A few years ago, I picked up a copy of The Return of King Doug from my library, read it, loved it, returned it, and promptly forgot the title. No amount of Googling could call up the book again. “Satirical portal fantasy child…”
Here’s the basic plot: the centaurs, sentient trees and elfin creatures of pseudo-Narnia are gathered for the final battle against the Dark Queen. And they have a hero with them, one the prophecy says will lead them to victory! It’s a human person, named Doug. They put a crown on him, hang their most potent magical bauble around his neck, and declare him king.
Doug is eight years old. He’s happy to be made king, but once talk turns to the bloody battle at 100-to-1 odds to take place in the morning, Doug does what any sensible kid does. He runs all the way away, returning through his magical well to his grandmother’s place in the Poconos. And he brought the bauble with him.
Cut to mumble-mumble years later, Doug is all grown up, divorced with a kid. Years of therapy have convinced him that his adventure was fantasy, but he can’t get his own life together. Then his parents talk him into returning to the old cabin, and his son finds the bauble and falls back into pseudo-Narnia, and…
And you know what will happen. The prophecy he was unable to fulfill as a child will be fulfilled now that he’s an adult, and we’re going to get a satirical tour of fantasy land while we’re at it.
It’s a fun book, and I enjoyed it, but not because the plot was unpredictable. The basic outline of the story was right there, and the only surprises came from the details.
That same weekend, my wife said she wanted to see KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, largely based on the beautiful animation in the commercials. My wife has no interest in fantasy (the only fantasy novels she reads are mine, and the only fantasy movies she sees are the big popular ones or the artsy ones) but she has a long history with animation so, of course, we went.
You should go, too. See it in the theater, and stay for the mid-credits stop-motion clips. It’s gorgeous and affecting, and while Laika’s previous films have been interesting but significantly flawed, this one is a real achievement.
It’s also utterly predictable. Once the first act ends (and this is a spoiler that isn’t really a spoiler) the plot turns into a Quest for the Plot Coupons, with the caveat that the Plot Coupons can’t solve the Plot, only the protagonist’s pre-existing self can do that.
And telling you that doesn’t spoil a thing, because the real joy comes from the details. It’s in the way the characters are portrayed, and in the specifics of the tasks they take on. Finally, when the expected ending arrives, all those little details have fleshed out the story so completely that the denouement carries weight. It satisfies.
This is a lesson that I just can’t seem to learn. No matter how many detective novels I read or action films I watch, I’m constantly trying to reinvent the wheel. I keep making things from scratch.
There’s joy in making stories from scratch, but so many missteps, too. Sometimes I think that what I really need to do is start with a Farmboy of Uncertain Parentage and spiff it up.
Not that I really will. It’s just interesting to think about.
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