Rule of Three

A miracle happened today. Our family saw a movie. In a theater. All the way through.

No small feat, given that this was our two-year-old’s first movie in a theater. Bear in mind, we have only ever been able to go to the movies in pairs since my youngest son was born: usually my older son goes with me, sometimes with my wife, and on rare occasions she with me. Never before had we dared take all four at the same time.

The film? Oz the Great and Powerful from Disney Pictures and Evil Dead director Sam Raimi.

To be sure, we stacked the deck. We picked an unlisted matinée held specifically for families with young kids: lights on, talking and walking allowed, no previews. We watched the original 1939 film with him to build a familiar visual context: green witches bad, flying monkeys scary, yellow bricks good. I held him on my lap while my wife sat between me and his older brother plying both with snacks. The amazing thing is that it worked. We had so prepared for the usual baton race we run at church and family events that it never occurred to us everyone might simply sit back and enjoy the film.

We definitely were not in Kansas anymore.

And what a treat it was. Despite its flaws, Oz managed to keep all four of us in our seats, excited and occasionally giggling for more than two hours. For my wife and older son, it was an exiting fantasy adventure. For me, the Baum purist, it was a great new story that walked an impossible line of remaining almost perfectly faithful both to the back-story from Baum’s original books and the classic 1939 musical they inspired. For my youngest son, it was something fun to watch and talk about while we scarfed down popcorn and Raisinettes.

It dawned on me that we were looking at a new third act in our family life, one where the juggling of priorities between two parents and two kids might actually start to get easier, where every simple family activity wouldn’t require planning of near military precision. Where Act I was the story of becoming new parents, and Act II was about adapting to the competing demands of children of different ages and different schedules, I could now imagine an Act III consisting of the four of us walking arm in arm the same direction. Remember those “Optimistic Voices” when Dorothy’s foursome finally had the Emerald City in sight?

Yeah, something like that.

And that imaginary third act has tremendous power precisely because it is imaginary. It is compelling because it hasn’t happened, but it feels right and necessary. In storytelling, this is known as the “Rule of Three.” It’s a  simple rhetorical device stating how narrative elements are most satisfying when they recur in threes, that in fact we wait and listen expectantly for that third element to introduce itself. Whether it is friends met on the yellow brick road, or refrains in a song, or the cadenced sound bites in political speeches and corporate presentations, it just sounds right and feels best when it happens in threes. [Re-read that last sentence and you'll see what I mean]. In Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech you feel its full power: he says it nine times (three times in groups of three). Ever since Beowulf, English readers have been conditioned to look for the transcendence of the Rule of Three in the stories we tell and the lives we live: Beowulf wrestles Grendel and becomes a champion. Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother and is made King. Beowulf dies battling the Dragon and becomes savior of the kingdom.

Looking to our own lives as stories, that Rule of Three moves us because it breaks through another storytelling motif that shapes and often traps us. This past week, in response to a DC Comics storyline in which Damien Wayne, the son of Batman and his newest Robin, was killed in action, long-time comic book writer Paul Levitz said:

A wise editor once told me that in the end, there are two great stories: good man turns bad and bad man turns good. By that token, Damian’s journey and end is one of the greater tragedies in the long Batman canon.

While Levitz is a skilled enough writer to be speaking about a more nuanced idea, his words help illustrate the dualistic simplicity we fall prey to. Catastrophe or eucatastrophe. Damnation or redemption. Dark or light. This or that. One thing or the other, and never the twain shall meet.

When applied to a life off the printed page, that kind of thinking builds cages. We were young, but now we are old. We were free, but now we are trapped. We were rich, but now we are poor. We were strong, but now we are weak.

The Rule of Three breaks through all that by showing a third act is not only possible, but necessary for the fulfillment of the story. Instead of a life lived in tragic opposites, those opposites can be combined to create something new. Life, in short, is more than just beginnings and endings. When we acknowledge the Rule of Three, if Act I is the past and Act II the present, then Act III consists of a future that is made when those two are brought together.

In other words, where our culture simply conditions us to look for sequels, we are hard-wired to look for trilogies instead. Even (perhaps especially) when they are not there. It is simply built into our storytelling mind.

As I left the theater, I realized Disney had just manufactured a trilogy with a classic film at its heart. MGM’s Wizard of Oz will of course live forever. But now it has not one but two companion films from Disney to stand around it like bookends: Oz the Great and Powerful (telling what came before) and the misunderstood Return to Oz from 1985 (telling what came after).

Neither the prequel or the sequel will ever stand on equal footing with Victor Fleming’s classic. Both are enjoyably flawed. But seen together, both wrap the author’s original vision around his most famous derivative work. For fans of the written original, that becomes a real treat. It feels all the more satisfying because we can experience something we love in the embrace of a trilogy.

I began thinking about other examples of such “found” trilogies, stories or films created independently but, because of shared elements in their universe or a common creative vision, are simply more satisfying to the audience to experience as a trilogy.

The Antarctic Horror Trilogy (Poe – Verne – Lovecraft)

"There arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure."

“There arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure.”

