Archive for July, 2018
I had a chance a few months ago to see (twice, as a matter of fact) the movie “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” on television. These were the first times I had seen the movie since it came out in December, 1954. As an impressionable junior high school student with an interest in flying and with a father in the US military, it became one of my favorite movies, though I never had a chance to see it more than once back then. Since such a long time had passed since I’d first seen the movie, I’d forgotten a lot of the details about it, especially the ending. It was that ending that made such an impression on me as I watched it earlier this year (2018). And it is that ending I want to comment on here.
The movie takes place during the Korean War, and concerns a US Navy fighter pilot, a Lt. Harry Brubaker (played by William Holden) ordered—as a part of a lager force of jet fighters—to attack and destroy a group of bridges a the North Korean town of Toko-Ri. The bridges carry a major part of the traffic of supplies and materiel the North Koreans need to sustain their invasion, and they’ve become a major target for the UN forces. The planes attack and the bridges are destroyed. Then they continue to an second target and bomb it. But here, in this attack on a somewhat less important target, Holden’s plane is damaged, and he’s forced to crash land in North Korea. He can’t make it back to the aircraft carrier. A helicopter from the carrier arrives to try to pick him up, but the helicopter is shot down too, and now two more Navy guys are stuck on the ground with Holden, with no way to escape. This is where the ending takes an unusual turn. All three Americans are killed. Not rescued. Killed.
Why is this so unusual? Lt. Brubaker, the protagonist of the movie (and of the book by James Michener from which it was adapted) dies in the end. And in a rather gruesome way. He doesn’t make it back after going through so much to destroy two targets. He does what he’s asked to do by the US Navy, yet he doesn’t get a hero’s welcome. In so many books I’ve read, and perhaps the most common ending for novels, especially action/adventure stories, the hero lives. His/her return may be to the accolade of comrades, or it might be a quiet return with little fanfare and no recognition, but he/she returns alive to fight another day. Picture the ending in the first “Star Wars” movie. Hip-hip-hooray. Uplifting martial music. Highly polished droids. Happily ever after. Princess Leia as you will never see her again.
But in Toko-Ri, Brubaker is dead. And two other guys, too. And in an ugly, sewage-filled ditch in North Korea.
That type of ending surprised me, though I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s different. It’s not wedded to a stereotypical ending of “happily ever after.” It represents the triumph of imagination over the standard or conventional. The hero in a novel doesn’t always have to win and live to fight again. Sometimes he’s blown away in a hail of bullets. I suggest taking this type of ending into consideration. Even if you’re not writing a military book. Heroes do die.
A few weeks ago I attended a writers conference (or writer’s conference, I’m never sure which is correct) and one of the topics discussed was that of book covers. The cover of a book is important and lots of attention is paid to book covers. The cover—so they tell me—has a lot to do with selling a book. People do judge a book by its cover whether we authors like it or not, and publishers take considerable time and care to produce a cover that will help sales. A good cover can actually spur sales. Colors seem to be particularly important in book covers: some say reds and yellows don’t sell well, others disagree and look for a lot of red on their covers. I’m not one to say much about covers since I haven’t had one designed for my books yet, though I’m hopeful I will be going through that process soon. What I do want to talk about here is the presence of representations of people—presumably one or more of the characters of the book—on the cover
One of the main subtopics of discussion in the meeting was the use of people, either in face or whole body, on the cover of a book. Not all books use a figure, though many do. But I was struck by the dichotomy of the discussion about how to use a character’s likeness. If you put a man on a cover, either as just a face or an entire figure, then it’s a man. Period. But if you put a woman on the cover, it must be a strong woman, a weak woman—heaven forbid!—will not do. A man, okay; but not just any woman, a strong woman. No one ever says, “We have to put a strong man on the cover.”
We seem to have divided characters of fiction into two broad groups, men and strong women, as though any man is acceptable as a protagonist, but not just any woman. A male character is assumed to be a strong man, but female characters are divided into weak and strong, and no one wants anything to do with a weak woman. Especially not on the cover of a book. I’m not sure I can name any weak women off the top of my head, perhaps one or two of the March sisters from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But strong female characters are all the rage now, and if you’re writing a book about a female character, it must be about a strong one. Physically strong, as for example, Wonder Woman, or endowed with strength of character, as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind.” Agents and publishers are not looking for weak-willed women. Not a good role model. But does anyone ever question whether a male character is strong—in the same sense that we require a female to be strong? Certainly if someone wrote a book about a man who is constantly run over or put down by his peers, as for example, Caspar Milquetoast of the comic strip “The Timid Soul,” or Mr. Peepers, played by Wally Cox, of the TV series in the 1950’s, it might not even be picked up by a publisher. The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney has sold well, though. Yet, in some ways, those characters had qualities that gave them a type of strength we can admire. If not “strength” in the physical sense, then in a “persistence” sense. They picked themselves up and continued on, only to be knocked down again. They didn’t quit; it was not in their nature. I wonder if a book or TV series about a woman who is similarly kicked around would work.
But a “weak” woman on the cover of a book? Not likely. Eventually I hope we will be able to divide the heroes of books—and this is true especially of science fiction—into two groups: male and female, without having to use a modifier for females. The protagonist of any story has to be strong, of course, but do we need to divide by gender into men and strong women? I suspect that when agents and publishers say they want stories about strong women, they’re really saying is they want stories about women who, if you were to replace them with a man, would be a likeable and saleable character. Nobody wants weak men or weak women, except in very unusual circumstances.