Traditional storytelling in the digital age. Evolve or Die.
I met Simon Higgins, a successful novelist and celebrated swordsman many years ago. Just last year, I wrote about the success of the Cocoa and Little Love series, created at his wife’s animation company, Crane Animation in Guilin. Now with the release of his latest novel Tomodachi: The Forest of the Night, I was pleased to make contact with Simon Higgins at his home in southern China. Everyone in China knows Crane Animation’s visual work. Always mixing it up to evolve their craft, Simon and his wife Jenny have made themselves a household name and they both continue to work in all facets of media.
Paul Hellard: So give us an opening heads-up. What’s your field?
Simon Higgins: I’m a published author of young adult novels for 21 years. Since Harry Potter, this is a genre taken far more seriously than it used to be, including by what we writers call ‘the money men’.
I’ve been published by big houses like Random House and the Hachette Group and small-medium press imprints like Eagle Books. My books have been translated into several languages, awarded and critically well-received. As well as a sizeable middle school and teenage audience, I also have a substantial following of mature age readers who simply refuse to miss out on the fun.
While staying faithful to the fans, I’m also into constantly moving on. Recently I wrote what is I’m told the first ever Visual Novel (with immersive interactive technology) to be simultaneously published in Mandarin Chinese and English. I studied programming in order to support my China-based publishing partners as they developed that publication. You could say I needed to learn both their languages. I was also proactive in directing the visuals. I’m into the stretch, into taking that next step.
PH: What’s your latest creation, and in marketing it, are you doing anything differently to past works?
SH: Yes! My new novel is Tomodachi: The Forest of the Night. Just published in Australia, with foreign and movie rights still up for grabs (though not for long, I suspect). It’s a fish-out-of-water adventure tale: a shipwrecked youth from a noble English House trying to survive in war-torn feudal Japan…with a little help from his friends. Samurai action, the Japanese spirit world and a murder investigation. My marketing concept for this novel was to narrate a two minute, visually rich, pacey documentary with cool music. To sell a literary adventure via visual/audio mediums. Simply logical I think, and besides, hey…an exhilarating challenge!
PH: Just how adaptable do you feel Tomodachi: The Forest of the Night really is to other story-telling media?
SH: Quite honestly, it’s born for it. From my first reviews in the late 1990s (yes, I come from an earlier century when trained dinosaurs, ravens and owls delivered the mail) critics observed that I was ‘an intensely filmic writer’. Two of my early novels, Doctor Id (a serial killer using the internet to lure young victims) and the sea-tech/espionage romp Thunderfish nearly became TV/big budget movie projects with Australia’s ABC and a major Hollywood studio, respectively. But alas, they, ultimately, were ‘the deals that got away’. Every career novelist has such stories. But my books are designed as triggers for readers to assume ‘internal directorial roles’ running personalised movies -or games even- in their heads. I love the visual. Alongside writing novels, I work as the chief screenwriter/co-showrunner on the most successful ‘short animations’ series in China. It plays on over 1000 TV channels, buses, planes, bullet trains, in airports, on massive LED screens across buildings and, of course, on the internet, where it enjoys -literally- millions of regular followers.
PH: Story arc is so important in any epic and I know your work adheres so well to that proven formula. How important is the keeping to the original story to you the writer?
SH. I have many professional writer friends and some of them, frankly (no names) are what I would call ‘a bit precious’ about this stuff. I’m not. I don’t think you can afford to be. Ask George RR Martin. Consider also respectful creative short-cuts and adaptation ‘liberties’ taken with Tolkien’s material by Sir Peter Jackson. Didn’t those necessary variations on the original work -to make it function in a different medium- help introduce an entire generation to…surprise! …the original literary work? It can, and should be, win-win.
PH: One problem writers have when they are ‘repurposing’ a story for new platforms, they feel compelled to develop a stage, then adhere to stage direction. Even gamification of the story chapters. What would you the writer feel about this?
SH: I guess the two issues are skill and integrity. Will a new take on my story’s tone and/or structure be executed cleverly and impressively? Will the core, the essence of my story, its heroes journey, the meat of my tale if you like, be respected and preserved? Translated -which is great -or clumsily exploited, which is not.
If it’s the former, then the concessions made to a different medium, generational attention-spans or the times we live in themselves, are fine by me. If, however, as one writer friend of mine was once told ‘you’ve written a popular book but we just want to buy the name then write a totally different story of our own’ then yeah, I guess I would feel, I suppose, a little like I was being asked to sell my child.
