I love my DVR. Without it, I would have missed the SciFi miniseries “Tin Man.” High recommendation, as it took the themes and memes of “The Wizard of Oz” and brought an adult sensibility to it. (A sensibility that did not require illegal substances and a copy of Dark Side of the Moon.)
I’m not going to bore you with a review.
I am more interested in the notion of multiple tiers of communication, and stories wrapped inside stories.
My kids are 5 and 3, and I have seen more Disney films in the last couple of years than when I was young. “Little Mermaid,” “Lion King,” you name it. It’s not just the movies, either. There are several book versions for the tykes, from full-blown stories, to condensed “easy readers,” to the little board books with huge pictures for the under-two set.
If you start from the movie and condense your way down, you find a lot of details and major plot pieces falling by the wayside, with a stronger focus on the most important elements of the story. Almost down to the Boy Meets Girl level. For instance, in the “Lion King” board book there’s no hint of Scar’s coup d’etat, or the sacrifice of Simba’s father. No mention of death or conflict. Simba goes to the jungle, meets Timon and Puumba, eats bugs, and then Nala comes to bring him home to lead.
In the various incarnations of The Little Mermaid, we see the same sort of thing. Appropriately enough, there is less evil and violence in the ultra-condensed toddler versions, and a very simple story. No mention of the prow of the ship being used to impale the sea witch.
This is really quite appropriate, because going back to the original source material – the stories that inspired the Brothers Grimm – you have quite a bit more gore and violence than we typically admit in our childrens’ lives. For instance, in “The Little Mermaid”, Ariel’s voice isn’t magically whisked into a seashell. Her tongue gets cut out. Cinderella’s step-sisters are so desperate to make that shoe fit they attempt to cut off their toes. Grimm, indeed.
So the versions our children are getting have already been somewhat sanitized for their protection, and the process of simplifying the message continues down the chain until we get to a board book with 100 words. Each level or layer is a different experience, but fundamentally it is the same story. The devil is in the details.
Now, let’s get back to Tin Man for a moment. It takes as a starting point not L. Frank Baum’s source material, but the classic Judy Garland movie version. (Baum’s tale is not entirely dissimilar, but there are a host of scholarly studies that indicate the entire thing was an allegory about the United States and the need to stick with the gold standard for currency. The Cowardly Lion is none other than William Jennings Bryan. I’ll let you Google it on your own…)
Not In Kansas Anymore
Starting with a beloved and classic 100-minute movie and expanding it to more than 250 minutes is not an instant recipe for success. It’s risky as hell, because essentially the creators had to succeed in creating a story that was consistent, yet richer in tone. “Tin Man” has many creative touches and flourishes, but does not betray the original in a key point: if you started with “Tin Man” and did a “kiddie compression” like we’ve done with Grimm’s Cinderella, you could very well derive “The Wizard of Oz.” There were very subtle references to ideas and themes that explain things to an adult that would need to have been skipped, glossed, or simplified for children. “Tin Man” succeeded in being a dynamic three-dimensional object that leaves a familiar-looking shadow.
Simplification of messages is an art that few really master. Just as important, though, is knowing how and when to flesh out an idea that deserves further attention. And finally, how to craft messages that speak to audiences at multiple levels. “Tin Man” provided an excellent example of the expansion and contraction of stories — and it was pretty fun to watch in its own right.
Just don’t let the kids in the room.