Sun, Apr 17, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Seven plots that strip novels and movies to their bare bones

The founding editor of "Private Eye" Christopher Booker reckons there are just seven basic plots

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories
By Christopher Booker
728 pages

So what does Steven Spielberg's shark-fest Jaws have in common with the Old English epic Beowulf?

And what do those two stories have in common with High Noon, The Guns of Navarone and most any James Bond movie?

What links David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and the legend of King Arthur together with the fairy tale The Ugly Duckling? What story line resurfaces in such disparate works as the Grail quest, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings and Richard Adams' bumptious bunny tale Watership Down?

What could Peter Rabbit, Scarlett O'Hara and Alice from Wonderland possibly have in common? Or Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Silas Marner and Scrooge?

These aren't trick SAT questions or annoying Trivial Pursuit queries. They are questions that lie at the heart of the thesis that the critic Christopher Booker sets out in his gargantuan, sometimes absorbing and often blockheaded new book.

According to Booker, there are only seven basic plots in the whole world -- plots that are recycled again and again in novels, movies, plays and operas. Those seven plots are: 1. Overcoming the Monster, 2. Rags to Riches, 3. The Quest, 4. Voyage and Return, 5. Rebirth, 6. Comedy and 7. Tragedy.

The Overcoming the Monster plot lies behind horror movies and thrillers like Jaws, as well as many war stories, Hollywood westerns and science fiction tales. In this genre, a community dwells under the shadow of a monstrous threat; a hero or band of heroes does battle with the beast (be it a giant white shark, an evil gunslinger or a horde of Nazis); initial dreamlike success is followed by nightmarish setbacks; but a final confrontation results in victory for the hero, the vanquishing of the monster and the restoration of order to the realm.

In the Rags to Riches story line traced by works like Jane Eyre, an immature hero (often an orphan), who is looked down upon by others, has a series of adventures culminating in a terrible crisis, and emerges from those tests a mature person, ready at last to assume his or her place in the world and make a lasting love match.

Hazardous journeys filled with physical perils provide the structure both for Quest tales like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Voyage and Return and for narratives like Alice in Wonderland, while inner journeys (from naivete to wisdom, psychological paralysis to emotional liberation) form the armature of Rebirth tales like Snow White and A Christmas Carol.

In laying out these archetypes, Booker -- a British newspaper columnist and the founding editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye -- does a nimble job of colla-ting dozens of stories, using the 34 years he says it took him to write this volume to identify and explicate all sorts of parallels and analogies that might not occur to the casual reader. He shows us how The Terminator and its sequel Judgment Day adhere to traditional narrative tropes, moving inexorably if violently toward the ideas of rebirth and redemption. And he reminds us how the movie ET embodies classic coming-of-age-story patterns: The boy hero Elliott's encounter with ET, his alien alter ego, helps him to grow up, forces him to demonstrate leadership, and enables him to bring new harmony to his fragmented family. Booker suggests that five of the seven basic plots (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, and Rebirth) can really be placed under the larger umbrella of Comedy: in their purest form, all have happy endings, all trace a hero's journey from immaturity to self-realization, and all end with the restoration of order or the promise of renewal.

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