That kind of nonsense does happen, but in truth, never really pays off -it’s actually dumbass business thinking- because the original fan base inevitably denounces the crass adaptation, the critics put the boot into it while it’s on the ground, and the franchise then suffers a short shelf life. Nobody wins. Translation to other mediums is great, so long as it’s fundamentally sensible and involves a measure of artistic integrity.
There ARE situations where reboots, for instance, take a whole new direction and get away with it, but those that do rarely centre on novel-based characters. Compare Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (Henry Cavill: a somewhat stressed, conflicted, dour Superman who doesn’t really crack a smile until the end) with the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve (equally majestic in his powers but comparatively jolly, accepting of his destiny, mission and obligations, and more conspicuously tender towards us comparatively pathetic humans). If you study the Superman comics, both the Reeve and Cavill personas are in there; because being a graphic novel character with decades of editions and no single writer in overall control, his characterisation really ‘wanders’ at times. That doesn’t happen in a novel written by an experienced storyteller. Of course, the Snyder Superman flick wins hands-down for visual effects, though the earlier movies did well for their era.
PH: Finally, what do you, as a novelist, see as the most concerning trends in 21st century visual storytelling?
SH: All storytellers, no matter what medium they are working in and with, need to remind themselves that they are telling stories to humans. And we humans, for whatever reason, have a hero’s journey, as Joseph Campbell called it, etched on our hearts. Some attribute this to evolutionary reasons, others to spiritual ones. It doesn’t matter which is true, or even if both are. Heroes need to suffer, learn, struggle and rise, because we all do.
We all seek mentors, we all make mistakes, sometimes betray others or ourselves, despite our best intentions and most noble convictions. The mirror of storytelling, no matter how visually amazing, must always continue to encompass and reference this or, I warn you, that (human) audience will ultimately just go elsewhere. I am concerned at times by preoccupation with the visual and audio to the detriment of this core principle. Balance is crucial; yes, blow my mind with your CGI rich, 3D-enhanced, quad sound-tracked epic. But also give me connection and meaning relative to the sentient beings in your story or frankly, next time I won’t invest.
The other thing that is a real worry in our time is identity politics and political correctness gone mad, and springing out of that, a crazed desire to constantly lecture the audience. It’s rife now in TV and film and a real threat to the (forgive the pun) ‘sustainability of the ecosystem’. Examples? Pages and pages online of angry and despairing comments from (departing) Doctor Who fans about the sudden gender-switch of their iconic character and the preachy PC plots and throwaway ‘propaganda’ lines which followed, that they claim destroyed the long-running and beloved series for them. I was also morbidly fascinated by those recent rumours -and even serious discussions- along the lines of ‘perhaps it’s time to make James Bond a black guy and hey, how about casting Idris Elba?’ So much for character -and artistic- integrity.
There just seems to be a bizarre fixation now with re-configuring iconic characters to please elements of the contentious ‘social media discussion-wars’ generation. And with turning any good -or potentially good- story that already had its own lessons and messages on board into ‘audience ambushes’ that subject a paying audience to somebody else’s obsession, guilt trip or political opportunity. Where will it all end? With a gay Pinocchio, an autistic Harry Potter or a biopic of ‘the true life of the woman we now think of as Buddha’? Don’t get me wrong. Brokeback Mountain, Rain Man and The Last Temptation of Christ were all powerful, thought-provoking and moving stories that needed to be told. But now imagine, just for a moment, that the central characters of THOSE stories had their natures or identities hijacked and flipped by minority politics-obsessed producers and writers. I think that makes my point. When we tell a story, be it in a book or on any kind of screen, we need to have the guts to tell THAT story. THAT one.
I’m quietly confident that my latest novel, the story of Daniel Marlowe, son of a nobleman from the court of King Henry VIII, shipwrecked and forced to assimilate into the dangerous, complex world of the samurai, WILL hit the screen. But, yeah, I’m also saying sutras in the hope that whoever buys those film, animation or gaming rights won’t feel compelled to chuck a transgender Thai kickboxer, classic anime giant battle suit or talking pet dragon into the mix. Because, worthy as they may be, those are all somebody else’s stories.
Tomodashi: The Forest of the Night
© Paul Hellard – VFXScience/Hellard Media 2019