Friday, July 13, 2012

Transcendent Storytelling

William Joyce
When I first heard the term “transmedia storytelling” at Digital Book World last year, I thought, “what?” It scared me. Writers were talking about stories that began as games and grew into films and books. I worried that books would be sidelined. Since then, I’ve come to believe that there are many ways to experience story, and a great story transcends its medium. William Joyce’s Morris Lessmore is the ideal character to travel through these porous boundaries.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce won an Academy Award, but it began as a book. It makes perfect sense that a book about a lifelong love affair with books would begin as a book. And Morris Lessmore is based on a real man, William Morris, a lover of books if ever there was one. (Bill Morris hired me right out of college, so I got to witness this firsthand.)

But Bill Joyce told me in an interview that after he’d written the book, and before he’d completed the artwork, his retina detached, and he couldn’t see well enough to finish painting the book. At around that same time, he founded Moonbot studios, and they decided to make a short film based on Morris’s story.

Miniatures from the Movie
So Morris Lessmore’s story is a book and a film and an app. Each medium has its strengths and offers a different experience of the story. In the film, one of my favorite scenes occurs after Humpty Dumpty plays the piano, and Morris does a Gene Kelly–style dance with the many-hued books. In the app, a deep-voiced narrator reads the book beneath the animated pages, and you get to play the piano with Humpty by pressing keys that correspond to the notes. (There’s also a separate $.99 Imag-n-o-tron! app that “augments” the book. A video shows you how to lay your iPad or phone over the book to animate the pages; books fly, Morris dives into a book. It takes a bit of practice, but if you hold the device very still, the pages spring to life. My favorite is the feeling of “entering” the library. The walls seem to extend to the sky.)

But in the book, there’s a beautiful scene in which the books that Morris has cared for surround him, when he's "stooped and crinkly," and read themselves to him. It’s a scene that only appears in the book, and of all the means of experiencing his story, it’s the scene that most moves me.

Thanks to Bill Joyce, I am awakened to the possibilities of transmedia storytelling. Perhaps it should be called “transcendent storytelling.” A story that transcends its medium allows us as readers to transcend the here and now and to experience the story from a number of entry points. However we meet Morris and in whatever way we accompany him on his journey to his calling and his passion for books, each experience of his story deepens our connection to Morris Lessmore and his Fantastic Flying Books.

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