evil queen herself: Regina, mayor of Storybrooke. Everyone has a new identity, and none of them remember their former lives in the fairy tale world. Then an agent for change comes on the scene in the form of ballsy but conflicted Emma Swan, who may just have the key to undoing the curse.
I had my doubts about this series. As a lover and long-time reader of fairy tales, I wondered how they’d fare in the hands of writers who’d produced something as convoluted as Lost. I’ve become aware that many folk believe the Disney fairy tale movies are the authentic versions of these stories, and I suspected the writers would not value and respect the strong, true heart of their material. On the other hand, fairy tales have staying power. It’s in their nature to grow, develop and change, consistent with the oral storytelling traditions that gave rise to most of them. There are some wonderful novels and short stories built on fairy tale material. If a writer knows, respects and understands the original, it’s OK to play around with it. Up to a point.
So was I happy with Once Upon a Time? Did the high concept for this series produce a satisfying result?
Season one gets the tick of approval from me – I watched every episode. Viewers in the US and Australia loved the series, though the response from critics was mixed. I did have some reservations, and advance info about season two suggests they may increase. The mixture of traditional fairy tales with novels such as Alice in Wonderland and mythological stories such as King Midas didn’t work for me. I was sometimes jolted by the transitions between one world and the other and wondered if perhaps there were flaws of logic. I found the Disney details, such as the names of the Seven Dwarfs and a reference to the fairy Maleficent, quite jarring. Some episodes, like the Hansel and Gretel story, came across as clunky.
However, the writing was overall strong and the casting excellent, in particular the inimitable Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin/Mr Gold. He’s a nuanced villain with sufficient complexity to keep the viewer engaged throughout. Female viewers enjoy the feminist take on many of the stories, though this is hardly new - feminist fairy tales have been around at least since Angela Carter!
The series gains depth from the fact that the personal stakes for the characters are so high. When the fairy tale characters were ripped out of their familiar world and dumped in Storybrooke, everyone lost something precious: freedom, power, leadership, family, love, home. In the human world the stakes are equally high: Emma comes to Storybrooke after the son she relinquished at birth turns up on her doorstep with a crazy theory about his entire town being under a curse. Ten year old Henry is convinced that Emma is the only person who can undo the spell, but first he must convince her that magic really exists. It doesn’t help that his adoptive mother is Regina, aka the evil queen. Did I mention high stakes?
The last television drama that hooked me in as successfully as this was Prison Break, in which the concept was even higher. Older brother is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Younger brother, a genius engineer, contrives to be convicted of a crime and incarcerated so he can break his older brother out. Before he does this he gets a full upper body tattoo of the blueprints for the prison building. Nuts? Indeed – but thanks to the charismatic leads, Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell, the strong theme of brotherly loyalty, the great supporting cast and the tension-filled prison setting, the series made compulsive viewing. It did go on too long, with the plotline stretching credibility to breaking point in season three, but it remains one of my favourite series ever.
From the above I extrapolate the following points to remember when I am creating a story, none of them new to Writer Unboxed, but all of them worth another mention:
- Don’t be afraid of high concept. Both these stories look wildly implausible in outline, but were brought alive by clever writing, good casting and creative confidence.
- A clever, original concept is great, but your story lives and dies on the emotional journeys of the individual characters. Make things personal. Challenge your characters to the max. Raise the stakes and keep on raising them.
- Do not fear the old fairy tale values: faith, courage, loyalty, family, endurance, truth and so on. Prison Break is all about self-sacrifice and brotherly love, plus cool tatts.
- Know when to stop.
What high concept novel or series has held you enthralled, and why?