Imagine a trilogy of novels written by three masters of gothic horror and science fiction, spanning the bounds of madness and human life on Earth against the soul-biting backdrop of 19th Century Antarctic expeditions. Believe it or not, such a series exists, begun by none other than Edgar Allan Poe in his only complete novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Kind of a horrific precursor to Moby Dick, Poe’s tale starts as a high seas adventure before sending the characters further and further south, eventually shipwrecking them in Antarctica. There amid the frozen wastes and eerie pale birds screaming “tekeli-li” into the sky, our heroes’ narrative comes to an abrupt end, face to face with a mysterious shrouded figure in white. This enigmatic ending prompted Jules Verne to write his own sequel to the work, An Antarctic Mystery, which sent another expedition to account for the characters who disappeared in Poe’s original novel, unveiling their ultimate fate at the base of an enigmatic Ice Sphinx hidden in the Southern continent. In the 1930s, H.P. Lovecraft then took up the setting in his novella, At the Mountains of Madness, making it his own in a tale of lost underground cities built by ancient alien races in Antarctica, where their monstrous survivors still wander, devouring explorers and speaking in the forgotten language of Poe’s bird cries. Spooky as they come and, when read together, clearly comprise a shared trilogy by genre writers at the peak of their craft separated by decades.

Ridley Scott’s Replicant Trilogy

Pris the Replicant from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner

Pris the Replicant from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

Filmmaker Ridley Scott is responsible for some of the most thought-provoking and memorable science fiction brought to the screen. Although not direct sequels to one another, his classics Blade Runner, Prometheus and Alien form a dystopian yet very satisfying trilogy of sorts exploring the significance of synthetic humans known as replicants. Hunted down for bounty by a young Harrison Ford in Blade Runner’s 2019, the replicants have become a full-fledged slave race by 2089  serving aboard corporate starliners like Prometheus and Alien’s Nostromo in hazardous assignments. Typically the amoral villains of the films, they serve as a foil to the human characters’ own humanity, typically leading to catastrophic events through their literal adherence to corporate directives. When viewed as central characters uniting the three films into a shared universe, the replicants become proxies for the existential questions of the audience in gripping films that explore themes of human origins and fear of the unknown.

Ridley Scott’s Morocco Trilogy

Part of the Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, Morocco. Used in Kingdom of Heaven. Photo by Zouavman Le Zouave

Part of the Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, Morocco. Used in Kingdom of Heaven. Photo by Zouavman Le Zouave

Though set in other lands and centuries, three of Ridley Scott’s films made in Morocco share enough thematic unity to comprise a found trilogy, each set apart by almost precisely 1,000 years. Gladiator, set in Rome in 180 A.D. is one of my all-time favorite films, exploring the notion of honor, sacrifice and service to a Republic. More than a millennium later, in Jerusalem in 1184, Kingdom of Heaven revisits the notion of nation-building in a time when the certainty of Gladiator’s Rome has faded. Here, the fragments of Empire lead to competing military claims to the Holy Land. Both films resolve the moral conflict of the main characters in a similar way: once a kingdom corrupts, the true  general or knight will fight for its people. The 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia are dramatized in Black Hawk Down. Seen as the third installment of this military trilogy, it serves almost as a cautionary postscript to the other two films: as a highly professional elite squad sees a peacekeeping mission devolve into an international disaster, the soldiers soon find themselves fighting without a mandate, and solely for survival… at once both the highest and lowest of causes. Across this found trilogy, the civic values of Rome pass through the corrupting influence of the Crusades into the moral ambiguity of the modern world.

Star Trek Time Travel Trilogy

As a Trekkie, one of the most frustrating things about J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot film was that in changing the history of the future, it essentially wiped out every episode of every series and every motion picture released under the Star Trek banner to start fresh with a clean slate. The other most frustrating thing? How great it was. The film essentially restarts the  Star Trek timeline to reintroduce the classic characters in a visually updated setting, without any of the baggage of 40+ years of fan continuity. It did so in a gripping sci-fi adventure that was lovingly reverent of its legacy even as it cleared the foundation to build anew.

But wait! Maybe not all is lost. If the critical changes to the timeline happen in 2233, then although the rest of the 23rd and 24th Century stories no longer exist, those which happened in the past should remain (paradoxically) untouched. Which means that my two favorite original films, set in the past thanks to time travel, still count! Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home saw the Enterprise crew travel back to San Francisco in 1986 to collect a pair of Humpback Whales (extinct in their own time) to communicate with an alien menace in the future and repopulate the species. Similarly, Star Trek: First Contact saw the Next Generation cast pursue their nemesis, the Borg, back in time to the year 2063 to prevent alterations to their history (the very thing, in fact, that the new Star Trek brought about). So while the old classic adventures of Captains Kirk and Picard no longer exist in Star Trek’s future, they do remain in the past. So these three films can be viewed in chronological order as a kind of prehistory to a new Trek franchise, looking to the beginnings of Trek history in 20th Century San Francisco, on to First Contact with Vulcans in 2063 and finally the new adventures of the Starship Enterprise crew in a revised 23rd Century. I can’t wait for the new film this summer!

The beauty of the found trilogy is that it  opens closed stories to new possibilities. Old favorites can be seen in a new light, with connections to other parts of the past we never held together before. Old familiar futures can be rewritten when they no longer fit our present. Isn’t that worth the price of admission?

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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