Last week my husband and I forked over the $20.50 (per ticket!) to see the IMAX version of Dunkirk, a gorgeous film that left me weary and numb and in awe of the strength and courage of my fellow human beings. It’s really astounding, such courage. Me? I’m scared of head lice, sidewalk grates and Halloween. I’d be a ridiculous soldier.
But driving home after the film, I realized my husband and I were talking about the characters, not by name but by descriptor: The old civilian man, the pilot, the shell shocked guy, the young English soldier, the young English soldier’s French friend. Kenneth Branagh.
“Hey,” I said to my husband. “What was the name of the main character? The young English soldier?”
My husband couldn’t answer. Neither could I.
“How about the pilot?” I said. “Did we know his name? Or the old civilian man? Did we know any of these characters’ names?”
He and I realized we could recall the name of only one character: George, a teenage civilian hoping to one day get his picture in the paper to please his father.
We stopped at a red light. “Actually,” I continued, “a lot of times I couldn’t even tell which character was who.” Then it hit me. “Oh my gosh! We knew nothing about those characters. No back story at all.” I paused, reviewing the details of the film to see if that was true. “No names, indistinguishable faces, identical uniforms, no back story … that equals no character development! How, without the help of fleshy, flawed characters, did that film impact me?”
My husband was quiet for a few beats. He’s always quiet for a few beats before he says smart and insightful stuff.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to feel connected to the characters,” he said finally. “I don’t think that’s the point. The point of this movie is to put us there. On the beach at Dunkirk. It impacted you because you were there.”
My husband doesn’t read much fiction (a truth he blatantly disguised while we were courting), but he had nailed this. We, the viewers, are supposed to be on the beach of Dunkirk, not as witnesses but as participants. We aren’t supposed to be connecting with the characters any more than the soldiers are connecting with their fellow soldiers in the film, and they aren’t connecting with each other, getting to know one another and, I don’t know, exchanging phone numbers, because they are too busy not getting killed.
Likewise, we the viewers aren’t supposed to be getting chummy or feeling connected to any of the characters. We’re too busy getting hauled aboard the civilian yachts and fishing boats. We’re doing our job in the cockpit of a spitfire, watching the falling gas gauge and trying to shoot the enemy before the enemy shoots us. We’re trapped and submerged within the hold of a torpedoed destroyer.
I wasn’t sitting in that theater seat to fall in love with these characters, to share moments of empathy and recognition with them. I wasn’t even there to be entertained. I was there so I could be, you know, there.
Still, I like to be dumped in an unfamiliar world because of the characters who inhabit that world. This film had held my attention because it plunked me in the pilot’s seat of a spitfire and got me on a dock with Kenneth Branagh? It didn’t seem like enough to hold my interest. Why was I impacted by this film? I couldn’t figure it out.
When I can’t figure something out, I do one of two things: fold laundry while watching reruns of Parks and Recreation. Or I turn to Google.
I chose the latter and stumbled upon something interesting from my dear friend and comrade, Leo Tolstoy.
“Art,” Tolstoy says, “is that human activity that consists in one man’s consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.”
Leo and I were onto something: I was infected by the experience of Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan used visuals along with the actors’ skills to externally convey emotions that real soldiers at Dunkirk likely felt. As a result, I experienced terror, anxiety, futility, hope, hopelessness, ambivalence … all without knowing one bit of these characters’ back story. All without being privy to any intimate detail in these characters’ lives, without witnessing intimacy between characters.
Except, I realized, Christopher Nolan had created intimacy. Through imagery.
Kenneth Branagh’s ecru fisherman’s sweater. Hundreds of those soldiers’ helmets, resting like empty tortoise shells on wet beach. Strawberry jam on white bread. A soldier pooping in beach grass.
We are privy to these simple images–intimate objects and actions–rather than being allowed into the intimacy of the characters’ emotional life and development.
But please. A pooping soldier and red jam on white bread were enough for me? Suddenly I no longer required fleshy, flawed characters with burning desires and seemingly unhurdleable hurdles in order to sit through a story? Was I going soft?
Or maybe I knew more about the characters than I realized. And maybe I knew what I needed to know about them, nothing more or less.
Anyone who has read books or seen films about World War II comes to the film knowing considerable back story about these soldiers: They are men in their late teens and twenties. They have lost friends and family. They are beleaguered, numb, exhausted. They worry that evacuation will render them cowards in the eye of the public. They wobble and startle with terrible shell shock. Their mouths are parched. Their belts, cinched to the tightest hole, barely hold up their pants. Their socks have not been dry for days. They miss the smell of the roast on Christmas night. They miss their beds. They miss their mothers.
I have somehow come to require a certain amount of intimacy and overt character development if I am going to keep turning the pages of a story, but what is that certain amount? A deft storyteller might find other ways to develop back story, generate intimacy and bridge reader and character.
Dunkirk reminded me that it’s not the amount of character development or back story that pins me to my seat. It’s the degree to which I am infected that matters. It’s the degree to which we writers infect our unsuspecting readers that matters, how we go about creating opportunities for intimacy and sharing only a need-to-know amount of backstory with the reader.
Your turn! If you have seen this film, were you sufficiently infected, or do you prefer to know a bit more about the individual quirks and particulars of the soldiers? How do you use back story in your work in progress with the goal of infecting your readers? What have you read this summer and how did it infect you? Thanks, writers, for infecting!
Spitfire photo compliments of Flickr’s Arapaoa Moffat.