It’s In the Details

Last night I saw a movie that made me think about how important good writing and attention to detail is, and how little of it you see in Hollywood these days.

Netflix has been a godsend to someone as behind on movies as me, and they have a huge selection of older films.  The movie was 1981’s Quest for Fire, with Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nameer El-Kadi and Rae Dawn Chong. I wasn’t allowed to see it when it came out because of the adult material (my parents were such squares!) and I knew few people who had.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.

What I found was an underrated gem.  The film is based on a French novel from the turn of the century.  The Ulam are attacked by marauders and their fire extinguished.  Without the fire, they are doomed; they have no defense against either the elements or predators.  The group is not sufficiently advanced yet to make fire themselves, so three of the males, Naoh (McGill), Gaw (El-Kadi)  and Amoukar (Perlman) set out to find a new source of fire.

Along the way, they encounter the cannibalistic Kzamm, who have two blue-painted captives.  The three raid their camp and steal a chunk of fire.  The captives break free during the melee and the young female captive Ika (Chong)  follows them.  They can’t understand her speech and shoo her away.  When she heals an injury Naoh sustained during the raid, they grudgingly accept her and she and Naoh become lovers.

I don’t want to describe their return journey, because you need to see this movie for yourself.   There was very little spoken dialogue. There were no subtitles.  Despite this, it was easy to follow the story.  The acting was phenomenal and that helped.

The thing that struck me the most, however, was the strength of both the story itself and the research.  Nothing was extraneous.  Everything either showed character or was central to the story, from the slapstick antics of the leader’s two sidekicks to the scenes showing how difficult and dangerous life in those times could be.

In one scene Naoh attempts in vain to breathe life into the single spark of fire saved from the marauders, housed in a small portable carrier.  In the frigid and misty expanse of the swamp where the tribe has fled, everything is in blues and greys, the dying spark a bright glow of orange in the center of the frame before it finally goes out.

Good writing should have intense images like this, strong and memorable.

The body movements and gestures were choreographed by noted zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris and the author of The Naked Ape, a book about Man from an anthropological viewpoint.  The female’s group had atl-atls (a throwing device invented by prehistoric people), and the fire-making technique was spot-on.  I know this last because I learned it myself at a primitive skills workshop.  Novelist-linguist Anthony Burgess helped develop the languages.  Although the story took dramatic license with different types of early humans appearing together, the attention to detail drew me in and made the prehistoric world come alive.

When a writer invents a world, he or she can make the rules and if the world is consistently rendered, the reader will suspend disbelief. Realistic settings must be rendered as close to life as possible, to avoid booting the reader out of the story with some detail that feels wrong.  No writer wants to do that.  For example, in Rose’s Hostage, I wanted to make sure the law enforcement details were right, so I consulted with FBI and police sources.  Authentic details can breathe life into scenes and bring the reader into the characters’ world.

The lack of dialogue might be a sticking point for some viewers; in books, unbroken narrative or “grey pages” are difficult to read.  I haven’t read the book, but I suspect there isn’t much in there either.  A novel that ignored this effectively was Patrick Suskind’s 1985 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.  The protagonist has no scent of his own and experiences an emotional world through his extraordinary sense of smell.  Like Quest for Fire, it has almost no dialogue and in 2006 became a movie.  Unlike Fire, the film version of Perfume relied on narration to propel the story, a device that usually works better on the page.

Check this movie out, if you haven’t seen it. If you have, I invite you to give your opinion in the comments.

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