Achieving the quest; rescuing the prisoner; lifting the curse. Scoring the goal; hitting the target; going the distance. Having journeyed through another Olympic cycle, I’m reminded of the power of the quest narrative within our stories, how it motivates and inspires, how it brings comfort with its all consuming ubiquity. And yes I really do love a great quest narrative, those stories where the heroes must overcome, must achieve, must conquer; where the characters must DO something, where they go forward to their goal.
Is this a positive and affirming picture of life? Yes, of course. Is it the only narrative that should define our lives? Absolutely Not!
But I’m often disappointed in modern storytellers who seem to believe there is no alternative. For there is indeed a counter-point narrative, one equally essential to humanity, one that is part of our design. But it is being ignored – suppressed even – by many of us and to our detriment. And so I want to argue for stories about “Doing Nothing”.
I’m not talking about literally Doing Nothing, although I’m a fan of it and do it myself on occasion. And there are activities which often have the appearance of Doing Nothing, or have had the reputation of Doing Nothing. Often, sitting down and reading a book (instead of the housework), watching TV, sitting round a fire chatting with friends have all been seen or referred to as “Doing Nothing”. Actually, what people mean when they say this is that I/we are doing nothing “productive”; we’re not doing anything that could be considered “work”. And in our Capitalist driven culture, in order to continually “acquire and retain capital” (which is the prime directive of capitalism) then anything which does not achieve this through work is considered fruitless, anathema and unworthy of attention. And so of course this culture is invested in the quest narrative. Of course it is invested in stories with goals to achieve, targets to reach and lists that can be marked off. And this same culture is completely mystified by the concept of rest (which is why they don’t really “get” the concept of Sabbath). It’s mystified by the idea of Doing Nothing, of just playing about, of the idea of adventure and play for their own sake.
But what I find most harmful is that this mystification is now becoming suppression and even open opposition, So much so, that our storytelling is becoming poisoned by this ideal. Our stories are reflecting the constant pressure to be “DOING SOMETHING” and actively suppressing or re-writing narratives which encourage the idea that “Doing Nothing” can actually often be more creative. Our stories are in fact being changed and manipulated to eliminate any idea that we could go off on an adventure for an adventure’s sake; to eliminate the idea of simple play as its own reward; to suppress any suggestion that rest, play, imagination and relaxation are an essential part of being human, part of our Divine design (which I believe they are in fact are).
This harsh, oppressive reality was brought home to me in what turned out the be a rather painful visit to the cinema with one of my dearest friends (who is now scarred for LIFE) to see the recent adaptation of “Swallows and Amazons”.
What I always loved about the Swallows and Amazons stories was that it was a celebration of childhood freedom from “purpose”; a celebration of adventure and of imaginative free play (I of course didn’t realise that’s what it was when I was young). When I was a child and read the first book and watched the 70s movie I related to the children because they played the way I played. They had adventures based in their imagination rather than being dependent on the outside agency of adults. They were both silly and sensible, competent and co-operative and playful and praiseworthy.
As an adult I still appreciate the stories as reflective and a nostalgic representation of both my own past and a vision of what could be true for both children and adults. They remind me that we are designed to rest from “productive work”. They remind me that we are called to be childlike. They remind me that there is benefit in idle activity, that in Doing Nothing we discover the simple Joy that exists in the small everyday things; that in the shared “Doing Nothing” we appreciate companionship and community and build positive relationships.
What we got in this film adaptation however was not a celebration of childhood, play or Doing Nothing. What we got was a film that resembled Ransome’s celebration of free children in name only. And it was not just the influence of the Capitalist idolisation of productivity that was evident here. The thing is, children learn to be self-sufficient, imaginative and think independently by Doing Nothing. This threatens some adults, those who still believe children are there to be seen and not heard, who are dominated by the culture of fear and control, who are afraid of children having their own agency. There is definitely a rise in negative attitudes to unsupervised imaginative free play by children, driven by those who fear children’s agency. These are the same people who dislike Harry Potter – they’ll tell you it’s because of the “encouragement of witchcraft”, but it’s because the children, quite rightly, challenge adult authority and in the controlling Patriarchal authoritative world view of these people, that’s simply not done.
The Patriarchal influence on this adaptation is also reflected in the changes made to the female characters. Much of the strength of the Mother is removed in this adaptation – she is much less supportive, over-protective, doesn’t trust her children (either in general truthfulness or in looking after themselves) and her decision making is undermined by the absent father. Her own prowess in sailing is ignored, as is the fact that it is she who has taught the children the skills they need to survive their adventure along with her being the encourager (if not instigator) of the adventure. As for the four girls, once again they became much diminished by the changes – Susan became an incompetent, argumentative, wonderless girl who can’t even bake a decent cake; Nancy was truculent and barely relatable, with none of the wonder of adventure and charisma I remember and was relegated to almost a guest role, despite the fact that in the books she is more often than not the ringleader and the one the others all turn to in times of trouble; Peggy, Nancy’s sister and Mate of the Amazon becomes a similarly limited role, relegated to simple cipher, an accommodation only to the limits of adapting the source – you get the impression they’d have been happy to leave her out. Titty/Tatty was closest to the original portrayal of an imaginative adventure seeker and storyteller (for me, Titty is the Mary Sue of the story – the audience’s representative and “way in” to the story) and did do a lot of work to keep me in the theatre and not walk out after half an hour. Poor John didn’t escape his entire personality being warped either, thanks to the limits of Patriarchy and toxic masculinity. He became sneaky, irresponsible, unpleasant and even cruel to his siblings, because you know “boys will be boys”. Urgh. (This is not to say the actors didn’t all give fine performances – they were are great, especially Tatty and Roger [albeit playing up the very cute kid angle]. They were just poorly served by script.)
The thing is, I don’t object to film adaptations making changes to the source material as a matter of course, there are times when I would actively encourage a story to be adapted differently. But not when the changes upend the souls of what the story is about, not when the changes reflect harmful ideas or affirm negative cultural oppressions. The changes here reflect the idea that children must have a focus, that they must have something to “Do” (a mystery to solve, an antagonist to overcome) and a goal to be achieved. And even though the film was marketed as a family/children’s story, the biggest change (the “spy” plot – don’t get me started!) actually changed the focus from the children and made it into an adult focused story. It removed the power, competence and agency of the majority female children and gave it to three grown men. It introduced children to an adult peril they should never have to deal with in order to falsely “up the ante” of excitement – unnecessarily so. This gives the impression and feel that basically children aren’t important enough to have a story focused solely on them, that they are baggage to our adult lives; an inconvenience to some, cute status symbol to others, but property to be pushed about at our adult whim nonetheless. A toxic worldview indeed.
So if you’re looking for a story to balance out the quest narrative, to give you a glimpse into the wealth of adventure for its own sake, don’t go to this movie – watch the 1974 Movie version, or even better, read Ransome’s series of books. Even better, experiment yourself with simply “Doing Nothing”. Do Nothing with your kids, Do Nothing on your own, Do Nothing with friends. Lounge about, sit on a beach, read a book, learn an instrument, stop producing “stuff”, stop consuming “stuff”. Spend time with friends simply for the pleasure of it. Because there will be a time when you have a quest, an injustice to right, a song to teach, a shed to build – and those refreshing times of Doing Nothing will have prepared you.
Go, Do Nothing.