This kind of ending annoys me. It makes me feel that my faith as a viewer or reader has been betrayed; it leaves me feeling tricked, rather than entertained. This is why I discourage "surprise ending" stories in the writing workshops I teach. I tell my students that their job as writers is to create trust in the story they're telling, not to showcase their own cleverness by breaking that trust.
When we got home from seeing The Illusionist, I had e-mail from a friend who'd been taken in by one of the latest cases of Munchausen by Internet, and who was very distraught about it. Someone had told a long, elaborate story about personal tragedy, and my friend -- and others -- had believed it and been affected by it, only to discover at the end that it was all a lie, that the people and tragedies they'd been mourning had never existed at all. My friend's comment was, "The lesson here is that no one's what they seem to be."
I answered by saying that most people are what they seem to be, and that fraudulent narratives do their greatest damage by destroying our trust in everything, by creating the nagging fear that maybe nothing we see or hear is really what it claims to be. This isn't just an Internet phenomenon: a few years ago, my parish was thrown into turmoil when we learned that a trusted leader had been behaving unethically, and lying to close friends and church officials about that behavior, for months -- or maybe years. The people who'd been closest to him repeatedly said things like, "Now I wonder if I ever really knew him at all."
This kind of deception destroys our faith in everything. It makes us feel as if we can't trust the ground we're standing on. It makes us wonder if anything is what it seems to be.
Now, granted, films and novels are fictions, "untrue" stories. We all know that. But I don't think the proper job of fiction is to encourage us to doubt reality. I think the job of fiction is to give us new ways to understand and engage with the real. Some of the most culturally persistent fictions give us hope that reality can be different, that we can work to change the world around us, or at least that we can have a positive effect on that reality. These fictions, no matter how seemingly outlandish, create trust and faith rather than demolishing them.
Enter science fiction and fantasy. I talk here about some of the reasons academics are uncomfortable with these genres, and especially with the world-changing aspects of them. I've written here about my own life-altering history with Star Trek. The Lord of the Rings has had a similar effect on people. This article by Chris Mooney includes a poignant anecdote about Tolkien's effect on the real:
In 1972, when Greenpeace leader David McTaggart sailed into a French nuclear testing area -- thereby triggering the launch of the organization -- he wrote in his journal: "I have been reading The Lord of the Rings. I could not avoid thinking about the parallels between our own little fellowship and the long journey of the Hobbits into the volcano-haunted land of Mordor...."In my freshman-comp course this semester, I'll be showing GalaxyQuest, one of my favorite stories about belief in story. The Thermians in the movie mistake fiction for reality, and proceed to make the fiction reality by patterning themselves after it.
As an introduction to GalaxyQuest, yesterday I gave my students this article by Ronald Moore, the writer for Battlestar Galactica, about how Star Trek changed his life. Then I showed the first half of Trekkies, the documentary about Trek fandom. (This turned out to be a good move, since many of my students are completely unfamiliar with Star Trek. Wow, I feel old!) The film profiles some very hardcore fans, including Barbara Adams, the Star Trek juror.
My students responded with hilarity and astonishment. Many of them thought the fans in the film were just too weird for words. "These people have a problem. They think the show's real!"
One student disagreed: "They know it's not real. They're doing this for fun."
It seems clear to me that most of the fans, including Barbara Adams, do know that the show's not real; at the same time, though, they want the values of the Star Trek universe to be real, and they're going about the project of making those values real by living them out in the world. Their fandom goes beyond mere fun, as valuable as that can be; they're making a statement of faith. They believe in the values upheld by the story. They also believe in the real world. They believe that they can change the real world for the better by acting in accordance with the story. For some of them, that includes wearing very colorful costumes in courtrooms and at the supermarket.
There are obvious parallels to more conventional faith communities.
The Trekkie approach will earn you a lot more mockery than existential doubt and dread will. But if I have to choose between an Illusionist and a Trekkie, I'll take the Trekkie any day.