The last time I was sick I saw two movies - Legends of the Fall and Fifty First Dates. I've sort of meant to write about them for years since, and re-reading Chesterton's "Ethics of Elfland" has set the contrast between the two of them clashing and gyring in my mind again.
I don't mind fiction in which the characters do stupid things, or evil things. I don't mind it if bad things happen to them. But I like to think that there is a person inside the character doing those things for reasons that make sense to them at the time, and I like to think they react to the bad things as that person would react. I didn't get that sense in Legends of the Fall at all. The characters were just ciphers carried along by events. None of them seemed real. A loyal, good-hearted fellow becomes a sociopathic libertine; a vivacious, competent woman becomes a suicide: well, these things can happen to people, but in Legends of the Fall they just seemed like automata following a script, not real people who had undergone terrible transformations. I thought perhaps the characterisation might have been botched by trying to compress a really long story into a short time, and that the film had been adapted from a sprawling vast novel where these transformations made sense: but wikipedia told me it was based on a novella. A novella!
It was a meaningless, deterministic, pagan, fatalistic dance of chaos. The characters were remote unknowable inhuman things, like the fairies of W. B. Yeats.
Fifty First Dates is the opposite. Instead of a series of events that tumble the characters along, the characters make the same essential event happen over and over again. There was a continuity in the character of the woman whose memory is wiped clean every night; I had the feeling there was a real person there. The same with the man who is in love with her. Things happen: but the story is about the audacious and vital way the characters respond to those things. They seem to illustrate perfectly the exultation in repetition, the joy in the ordinary amazing wonderfulness of everything, that Chesterton talks about.
"Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say 'do it again'; and the grown-up does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening "Do it again" to the moon."
Even the crudities of Fifty First Dates were of a piece with Chesterton. He would probably have liked them if he had been born into our time. They breathed the democratic spirit and the love of life. They were not more crass than Shakespeare's. It is the elitist anti-democrat and dry intellectual in me that shudders at them.
It was a thoughtful, profound story. And a fairy-tale, yes. The characters were humans, reacted like real humans, and did the whole range of things real humans do.