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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Value of Shock, Part 2

Earlier, I discussed why you might want to shock your readers, and I also mentioned that if you decide to shock your readers, you want to make sure you don't overdo it. If you write content that is too shocking, it draws too much attention to itself and takes away from the point you are trying to make.

This is what I experienced when I saw the latest film adaptation of Les Miserables. First, I'd like to say that I love Les MisBut there were a couple of scene I found shocking, too shocking.

Fantine’s whole prostitute experience was shocking. But it’s not gratuitous. It’s supposed to make viewers feel uncomfortable. It fulfills reasons one through three in my last post. But for me, it went to far. By the time Fantine actually sleeps with another man, I was too overwhelmed.

The other scene that went too far was the “Master of the House” scene. I was fine, at first, but watching Santa in the bridal suite was too much. I understand they pulled Santa into that scene to illustrate what a twisted, perverted place the Master’s house was, but when they put him in bed, they way overdid it.

So, these scenes took too much of my attention. In reality, Les Mis isn’t about Fantine's prostitution, or Santa in the bridal suite. Fantine’s experience is an element of the story, yes, but it isn’t the sum of the story. Jolting moments should add to the overall story, the theme, not take away from it. 

I know these two scenes took me away from the story because they lingered in my mind longer than they were supposed to. In fact, when I think of the movie, I first think of Valjean’s redemption, which is so powerful and wonderful, but within seconds, those two shocking scenes pop into my head. And I don’t want them to, because I loved the other parts of the movie so much more!

If you make a shocking scene too shocking, it becomes the very first thing viewers and readers discuss and remember. 

A week after I saw Les Mis, I talked about it with two different people. Do you know what the first comments were they made about it? They brought up the shock value of the prostitute scene and the Master of the House scene! Not Valjean. Not mercy and justice and glory. Not the acting. Not even the music. Those two, short, little scenes.

As a writer, I would be upset if that happened to one of my stories. Victor Hugo didn't want us to put more focus on those two scenes than the overall story he created.

But how do you know if you’ve made something too shocking for your audience? That’s another challenge, because what might be too shocking for one person might not be for another.

I'll discuss this in my Part 3 post. Until then, if you saw Les Miserables, do you think they took those two scenes too far? Do you think they were justified? If you haven't seen Les Miserables, have you had a similar experience?

Read Part 3 . . .


  1. great post Kami! this can be integrated in blog posts as well

  2. Quite an intriguing read here. I agree that it is wrong to go too far in an attempt to shock a reader, but I don't think the scenes you mention from the Les Mis film did. In fact, after seeing it twice, I can't even recall a Santa scene. The "Lovely Ladies" scene did make me uncomfortable, but I think that was the whole point. If you watch that scene and don't feel disturbed, then it hasn't accomplished its goal. I left the film feeling touched by the music, the orchestration, the tale of Jean Valjean and the horror of living in that time period and in those conditions.

    Based on the Dieter Uchtdorf quote near the top of your blog, I suspect that the people you spoke with that focused right away on the "shock value" of those scenes were of the highly religious sort, though this is only an assumption. That particular religious culture tends to place a lot of importance in anything that seems remotely sexual in nature. For example, a bare-breasted woman would be deemed more inappropriate than a graphic beheading (a mindest that I personally find more disturbing than anything in the film). This leads to people cluing in on anything even somewhat sexual as "going too far", when in fact Les Mis was only rated PG-13 and certainly wasn't marketed as "fun for the whole family".

    It's all a matter of perspective. What one person views as gratuitous, another could view as mild. It is a balancing act to be sure. I feel it is important to keep in mind the big picture, while not catering to a highly conservative nor highly liberal point of view. If you seek to shock, then shock, but know your audience. I believe most people would not find Les Mis offensive or gratuitous at all, but then again I have been around people that avert their eyes during the tamest of PG-13 sex scenes. But to the world at large, outside the highly conservative southern Utah bubble that fears, obsesses about, and puts such an emphasis on sex, such things are barely even noticed, let alone offensive.

    My apologies for such a long post. I simply felt inspired to share my thoughts. I hope my point of view is helpful and not viewed as an attack of any kind, as I only intended to offer another perspective on the matter. I look forward to reading more of your blogs in the future.

    1. "'Lovely Ladies' scene did make me uncomfortable, but I think that was the whole point. If you watch that scene and don't feel disturbed, then it hasn't accomplished its goal." --I totally agree! Which is what I mentioned at the starting. It was just a little TOO much for me personally.

      "It's all a matter of perspective. What one person views as gratuitous, another could view as mild"--too true, which was something I was going to mention more in my next post. And so does a lot of what you say next. I was going to mention how it's important to know your audience, because of those same reasons.

      I'm glad those scenes weren't the first things you thought of when you remembered Les Mis. I wish they weren't mine, but that just means I have a different "shock value" range.

      And it is frightening how some people aren't even fazed by violence (like beheadings), and then fret over even bare butts etc.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and taking the time to write such a long post. It really does depend on the person.


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