Sunday, December 13, 2009

Musing Pictures: Coraline

There's something very basic about Neil Gaiman's stories that speaks to me whenever I encounter one. I was first introduced to the storyteller's work in high school, when I read the "Sandman" series of graphic novels. Gaiman is a consistent reinventor of myth, letting the stories, characters and structures of folklore, religion and mythology inform and occasionally populate his very contemporary fiction.

There was a moment in "Coraline" (which is based on a Gaiman novel) when this mythic consciousness struck me. The title character (voiced by Dakota Fanning) recently moved with her parents to a large, strange house. She is sent at one point to meet her quirky new neighbors, which she does with some reluctance. The neighbors, of course, serve the very familiar purpose of providing Coraline with both a context and information about her pending ordeal. They play a role that is unabashedly classical -- lifted right out of an ancient myth or well-worn folktale. And it's immediately obvious, too. Neither the film nor the narrative that precedes it attempt to mask what critics might call "formulaic" turns of the story. But this is what I like about Gaiman's stories -- he is a master of formula. What I mean by this is not that his work is flawed by formula. On the contrary, Gaiman is one of the rare storytellers who knows the power of formula, cliche, and the patterns of mythic narrative. He knows how to incorporate these patterns in ways that are new and refreshing, but also deeply and profoundly familiar. That profound familiarity is something that too few artists consider when creating their work. There is such a heavy focus on "originality" these days, and the result, more often than not, is shallow. Gaiman's originality is very liberated -- his work is full of some of the most creative, inspired images and ideas I've come across in contemporary literature. But that originality is grounded firmly, its roots intertwined with the full scope of narrative history, which is the history of how we tell our stories, of how we reflect on ourselves.


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