I love the idea of a story having elements that may be real or not real, a blend of reality that is left entirely to the watcher or reader to choose their own version of events.
It is both a clever form of storytelling and an avenue to get watchers / readers really mulling over a story when it's over, a way to make them question the version of events provided and make up their own mind and opinion on the outcome.
And anything that leaves a watcher / reader thinking about a story long after it is over, is definitely a really good thing.
I'm a bit obsessed with this real or not real idea, and have been thinking about it a lot due to a current manuscript I've been working on, so read on for some extra waffling on this fun topic!
Major Spoilers for:
So to demonstrate this idea of bending reality and providing almost two entirely different versions of events, I present to you two stories as examples, one which was wonderful and is the perfect instance of this idea being used effectively to tell an unsettling story that creeps beneath your skin. And the other, in my opinion, a great story but with a missed opportunity to use this same storytelling technique.
And the whole thing leaves you with this burning question....
Is any of it real?
Are we witnessing a lost child of the underworld undergoing a series of dangerous quests in order to reclaim her rightful place in her dark and magical homeland?
Or are we watching a young child twisting reality as the world around her becomes darker and darker, using imagination to survive the terrible circumstance she has found herself in, which she cannot understand or control.
And finally, at the end of this film, does Ofelia die? Is it a terribly sad ending to a terribly wasted life? A beautiful little girl just snuffed from existence?
Or does Ofelia rise again as a true princess of the underworld, reunited with her mother, with her death the ultimate sacrifice to gain life everlasting?
The true answer is...... I don’t know.
This story can be watched either way. There is nothing within the narrative that particularity pushes the viewer to make a decision one way or the other, and this is one of my favourite aspects about the whole movie.
Because if we know, if the story definitively tells us without a doubt that we are watching a traumatised child’s inner dreaming, or we are witnessing a true fairytale, it loses the magic of it.
The wondering is gone.
The film just is what it is.
I think the best stories are the ones that crawl deep beneath your skin, leaving you pondering their message and meaning long after you’ve finished watching or reading them. Sometimes providing your audience with a definitive answer either way gives them less to wonder about, less to think about.
Less to question.
And personally, I love the idea of making up my own mind about a story.
In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker
This Australian YA novel is a very interesting book.
It is highly addictive reading from an author with a vivid imagination.
And yet.... I felt like there was a missed opportunity with the ending that, for me, could have used the real or not real trope to provide something very deep to think on. It could have left this novel lingering.
The whole thing is pretty awful.
And super interesting.
And then..... reality begins to shift.
The protagonist swaps places with a dream version of her sister, and enters this world of nightime, populated only by the nightmares of this small town, by terrible dream creations that haunt their dreams each night.
And boy, since the mass shooting at the local highschool, these people have been having some pretty bad dreams.... all pretty much featuring the absolute worst ever killer they can ever imagine.
A schoolgirl monster with the same face as the protagonist.
So.... shit, right? Pretty epic, right?
And yeah, it was.
The rest of the book takes place in this dreamscape, battling these terrible nightmare creations until the protagonist can find a way home. And when she gets back, there she is, still tied to that chair, her body ruined and bruised and hurt from the boy who kidnapped her.
I thought it was a great YA read, with my only tiny little niggle being that this book is pretty clear on what is real or not.
As in, it is made very clear to the reader that the dreamscape nightmare land is a real place and that the protagonist truly visited it, and that the people and things she met there are real too (in their own way). She truly does manage to swap back into her real world and her real body, and then she sets about using her dream experiences to begin healing the townspeople of their lingering grief.
So it is definitely all completely real.....and I guess for myself personally, I think the end would have hit me much harder if we hadn't been shown any definitive answers.
I wish it had been left at real or not real.
My thoughts at the end of reading this very interesting book were, why was it real? Why weren’t we, as the reader, left to wonder for ourselves whether the story really took place or if, under extreme stress and torture, the protagonist dealt with her circumstance by disappearing inside her own fractured mind, by losing herself in a dreamscape populated by dream-ghosts of her dead sister.
I would have LOVED to have finished that book and gone ‘Holy Shit! Was it all in her mind? Was it real? I don’t know’.
It would have been....powerful.
And it would have lingered.
As it was it was still a really fascinating read and very interesting and highly addictive novel.
So..... any thoughts on this bending reality topic? I kind of love it.