I have written elsewhere that story archetypes are a straight jacket where especially women characters are relegated to a limited number of roles. Some formulas for action adventure stories are so rigid we can see them work across genres. (The example offered in that earlier discussion was the similar plotlines for the first Muppet Movie and The Outlaw Josey Wales. )
Another example of how old stories are reworked for fresh audiences can be found in Nims’ Island, especially the 2008 movie based on the novel by Wendy Orr. I assert this story (perhaps unconsciously) is a re-working of The Tempest by Shakespeare, which is itself a reworking of archetypes from fairy tales. The similarities are striking.
In Shakespeare‘s final play, Prospero is an old sorcerer exiled with his daughter Miranda to a Mediterranean island where he frees Ariel (a water spirit) and enslaves Caliban (a lost tribesmen). Prospero protects Miranda from the truth about his past by keeping her isolated, and he does NOT train her as a sorceress.
Even when the story is handled by a female director (Julie Jaymor in 2010) where Prospero becomes Prospera (played by Helen Mirren), Miranda is NOT trained in sorcery. Prospera spends considerably more time guiding Ariel into new dimensions than she spends with her daughter’s education. The archetypal princess must be kept unschooled and without work in order to keep her sexually innocent. But… we speak to gender bias extensively in other discussions.
On Nim’s Island in the South Pacific biologist Jack Rusoe (played by Gerald Butler) leaves his young daughter alone while he goes on a two-day excursion to find glow-in-the-dark plankton. They have a pact to keep the island a secret and both fear the return of a ship called the Buccaneer that carries the taint of knowledge of the world.
Novelist Wendy Orr invests Nim with curiosity and problem-solving skills beyond her maturity, and allows Nim to manage saving the new turtles, connecting the internet, and blogging with a pulp fiction writer in San Francisco named Alex Rover (played with little humor by Jodie Foster).
Nim Ruscoe (Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine) spends the time alone with favorite pets that include a dancing sea lion named Selkie that does the heavy lifting for rescuing stranded sojourners in shark infested waters, and a pelican named Galileo that flies back-and-forth between the island and Jack Rusoe who has got himself lost in a sinking sailboat. Jack works magic by using the tools at hand to make a raft and limp home.
We can easily see how Selkie serves as Caliban, and Galileo is Ariel from The Tempest. Galileo is the hero of the story, in fact. He piles fish in the boat for Jack to eat. He snatches Jack’s tool belt away from Nim on the island so Jack can rig a sail before Galileo guides Jack home.
Now the good part.
In The Tempest, Prince Ferdinand is separated from the other sailors who have “undergone a sea change” and wash up on the island. Ferdinand “exchanges eyes” with Miranda and, by way of Prospero’s magic, becomes her slave like Caliban is Prospero’s slave.
Of course, Alex Rover and Nim Rusoe cannot provide sexual tension similar to the plotline in The Tempest, because the audience knows from the get-go that Alex Rover is for Jack Rusco. The fictional character featured in all of Rover’s novels is also played by Gerald Butler, just in case the viewer could miss the archetypal assumption. This imaginary friend is, in fact, her slave.
In the absence of Nim’s father, then, Alex Rover provides advice about keeping a wound clean and commits to leaving her own comfort zone in San Francisco to tolerate the many travel venues, including a sinking rowboat, to undergo a sea change (leaving behind her agoraphobia and dependence on an imaginary friend) and get washed up on the island.
In fact, Alex Rover spends a few hours on The Buccaneer with the troublesome captain and the events director (similar to the separate story line of Stephano and Trinculo) before she is separated from the other sailors and arrives alone and without technical support to begin to solve real world problems alongside Nim.
Alex Rover and Jack Rusco don’t meet until the final scene of the movie because, in these archetypal fairy tales, all tension flows away when the mating couple touch (read: Sleepless in Seattle). In The Tempest, the final act is about reconciliation and wedding preparations. Although the speeches are very fine and often quoted, the story unravels into a simple masque.
Even Peter Greenway‘s engaging version titled Prospero’s Books with the aging Sir John Gielgud spent two-thirds of the movie time with images of a less-than-traditional wedding feast while a peeing cherub sang in a painful octave.
So an additional scene of fragmented storyline is inserted in Nim’s Island when the Buccaneer arrives while Nim is alone. The captain and events director bring tourists ashore who treat the pristine beach as a backdrop for a Hawaiian luau. The tourists obligingly run for the lifeboats when Nim catapults lizards and geckos into their midst from the safety of the treeline.
Inside this action scene one tourist, a boy about Nim’s age named Edmund (Maddison Joyce), sees her and enters the jungle to confront her about what she’s doing to his parents and the other “pirates”.
In this well-written scene, Nim claims that Edmund and all real people aren’t what she had imagined from the stories she read. These would be the stories written by Alex Rover who studiously avoided contact with real people while writing in San Francisco. Nim and Edmund seem to argue, but are really engaged in discovery, even touching each other’s face for assurance the other is real.
Critics complained that Nim’s Island provides too many “plastic” events such as Nim riding the back of the sea lion through the island surf. But I feel the level of improbable events is on par with the original work by Shakespeare, and the farcical elements also mirror the precursor story.
The real change here, or growth in our use of archetypes, is that Nim has intelligence, curiosity, warmth, problem-solving skills, and a community of helpers who allow her to make decisions in committee.
Kudos to Wendy Orr!
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Wendy Orr wrote 10/17/11:
Just wrote a long reply and lost it! But a very interesting article, though I think you were referring more to the movie than the book? The differences are minor but perhaps significant for archetypes, as Selkie is much more maternal as I wrote her, and Galileo is the least heroic of the animals, as unlike the others, he usually has to be tricked or bribed into helping. (and of course in the book the tourists don’t get onto the island, and Edmund doesn’t exist.)
Overall, I think story archetypes are fascinating, and at stories often work best when we use them unconsciously.