I just saw the movie The Skeleton Twins (which has garnered pretty high ratings for an independent film) and wasn’t particularly impressed. Nor was I super-disappointed; I was expecting mediocre and that’s what I got. I was surprised at the particular form the movie’s mediocrity took, though. I’d heard Skeleton Twins was a comedy; given that it begins with identical twins attempting suicide at the same time, I presumed a black comedy. But it wasn’t a comedy. Sure, there were a few quips and amusing moments here and there, but basically it was a banal drama, touching on not only suicide, but homosexuality, promiscuity, parental neglect, and pedophilia. Any one of these subjects might have made for an interesting movie, if only they were explored. Instead they were plot points, all surface, doing nothing to enhance or shake up the viewer’s prior assumptions. The only skeleton in this movie was the bones of the utterly commercial three act structure, as visible as if the film had been x-rayed. The twins realize that despite not having talked to each other in ten years, they truly love each other! Wow! The sister who thought she was together isn’t nearly as together as she thought. The brother who thought he was untogether is more together than he thought. They ditch prior unsatisfying relationships, decide they want to live, and sail off into the sunset together to watch goldfish swim around an aquarium. (sorry to act as a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the movie).
I felt very similarly about the last book I read (book group, I take no responsibility)–Me Before You, by Jo Jo Moyes. That was a banal drama about assisted suicide, and believe me, I could see the three act structure bones of the supposedly heartwarming, tearjerker movie all the way through.
In a Creative Writing class in college, I wrote a short story where a major character committed suicide, because that was the kind of overwrought drama, that, as a college student, I tended to insert into my writing. My professor said, wow, your story was so good up to that point. He said heavy bad things like that in a fictional piece need to earn their place in the story and suggested I read Lie Down in Darkness, by William Styron, about a young woman who commits suicide. Later I learned that Styron actually suffered from severe depression. It wasn’t an easy read. It dragged me through the mud. But I still remember it.
Believe me, I don’t think every book should have a heavy, depressing theme. I am happy to read light, fluffy, funny books, or genre books where the blood and gore are, indeed, meant to be plot points. But I hate when the two are mixed. I agree with my former professor, heavy material should earn its place in the story. I don’t like three act structures, I don’t like cheap redemption, and I don’t like fiction where it seems like the author sat at his/her desk and researched some problem or other, whether it be suicide or wife beating or whatever. Good drama is a cry from the gut. It is personal. It is unpredictable. it reaches into your hidden places and shakes you up and changes you.