Monday, April 13, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere...

Difficult to get to. Difficult to leave. Surrounded by deep water. Islands are the perfect storyteller's setting to ratchet up the tension and raise the stakes. Throw in the obligatory bad weather and sprinkle in a couple disasters--volcanoes, exotic wild creatures, an undiscovered--and fragile--ecosystem, weird radioactivity, a monomaniacal villain’s underground lair, shark-infested waters, a mysterious serial killer, bloodthirsty cannibals, scurvy pirates (gotta have some pirates!), and/or an out-of-control disease--and you've got yourself the foundation for a good story.

An inordinate number of great (and not-so-great) tales have been set on islands: Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies, Jurassic Park, half of the James Bond canon, three-quarters of Peter Benchley's books (Jaws and The Island, to name two), The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Gilligan's Island, And Then There Were None. There was even an Island of Misfit Toys.

If there was ever any doubt, you knew islands were great places for drama when reality TV embraced the concept (Survivor took it literally; all the copycats created their own figurative islands to vote people off of with abandon). Face it, dropping your cast of characters on a remote island in only their underwear is a terrific way to put them in jeopardy (and get good ratings), right from the get-go.

The inherent isolation forces characters to fend for themselves. In oppressive conditions, they must find their own food (gathering, fishing, and hunting using crude weapons), fashion essentials from palm fronds and coconuts (gotta have some coconuts!), and generally avoid island-centric dangers. Good stuff!

The other night, I watched the first episode of Harper's Island, a TV series about a wedding that takes place on, where else, an island. Each week, someone gets murdered (talk about getting voted off the island!). It's got all the necessary elements: characters with troubled pasts, love triangles, frat boys drinking beer, a brawl in a local bar, complete with a pool cue-as-weapon. It even had Harry Hamlin in a guest appearance (hey, how come LA Law didn't have an island episode?). I'm guessing that somewhere during the show's run, there will be a devastating storm, too.

Face it, while exotic islands make wonderful vacation spots, there's some underlying, ominous tension associated with them. What if a hurricane knocks out the power? What if a tidal wave levels the dock and wrecks the helipad, preventing the life-saving serum from being delivered? What if those dinosaurs (or drunken frat boys) get loose? What if Gilligan accidentally destroys the Professor’s coconut radio? How will I get off the island alive? (Islands are especially frightening for those of us who don't swim.*)

Without islands in fiction, where would we be? Treasure Isthmus just doesn't sound right.

What are some of your favorite stories set on islands?

*Full disclosure: I don't swim, because I can't swim.



Keith Raffel said...

I'm just going to stick with the great ones from my youth. Best was R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. And what about Jules Verne's Mysterious Island and H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau?

Alan Orloff said...

Hey Keith, thanks for the tip--I like Verne, but somehow I don't remember Mysterious Island. I'll have to go look that one up!

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

You named my fav already, Island of the Blue Dolphins. I read it in school and as an adult. Recently I saw the movie Nim's Island. It was cute, but the best part was Jodie Foster's portrayal of an agoraphobic adventure novelist and her journey to reach Nim's Island.

Alan Orloff said...

Here's a movie I forgot:

The Attack of the Killer Shrews.

One of the all-time cheesiest, B (or C) movies ever!