In an earlier post, Tales of the Dummling, (January, 2013) I discussed a theme from folklore, and specifically from The Brothers Grimm, which has long intrigued me. In this story type, the youngest of three brothers, whom everyone else considers a fool, triumphs because of virtues like honesty, compassion, and attention to the present moment.
I mentioned Forrest Gump, 1994, as a recent movie version of the theme, and several readers were quick to point out that Being There, 1979, with Peter Sellers also fits the type. I’m currently reading an excellent book on screenplays, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, by Blake Snyder (1957-2009) that widens the scope of this kind of movie by calling the genre, “The Fool Triumphant.” This shift allows us to see the connections between many other types of tales where innocence and virtue are rewarded.
I reviewed Snyder’s first book on screenwriting, Save The Cat, in January, 2012. I expect to write a review of this book after I finish, but first I want to focus on Snyder’s words about films with “fools” as heroes.
He lists three key elements:
- The “fool” is someone with skills or powers that are overlooked or unnoticed by everyone except (sometimes) an antagonist who resents the fool’s success. Example: Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies.
- The fool is foolish to an establishment that opposes him or her. In Snyder’s words, “while he does not set out to do anything but live his life, it’s usually the establishment that’s exposed as the real fool in the equation. Have no fear, our unlikely hero won’t become a part of the system – or want to!”
- Finally, Snyder says, a “transmutation” occurs for the fool. Sometimes this involves a change of name, as when Chance the gardener becomes Chauncey Gardner in Being There. It may be a change of life circumstance, like Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin. It may involve gender swapping as in Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire. The fool’s mission may change as it does in Legally Blonde, where Reese Witherspoon first enrolls in Harvard law to win back her fiancé, but then discovers that law is her true calling.
Blake Snyder identifies sub-genres in stories about the wisdom of foolishness. “Political Fool” movies include Being There, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Princess Diaries. Films like Tootsie, Miss Congeniality, and Some Like it Hot are grouped together as “Undercover Fool” stories. Forest Gump and Zelig are “Society Fool” movies.
In addition to Legally Blonde, “Fool Out of Water” movies include Stripes, Beverly Hills Cop, and Crocodile Dundee.
Snyder is aware of the deep roots of these stories. The fool “has a bead on the truth,” he says, whether it’s Shakespeare’s Puck, saying, “Lord what fools these mortals be,” or Forrest Gump, who “can find a whole universe sitting on a bench waiting for a bus.” In discussing Gump, Snyder suggests that ultimately, the fool opens our minds and our hearts to spiritual wisdom.
I thought of an 11th century Buddhist master, Tilopa, who lived as an itinerant sesame seed grinder. A thousand years later, people still study his teachings, which are very complex in one sense, but can also be boiled down to these “six words of advice:”
- Let go of what has passed.
- Let go of what may come.
- Let go of what is happening now.
- Don’t try to figure anything out.
- Don’t try to make anything happen.
- Relax, right now, and rest.
Clearly such wisdom lies beyond the reach of anyone but a fool!