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Staying True To Your Story

My trip to the classic film convention, Cinevent (www.cinevent.com) in Columbus, Ohio this weekend uncovered a real gem…and the unexpected topic for this week’s blog posting.  It was a lesson on staying true to your story.

The gem was the 1952 film, THE RINGER, from the play by acclaimed gothic mystery writer, Edgar Wallace.  I’ve never had the opportunity to see this one before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Perhaps that added to my pleasure!

The story centered around a dishonest attorney, Maurice Meister, who has run afoul of a mysterious criminal known as The Ringer.  What follows is an intriguing cat and mouse game involving those two players, the police, and various innocents and not-so-innocents.

Not unlike THE STING or THE USUAL SUSPECTS, the film ends with a successful deception that is brilliant and still holds up after close scrutiny.  Indeed, members of the viewing audience (myself among them) applauded the fitting audacity of the resolution.

There was just one problem…

That was the British version.  In America, we still had a Production Code in place that was not the least happy with criminals “getting away with it.”  So, after the screening of the original version, we were treated to the American “enhancement.”  It was the same footage, but now there was a voice over assuring us that the criminals were captured and appropriately put away.

In one fell swoop, my enjoyment dissolved.  (After completing this posting, I will attempt to delete the American version from my memory!)

Just imagine Keyser Soze walking around the corner at the end of THE USUAL SUSPECTS into the waiting arms of the police.  Or Johnny Hooker intoning at the end of THE STING, “I saw a lot of Henry Gondorff after that.  The police picked us up and we were put into adjoining cells.”  We’d be reassured that crime doesn’t pay, but at a tremendous cost to the entertainment value.

This reminded me of the old ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS television series.  Faced with the same problem, Mr. Hitchcock would intone at the end of a crime episode that the criminal was caught and all was right with the world.  Of course, he said it in such a tongue-in-cheek fashion that we didn’t believe him!

Last night, my daughter and I enjoyed the 1939 classic, WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  Afterward, I asked my daughter if she liked the movie, and she said that she liked everything but the ending.  I thought she was referring to the tragic results of the romance, but she was talking about the final shot of the film.

This was especially interesting because the director, William Wyler, was against having such a shot to end the film.  The studio head, Samuel Goldwyn, overruled him and the shot was added.  The enforced “happy ending” didn’t feel right to my daughter.  It wasn’t true to the tone of what had gone on before.

I’ve sat through a number of training sessions that used stories to illustrate a point, and I have had occasions when I felt that the presenter had changed key elements in order to support the main point.  (Once, a presenter even changed a very well-known fairy tale!)

Because I had doubts about the truth of the story, I had doubts about the point the presenter was trying to make.  Yes, I had the sense that the storyteller was lying to me.  The “advantage” was lost.

It is important to stay true to the integrity of the story being told.  It naturally contains a resolution that feels “right” within the course of the telling.  When it is changed, the audience feels unfulfilled and isn’t certain of the reason why.  They just know that something “doesn’t fit.”

Great storytelling can be a terrific way to make your point.  Just remember that if the story doesn’t go along with what you’re trying to illustrate, keep searching until you find one that does.  Otherwise, you might just lose your audience.

Thank you for reading.