Perhaps the first question I should address is: why are we deconstructing this particular story?
I offer you several compelling reasons.
First, Shutter Island comes from the brilliant mind of perhaps the most critically acclaimed of today’s thriller writers, Dennis Lehane. If we’re going to sit at someone’s feet and take notes, might as well be a proven genius.
Secondly, the story exists as both a movie and a novel, allowing us access in two realms and the opportunity to contrast them in ways that illuminate the author’s intention and technique.
Theory is great. A killer example of exemplary execution is even better.
Thirdly, the story is extraordinarily complex, nuanced and uncompromisingly brilliant. This isn’t an entry-level deconstruction, it’s like learning to fly by taking lessons in an F-18.
That said, I have every confidence we can handle it.
And finally, it’s a great model of story structure, not to mention characterization, theme and narrative manipulation.
Prepare for Deconstruction
You know how I feel about starting to write a story without completely understanding how it’s going to end, among a list of other critical things you need to wrap your head around prior to Page 1.
It’s no different when it comes to analyzing a story.
And by the way, in case you’re wondering, it would be impossible to write a story like Shutter Island by pantsing your way through it. Unless you have, say, twenty years to spend on about twenty-nine rewrites, and you also bring an evolved and enlightened understanding of story architecture to the process on the level of… well, Dennis Lehane.
Every single scene in this story is in context to how the story ends.
Imagine you’re a magician and you’re trying to figure out how another magician does a certain trick. How the trick is done from a technical standpoint. You can’t possibly conduct such an analysis, much less make sense of it, unless you know how the trick turns out. What the trick is.
Same with a story.
Imagine trying to deconstruct The Sixth Sense without knowing that Bruce Willis is actually dead the whole time, without knowing that he doesn’t know that he’s a ghost. It wouldn’t work – you’d have to see it again, and perhaps again after that, to get any benefit from a deconstruction.
That very trick made the film — which Robert Mckee sites as one of the worst screenplays in modern cinema — about $600 million.
This is just as true, if not more so, when it comes to Shutter Island. Which, by the way, is one of the better screenplays in modern cinema, at least in the thriller/period genre.
Because much like The Sixth Sense, what you experience on a first viewing turns out to be something completely different than you thought as you sat there and munched your popcorn in wide-eyed wonder.
Not that you couldn’t guess what’s going on. But even then, you couldn’t completely connect all the dots.
Oh, you’ll have guessed some of it by the end of Part 3. But by then it’s too late. because you’ll have missed practically all of the brilliant foreshadowing and double-nuanced sublety that, upon a second viewer, practically screams the truth.
Connecting the dots is precisely what a deconstruction is all about.
Once you do know how a story ends, then upon seeing it or reading it again, you can see how the author made it happen. How the author fooled you into buying into one particular reality, when another reality was the case all along.
Only when you know the ultimate trick can you productively deconstruct a masterpiece of dramatic deception, character arc and narrative tension.
You’ll need to experience the story twice. Or more.
Or, you can read the novel and then see the flick. Vice versa if you prefer. In either case, it’s that second round that will give you, the analytical writer, the learning experience you seek.
If you haven’t yet seen Shutter Island or read the book, then by all means try to do so by next Monday (or before you read this deconstruction if you’ve arrived here after-the-fact), when the first analytical post will appear. See it for the experience, the entertainment value, feel free to get swept away.
If you can’t do that, keep reading, I have a solution for you. In a moment.
Don’t try to analyze it yet… because you can’t. Not until the second pass.
The second pass is like having the author sitting next to you explaining what you didn’t notice or understand the first time.
If you’re a novelist, I highly recommend seeing the movie first, then reading the book to see how the author made it all happen.
If you’re a screenwriter, read the book first and then see the movie to see how the screenwriter adapted the story.
Either way, you’ll have experienced the story twice, and that’s imperative to getting the most out of this exercise. More so than in pretty much any other story out there.
That’s how rich and complex this story is.
The Optional Spoiler Alert — Learn the Secret Meaning of it all Here
Some of you won’t have the opportunity to see the movie by next Monday, since it’s near the end of its run. If you live in a rural area or a small town, chances are the film has come and gone. And it’s not yet out on DVD.
The book, however, should be available anywhere, unless you live where the postman needs an airplane to deliver your Amazon.com order.
For those of you who can’t get it done by Monday, and who still want to benefit from this deconstruction, I’m going to tell you the movie’s secret. Right here, right now.
CLICK HERE to get that information. It’s not like actually seeing the film or reading it, but it will tell you the movie’s outcome, its trick, its ultimate secret.
Know it, and you can then benefit from this analysis in a much more enlightened way.
Nothing about Shutter Island is what it seems to be. At least the first time through.
If you don’t want to know, if you’re going to see the film or read the book before Monday, stop reading here.
Otherwise, CLICK HERE for the spoiler.
The deconstruction begins here on Monday, April 26. If it’s remotely possible, try to see the film or read the book before then.
If you have thoughts about this story pre-deconstruction, I’d love to hear from you. Did it fool you? Did you guess any of it? In either case, upon reaching the end, can you look back and see how Lehane was completely messing with our heads the whole time?
And most importantly, did you spot the major story milestones and sense the shifting context over the four sequential parts?
All that will be exposed and explored, beginning Monday.