Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Thousand Miles From Anywhere

As Henson grew, his ambitions became more complex.  He had a deep passion for the stories of old, and realized that he could use his advances in puppeteering technology to bring the ancient tales back to life.  He desired to create a world in which magical fairy tale creatures and humans could co-exist.  He achieved this goal in the short-lived television series The Storyteller.

Jim Henson's The Storyteller

John Hurt portrayed an elderly storyteller who would share stories with his dog and the audience.  Each episode tackled a different fable that would be virtually unknown to the average audience member.  Henson's interest in folklore allowed this series to stray away from the done-to-death fairy tales popularized by Disney.  He directed the first episode called "The Soldier and Death," which invokes many common mythic tropes and it gave him the opportunity to create more types of realistic puppets (known as "Creatures," as opposed to "Muppets").

The story selected was based on a Russian folktale involving a wandering soldier whose kindness to beggars allows him to possess some magical items.  Among these include a deck of cards that will never deal him a losing hand and a sack that can hold anything that is told to get into it.  The soldier's travels take him to a ravaged castle filled with small devils.  He decides to play them in a game of cards to acquire their possessions and service.

A game of wits (or cheating with enchanted items).

The devils are quite expressive for puppets.  Their faces are able to display fear, happiness, anger, and sadness throughout the entire story.  Even subtle eyebrow twitches are capable of being performed.

It's hard to tell from a picture, but this expression was not permanent.

One of the devils presents the soldier with a magic glass in which he can spy Death itself, whenever someone is lying ill on their deathbed.

He's at their feet.  There is still time.

When Death comes for the soldier, of course the soldier puts his magic sack into use, removing death from the world and as a result, putting an end to many of the world's problems, such as war, hunger, and disease.  What he did not account for was the downside to immortality.

Although the sets and effects are dated by today's standards, the episode maintains a solemn dignity.  This is not a children's story.  The tragic tale about the avoidance, fear, and inevitability of death remains as poignant today as it did hundreds of years ago.  Variations of this tale have appeared in countless other forms of media after this episode (as well as before it) so the story itself is nothing new.  But the presentation and unique vision that Henson brings to the story makes the story feel fresh.

The magic of television

As a storyteller himself, Henson understood the importance of sharing these stories.  In the olden days, the storyteller was one of the first forms of entertainment.  Through imagination alone, the storyteller could convince his audience of the most magical ideas transpiring in real life.  Just as his creations etched him into the stones of history, Henson paid respect to those tales that inspired him as a child, sitting around the dinner table.  The collaboration of modern technology and classic ideas abled Henson to entertain audiences and invite them to visualize the concepts in new ways.  It was now his job to trick the minds of the audience into believing in unnatural occurrences.  This is how he got away with creating so many iconic characters.  He knew exactly how to breath new life into the familiar.  He felt passing these stories along was "something we must do because we love doing it."

"The best place by the fire is kept for the storyteller."

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