How a Bad Relationship with Encyclopedia Brown Screwed Up Prometheus

June 22nd, 2012

Encyclopedia Brown is a fictional boy detective in a series of stories by Donald J. Sobol, and one of my heroes, who uses facts and logic to solve mysteries.  The stories about him always ended with him telling you the solution to the mystery, with a note to turn to the back of the book to see how Encyclopedia Brown figured it out.  Kind of a 1970s kid version of CSI.

I was reading HULK FILM CRITIC’s comments on Prometheus and came across this interesting comment about the childhood of Damon Lindelof, Prometheus and Lost scriptwriter:

HULK, did you hear Lindelof’s interview on NPR (Fresh Air?) the other week? He explained that when he was a kid, he had tons of Encyclopedia Brown books – they were mysteries and on the last page they would give the answer – “Mr. Jenkins was the one who stole Billy’s bike.” etc – and Lindelof would ALWAYS flip to the end first and read the answer before reading the actual book. His Father caught him doing this once, and went and ripped out the last pages of all of them. So he said he grew up just making up his own ending to all of them. Speaks to a small part of the problem…

So, he was the kind of kid who wanted to immediately know the answer without exploring the mystery, then was denied the solution.  This plays into HULK’s thesis that Lindelof has been obsessed with the idea of wanting knowledge and being denied that knowledge, and that this becomes what he does over and over again in his scripts with his characters, but more importantly, also what he creates as a writer and subjects the viewer to.  Want to know what’s going on?  Too bad, this writer isn’t going to tell you.  Figure it out yourself the way my Dad made me.

This is horrifying.

To me, story is about making sense of some aspects of life, about educating others vicariously, about have experiences with meaning and without the boring and confusing parts that get in the way of that meaning.  Otherwise it’s a giant and unsatisfying waste of time!  You might as well watch the weather channel and try to figure out why Thor is pissed off at the Florida panhandle, or watch the stock market and tell yourself the Dow is tanking because…<spin mental wheel>…uncertainty about how the Supreme Court is going to rule.

The uninformed and inexpert speculations of a viewer are unlikely to figure out what’s really going on in real life, or in an Lindelof story.  And based on what I saw in the science part of Prometheus, I can’t actually trust Lindelof to be an informed expert about how anything really works, so I can’t even begin to guess at what he’s aiming at.  And he intentionally doesn’t supply the answers.

Lazy, unsatisfying writing.

Encyclopedia Brown was very clever, and you knew he knew what he was talking about.  You had mystery after mystery solved via well-reasoned fact-based arguments in the back of those books.  Young Damon could have gone to the library to find copies of the books, like I did, that didn’t have the solutions ripped out.  I was the kind of kid who read the stories first and then tried to figure them out myself before checking the answer.  It meant a lot to me if I had the right answer based on the facts presented in the story.  That brought satisfaction and closure.

Lindelof never learned that.  He somehow learned, or learned to be satisfied with, being presented a story and never knowing for sure the author’s intent.  Or frustrated, and working out those frustrations by writing.

Look, I love a little mystery in stories, some things left unexplained, or in fact, things intentionally inexplicable.  The alien pilot in the original Alien movie is (or was) a great example of that.  My own novels leave mysteries.  But they’re never mysteries about the basic plot or what the story is about!

Who would keep reading Encyclopedia Brown stories with the solutions ripped out?  Who would watch CSI without explanations for how they know the bad guy is guilty?

Not me, and not many others, either, I believe.

Prometheus would have been better written by Donald J. Sobol, or any writer who understands what makes for a satisfying story and actually delivers it.  HULK believes that Lindelof knows all this, too, but intentionally writes to frustrate based on deep-seated obsession.  He could well be right.  Maybe my hero Encyclopedia Brown screwed up Prometheus.


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