The Book of Life and the value of traditional storytelling structure

I find it a little unsettling that one of the most common complaints about The Book of Life is that “the story sucks” or, to put it mildly, that it’s “overplayed”, “cliche”, or otherwise it’s been done before.

Maybe I just have a different view on what makes storytelling valuable, but it always bothers me how eager audiences- particularly American ones- are to seek out novelties, plot twists, or otherwise, some huge special unique sparkly story that nobody has ever seen or heard before.

In some ways, I understand. There’s some stories I am so sick of hearing because they’ve been told so many times and I long for something fresh, or at least different, in an oversaturated media market. But I also feel there is a place for stories that may not have any surprising turns, but are still solid, still tackle topics people are familiar with, still make commentary on culture, still educate… and are ultimately a Story Well Told.

The Book of Life is a Story Well Told quite unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years, and was honestly far more fresh than some films with surprising plot twists. A lot of it was predictable, but it was delightfully predictable, in a way that calls back to being a little kid and listening to my parents tell me the same fairy tale over and over and over again. I just can’t stop watching this film. I’ve seen it twelve times, I know it by heart, and I still want to follow these characters on their adventures, again and again. There’s a place in society for straightforward, simple, fairy tale-like plots, and The Book of Life fits snugly in this box.

Because, truly, even a simple fairy tale is anything but. A fairy tale reflects the values of its society and the values we hope to pass on in the future. It reflects our fears, our hopes, and our voices. In many ways, keeping the plot simple and easy to follow allows for nuanced characterization- the kind of nuance that builds over time, every time you watch it, noticing new details. It’s no coincidence that this story is framed as a tale told to a group of young children; fairy tales and myths are playgrounds for metaphors, allegories and conceptualization. In essence, storytelling is in fact a form of teaching.

In many ways, The Book of Life recalls one of my favourite movies, Lisbela and the Prisoner. Lisbela and the Prisoner has a few twists and turns, but ultimately the plot and motivations are quite simple; it’s a love pentagon (or two triangles hooked together), motivated by passion and revenge. It’s framed with a story about movies, and movie tropes, but even if it weren’t, the main plot is still engaging and heartfelt. Its self awareness does not detract from its content, and the same is also true of The Book of Life.

In Lisbela and the Prisoner, Lisbela even lays out every trope from the movie right in the opening scene:

Lisbela: It’s a romantic comedy with adventure. There’s a flirty hero who never fell in love until he met the heroine. There’s a heroine who will suffer a lot, because the hero’s love is full of problems. There’s a bad guy who only wants to kill the hero, or get the heroine, or both things. There’s a woman who wants the hero, but he wants nothing to do with her. And there’s a bunch more characters who keep doing funny things to liven up the story. Some will end up as well as the hero and heroine, and some as badly as the bad guy, depending on whether they help or hinder the romance.  
Douglas: Have you seen it before?
Lisbela: No, but it always goes like that.
Douglas: Then what’s the point?
Lisbela: The point isn’t knowing what will happen. The point is knowing how it happens and when it happens. We are about to meet a bunch of new people… who have a bunch of problems we can’t solve, only they can. We will see how, and when. It’s starting now. 

Notice anything familiar about this piece of dialogue? A lot of what Lisbela says about her own film bears a striking similarity to what happens in The Book of Life… and a lot of other films for that matter. But they all handle these characters very differently, and use them to tackle completely different subjects. And it’s all okay. They each have their value- and the point lies in seeing “how” it happens. 

Getting back to the original point: The Book of Life isn’t above criticism and it certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s also not trying to be. It’s trying to be a fairy tale, a folk story, an epic myth echoed through generations of storytellers and molded into a cultural product that lives and breathes its author’s soul. Everything from the framing device, to the character designs, to the theatrical setup of the two gods in the opening sequences, to the very moral of the story supports this. To look at this and say the story “sucks”, is an awfully close-minded way of consuming media, because even overplayed plot structures have their value.

I recommend watching some foreign films and taking note of how plot structures and tropes vary across cultures, and how a basic plot structure can be used to uphold original thoughts.

Or, yanno, watch some dadaist films. That’ll give you plenty nontraditional plot structure.

And hey.

Write your own story.