Saturday, June 25, 2011

Real False Alarms

Imagine you are a studio head in Hollywood. After a few of your recent films have been "misses," you feel pressure to have a hit. The next one you put out better be good, or it could be your job. You listen to pitches warily. A producer sits down across your desk and gives you this spiel:

In this Pixar age, the public has shown an appetite for smart, moral children's films. And as we've long known from Disney, there is less risk involved when making an adaptation of a somewhat known commodity. I've got the idea to adapt a story that is already in the public consciousness to such a degree, that perhaps 100% of the movie-going public, including children, has heard the title already. It is a story that has resonated across cultures for centuries, first a favorite with ancient Greeks, and then adapted in children's publications in Europe as early as 1484, with subsequent re-tellings in 1574, 1687, 1692, 1867, and most notably in America in 1965. To say that it has stood the test of time and has mass appeal is an understatement. And most exciting of all, the story has never been adapted into a long form motion picture. There is no previous adaptation we'd have to live up to or compete with. We would be filling a gap, providing an unmet need in the public's appetite.

So do you go ahead and give it the green light immediately? Or do you insist on knowing a few more details, such as the title? And if the latter, what effect would it have if the producer told you it's a story that has had many titles through the centuries, but the contemporary public knows it as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"? Could a story that grade schoolers can tell in 1:45 be stretched into a full-length narrative?

Obviously, in an adaptation-happy film climate, the fact that this story has not been made into a movie implies that it works better as a short parable than as a full length exposition. And yet, I think there is something to be said for its ubiquity through the ages and its continued ability to penetrate public consciousness. Of all of Aesop's Fables, arguably the only one that rivals it in terms of popularity is "The Tortoise and the Hare." But a search of the latter term on Twitter reveals that it has been mentioned three times in the last three days (as of this writing). The phrase "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" has been tweeted in various contexts 58 times over the last 24 hours. Although it may never be a "trending topic," it is amazing how consistently this millenia-old story is invoked in ultra-modern media.

So are there any lessons to be learned from the popularity of this story (aside from the patently obvious one that Aesop hits us over the head with)? I think it's fair to say that it reveals a fear of sending off false alarms, and a condemnation of those who do (for example, one Tweet compares weather forecasters to the boy, a comparison I'm sure did not originate yesterday). And this makes sense. This alone could account for the story's appeal across cultures. Nobody wants to live in a society where alarms can't be taken seriously. The uselessness of the car alarm is a particularly absurd aspect of our culture that Aesop could have never imagined.

But I would like to propose a difference between false alarms generated from humans and those generated from mechanical devices. I would argue that the former, unlike the latter, are incapable of generating false alarms. To be sure, they can give misdirected alarms, as I think is the case with Aesop's boy. I'm not suggesting there really was a wolf when he first yelled that there was. But when the townspeople found that there was no wolf, they should have realized the boy was sending an alarm of a different sort. In order for him to engage in such an act, there had to be something not right with him, or with his society, or with the system for protecting sheep. Perhaps the boy was pathologically ignored by those who should have given him attention, and he was acting out in the only way he knew how. Perhaps he should have been given a companion to help keep him company. Maybe, to replace one platitude with another, the town shouldn't have "sent a boy to do a man's job." In any event, I can't help but condemn the townspeople equally if not more for the tragedy that eventually occurred.

And come to think of it, maybe exploring these unconsidered aspects of the story could make for a good movie.


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