Narrative schizophrenia
January 31, 2009 12:42 PM   Subscribe

Trying to find stories that begin and end in totally different genres/styles.

Shakespeare's Winter's Tale is the example I keep coming back to (begins as heavy drama, ends as comedy). Other movies or books that make this sort of narrative leap (the genres/styles themselves don't matter)? Even better would be examples where formal elements reflect the shift in narrative approach.
posted by minkll to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Robert Sheckley's Mindswap. One of the best experiments in genre-bending ever created, done with verve, humor, and pathos. It's an amazing read even without the genre stuff, in fact.
posted by nasreddin at 12:48 PM on January 31, 2009

That movie, From Dusk Till Dawn starts out as a crime/heist flick, then about 50 minutes to an hour in, it turns into a full-on, ridiculous vampire movie. Not amazing art, but certainly it fits your criteria.
posted by sunexplodes at 12:48 PM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Onion AV Club just did an inventory article on movies like this.
posted by HeroZero at 1:11 PM on January 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Life of Pi is a great novel and it's written in three different styles.
Part 1 is philosophical, dealing with religion and animal behavoiur,
Part 2 is described on Wikpedia as a "Medieval Allegory", but I'd describe it as a fascinating and action packed description of a rare and inescapable situation: the main character gets shipwrecked on a tiny lifeboat with an adult tiger.
Part 3 is a sort of multi-lingual journalistic interview, quite dry and funny. Written kind of like a translated script.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:14 PM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

As far as films are concerned, you might find this Onion AV article useful. It lists 15 great so-called "gearshift" movies, which are "films that head in one direction, stop on a dime, and veer off into radically different territory."

The Paul Bowles short story, "A Distant Episode", also comes to mind.

On preview, HeroZero beat me to it.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 1:17 PM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler certainly fits this criteria; you might also find Mr. Palomar interesting.

Maybe Alphaville would be a good film example?
posted by oulipian at 1:18 PM on January 31, 2009

Hitchcock's Psycho is now such a part of our film vocabulary that it's hard to remember: it was an example of an abrupt genre switch, from a straightforward theft and the story of Marion on the lam with the $40,000, to [spoiler, obviously] the star's sudden death and a resulting narrative focus on the apparently insane murderer, whoever that may be.

Seconding From Dusk 'till Dawn, the first segment of which was so patently not the film I expected that I actually popped it out of the VRC (oh, the old days!) to make sure it was the right movie... this despite seeing the expected cast before my eyes.

Riffing off your example, you might check out the so-called problem plays of Shakespeare, which are tonally complex and ambiguous. (Whether The Winter's Tale belongs to the category of "problem plays," or whether such a category is legitimate, I leave as an exercise for the reader.)
posted by Elsa at 1:19 PM on January 31, 2009

_Cloverfield_, whatever its other problems, does a nice job of this. I think it would be an amazing experience to flip channels to that movie just after the start, think you were watching a slightly indie twenty-something relationship comedy, and then....

Also, _Cloud Atlas_, which certainly madly flips genres though the different genre exercises share a spirit in a way that you may not want.
posted by escabeche at 1:35 PM on January 31, 2009

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starts out as a dark comedy, and ends up as intense drama. Although it's not an abrupt shift, but more of a gradual progression.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:50 PM on January 31, 2009

David Foster Wallace's novella Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, found in the book of short stories called Girl With Curious Hair, does something like this .. actually I'm not quite sure what the hell happened in that story, but there's definitely a large shift in focus partway through.

That Onion list was interesting, I need to hunt down some of those films. I'm just not sure why Goodfellas was on there, but it has been at least a decade since I watched it, so ...
posted by mannequito at 1:57 PM on January 31, 2009

For some reason I keep thinking of Pan's Labyrinth, which may or may not fit, depending on how you look at it. The interweaving of traditional (aka dark) folklore and stark historical suspense cause shifts back and forth, but it's more than just a flip halfway through the film.

Alan Moore's Promethea comic books start out as near-future super hero with mythical undertones and then blossom into a full-on kabbalistic primer of a visual poem.
posted by Mizu at 2:00 PM on January 31, 2009

Aha! Indeed, Psycho is the first example listed in the AV article! Thanks for linking that, Hero Zero and war wrath of wraith.

Several of the films listed in the AV article are just examples of plot shifts or twists, not genre or jumps. In Lost Highway, for example, [not even really a spoiler, but still!] the linear narrative definitely goes all kerflooey, but it's not a genre switch: it's still Lynch's trademark brand of eerie, sometimes noir-y mystery. One could make the argument that it shifts genres from a mundane mystery to an ontological or metaphysical mystery, if that fits your criteria.

I strongly second the article's mention of Audition, which is as notable an example of genre switching as I've seen. It starts as a delicately balanced romantic thriller, with some fillips: a tongue-in-cheek montage of the auditions, some compositional commentaries on the ironies of the plot, and a very few spine-numbing jolts for spice. But the last act veers --- pretty suddenly --- into something ghastly. This film is notorious for good reason.
posted by Elsa at 2:03 PM on January 31, 2009

posted by cbrody at 2:34 PM on January 31, 2009

I'll recommend The Prestige. [SPOILER] It starts off as a straightforward period drama, but veers into full-blown science fiction.
posted by Faint of Butt at 2:47 PM on January 31, 2009

The Onion list was helpful (and serendipitous), but I think Elsa's spot on - Audition is the only one on that list I know of that feels like a big jump.

