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Aesop’s Movie Fables

Warning: spoilers for The Adjustment Bureau (and all the other films discussed) follow.

The Adjustment Bureau may have been marketed with the line ‘Bourne meets Inception’ (which it attributes to Total Film, though I can’t find this line in Jonathan Crocker’s review) but it’s a softer, sweeter film than that comparison suggests. And although it is several things – fantasy thriller, romance, a little bit of politics thrown in at the beginning – it is primarily a fable about fate and free will.

A ‘fable’ can be hard to define and there are academic books devoted to the subject. In the movies, though, they can be recognizable by tone. They tend to be sweet films, that exist to reinforce a positive view of some aspect of our lives, and there’s usually romance involved somewhere. They are often whimsical fantasy or science fiction, using one high concept MacGuffin to explore some particular aspect of human life and relationships.

Fables are not the most common variety of movie. There are messages, morals and themes a-plenty in movieland, but films whose primary purpose, beyond romance, action or mystery, is to tell a fable are rarer. When they do appear, however, they are often the sort of intriguing movie that stays with you long after you leave the cinema. These are three of my favourites.

The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998)

The Truman Show is best known today for depicting 24-hour coverage of someone’s life (Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank) for the purpose of a TV program before Big Brother was a glint in its producer’s eye. It’s thematic preoccupations are not subtle; the God-like man (played by Ed Harris) who controls Truman’s world is called ‘Christof,’ the sheltered haven of a town he lives in, ‘Seahaven.’ Truman breaks free of his oppressive false god and almost total lack of free will – even his romantic relationships having been manipulated by Christof – and in a glorious sequence beautifully scored by Burkhard Dallwitz, sails right to the edge of the world before leaving via the fire exit.

The Truman Show is a pertinent warning about the increasing intrusion of television into our lives (that we all thoroughly ignored) but it is also, like The Adjustment Bureau, about free will and about taking control of our own lives. Truman has been given what appears to be the dream lifestyle of the middle classes, with a good job, nice house, attractive spouse, laid back best friend and pleasant town to live in. But none of that means anything if he doesn’t have free will, and if every choice he makes, from who to marry to which brand of cocoa to drink, is not his own, but someone else’s.

The Truman Show’s central message may be the same as that of The Adjustment Bureau, but it’s antagonist is a much creepier and more unpleasant presence. The unseen Chairman of The Adjustment Bureau does much worse things than Christof, for where Christof only fakes the death of the Truman’s father, the Adjustment Bureau have actually killed Matt Damon’s David’s father and brother. However, the Chairman, we are told, has only humankind’s best interests at heart (apparently both World Wars were the result of his leaving us alone for a while) whereas Christof is entirely motivated by self-interest. The reason for this, on a practical basis, is that whereas Truman can definitively escape the ultimately human Christof, there is no escape from the Chairman, who occupies a similar position to TV show Quantum Leap’s God, Time, Fate or Whatever, as an unknown God-like force implied to be the ultimate source of the world’s religions. A film which depicted a genuine divinity who was as malevolent and self-serving as Christof would be a depressing experience, and the image of the self-serving, selfishly motivated god has been somewhat out of fashion since the fall of ancient Rome. Christof, whatever his metaphorical role, is a human being with human motivations – as such, he is both sinister and fallible.

Pleasantville (dir. Gary Ross, 1998)

1998 was a good year for fable, for it also gave us Pleasantville, an even more high-concept film than writer/director Gary Ross’s previous script for fable-like presidential comedy Dave (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1993). Pleasantville throws two ’90s teens (Tobey Maguire’s David and Reese Witherspoon’s Jennifer) into a black and white fifties sit-com set in the titular town, where everyone eats a dozen pancakes for breakfast, the basketball team always win and anything as unpleasant as a ladies’ toilet simply does not exist. The longer the two stay, however, the more their influence starts to rub off on the townsfolk, and as more and more people experience the sort of strong emotions that had been banned from their world, the world around them slowly starts to morph into colour.

Pleasantville’s essential point is that paradise is dull – that you have to experience the bad in life in order to appreciate the good, that real happiness and sadness go hand in hand and that there is no ‘perfect’ life. David has been escaping his problems by retreating into a fifties fantasy, but the fantasy cannot be sustained, because it has no depth – or colour – to it. About two thirds of the way through, the film also throws in some race relations metaphors for good measure, as those who are no longer in black and white are referred to as ‘coloureds’ and banned from certain areas, and the film culminates with a trial in a courtroom modeled exactly after the one in Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Pleasantville is a wonderful film, but its greatest moments occur when the story takes a turn towards the (slightly) darker, as it becomes clear that sex – the initial spark that provokes the explosion of Technicolor – is not the only issue at hand; the formerly reactionary David, for example, finds his colour defending his Pleasantville mother from a racist attack. Art is also a spur for change, and the film’s use of jukebox music, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and an art textbook eventually culminates in a glorious recreation of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ to represent events in Pleasantville. It is a testament to how well the fable works that appropriating a representation of war and death for its fictional problems feels so right and meaningful, and not like a horrible misuse of a serious piece.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, 2004)

A second appearance for Jim Carrey, who plays Joel, a man whose ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had him erased from her memory. He decides to do the same to her, but starts to regret this decision halfway through the process.

This film might seem to be more a romance with a message than a fable, but the presence in the background of a sub-plot involving secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and her relationship with the doctor who performs the treatment (Tom Wilkinson) pushes it firmly into fable territory. It is through this relationship that the moral of the story is most clearly expressed – those who forget their mistakes are doomed to repeat them. Mary is one of the characters most firmly in favour of the procedure, until she finds out that by erasing a relationship gone wrong, she has opened herself up to making the exact same mistake all over again.

Joel and Clementine’s story is more complex, for although their relationship has ended badly, their time together as a whole was not the complete mistake that Mary’s relationship was. Joel wants to stop the procedure halfway through because, as the memories are erased backwards and he moves past the awful ending of the relationship and reaches the good times he and Clementine shared, he realizes that there are things that are worth remembering even if they could not last. Whereas Mary immediately pulls away from repeating her relationship when she finds out about her past, Joel and Clementine willingly decide to try again, not necessarily in the expectation of a different outcome, but because it is worth living through the pain to experience the joy.

Juliette Harrisson