Virginia Woolf is a good example, although the transformation is kind of gradual.
posted by minkll at 3:44 PM on January 31, 2009

Oh, and you might also want to peruse the TV Tropes page on Genre Shift. Some of the items listed aren't really good examples, but you can at least sift through them.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:14 PM on January 31, 2009

Miracle Mile, which starts off as a romantic comedy and then goes, well, nuclear.
posted by gnomeloaf at 5:10 PM on January 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Schnitzler's Flight Into Darkness is the first-person narrative of a thoughtful, intelligent man who gradually slips into insanity. Watching someone descend into paranoid schizophrenia from their own point of view, stage by stage, is absolutely chilling. The differences between the first and last page are shocking.

"Like a scientist peering into a microscope, Schnitzler’s point of view in these stories is claustrophobically close. With the understanding that to allow the reader any distance from the characters’ plights would weaken the effect, Schnitzler plunges into the madness in medias res. [...] Their stories are marked by a losing battle to keep their interior lives to themselves. Each protagonist desperately attempts to control his or her socially unacceptable impulses. Schnitzler’s prose leaves you queasy, uncomfortable in the knowledge that your own neuroses, rendered large on the wide screen of literature, might be just as unpleasant."

Freud, in a famous letter of 14 May 1922, called Schnitzler his 'Doppelganger'. If you're interested in psychoanalysis, don't miss this one!
posted by aquafortis at 5:37 PM on January 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Mulholland Drive starts off fairly normal, but turns very surreal.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 5:39 PM on January 31, 2009

_Random Acts of Senseless Violence_ is the diary of a kind, intelligent young girl as she descends into madness, murder, and lesbianism. The book starts off in standard American English, where the references are to young adult novels and the difficulties of upper-class private school. As her life and the country head downhill, the entries gradually degenerate into the grammar and argot used by her new underclass peers, and the previous entries are displaced with new ones on street life and gang warfare.
posted by Balna Watya at 7:05 PM on January 31, 2009

Tolstoy's War and Peace starts as a regular narrative. By the end it's page after page of philosophical speculation about the nature of the individual and collective action. The narrative largely falls away. It's as if Tolstoy just got tired of his characters over the course of hundreds of pages, and let them wander off someplace else.

This is my second shout-out for War and Peace in recent months. I don't think it gets its due any more. People know it's a "masterpiece," and avoid it. They shouldn't. It's like reading a novel by God as God should be -- full of compassion, encompassing everything, completely unafraid.
posted by ferdydurke at 9:38 PM on January 31, 2009

Cold Comfort Farm switches back and forth between Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy styles.
posted by brujita at 11:49 PM on January 31, 2009

The Signal's central third is wacky surreal comedy compared to the beginning and end sections that are basically horror and horror/thriller. This is probably due to their being three different writer/directors working on the same film...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:42 AM on February 1, 2009

I can't believe I failed to bring up three of my favorite horror movies, all three of which I love because of this very genre switching/collision phenomenon: Shaun of the Dead, Dog Soldiers and The Descent. If you came into them with no foreknowledge, you'd never know you weren't watching a romantic comedy, a military training drama or a feminist bonding adventure, respectively... until the bad stuff starts to go down.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:38 AM on February 1, 2009

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks has three intertwined narratives that mix regular fiction with science fiction.

The first part deals with a young man who becomes besotted with a girl he meets at a party, but she is seeing someone else... The second story deals with a (schizophrenic?) labourer who thinks he is an admiral from a galactic war imprisoned in the body of an Earthman... The third narrative deals with a couple of war criminals from opposing sides in a galactic war, and who are held prisoner in a castle and forced to play games...
posted by jonesor at 6:48 AM on February 1, 2009

Cold Comfort Farm switches back and forth between Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy styles.

And D. H. Lawrence.

Changing Places by David Lodge is a good book that starts off as a straightforward novel and goes through chapters of different styles, ending as a film script. (The main characters are professors of English literature, unsurprisingly.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:19 AM on February 1, 2009

Something Wild is exactly this. It starts as a light goofy romp and, during a dance at a high school reunion, turns into a thriller. Even the color palette changes. Very cool.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:21 AM on February 1, 2009

Faint of Butt, you're absolutely right on about those, except for one: The Descent. Loved the movie, but the gory event that happens right at the beginning pisses me off for this very reason we're discussing - it gives the film away, in a sense. Remove that, and you would have no idea what you're in store for, but as it is, it signals "horror film!" right away. Totally unnecessary, imo.
posted by ORthey at 9:45 AM on February 1, 2009

Not so much genre switching, but there is definitely a change in style through the course of Flowers for Algernon.
posted by rux at 9:55 AM on February 1, 2009

Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude takes a magical realism turn in the middle.
posted by Tufa at 11:29 AM on February 1, 2009

Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express is the best example I can think of.
posted by kpmcguire at 1:33 PM on February 1, 2009

Devils on the Doorstep. Great film IMO, but if you watch this do not watch the Steven Soderbergh introduction. He says he won't spoil it, but he lies. Lies, lies, lies. Even what I've said might be too much.
posted by johnofjack at 1:55 PM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've always thought that the twist in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable was its genre. You think it's a supernatural thriller, but actually it's a ... well, you probably know.
posted by nev at 6:48 PM on February 1, 2009

Romeo and Juliet. No, really. It was probably the first story to do it (or at least the first well-known story to do it). The play is a top-notch romantic comedy until the death of Mercutio, then it's headfirst into terminal-velocity death and destruction. Or, as John Moschitta says in the Ten Classics in Ten Minutes version, "That's it for the love story part, now it's time for the tragedy."
posted by tzikeh at 8:55 PM on February 1, 2009

I think Lanark might count.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:38 AM on February 2, 2009

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