Are stories universal? Literature studies will tell you they are. They will tell you there are a finite number of plots that most stories fit into. In fact, Douglas McPherson in Writers’ Forum #190, says that estimates of plot types range from 36 to seven, to as few as two. ZP Dala, a South African writer from KwaZulu-Natal, explains further that the universal nature of stories is what connects people ‘across oceans or across a kitchen table in a commonality that fosters a sense of belonging.’ (The Mercury, 12 September 2017, p. 5).
A fellow movie lover and I watched a foreign language film together a few years ago. It was in Serbian or Croatian or Czechoslovakian, I can’t remember which. The story followed the lives of a poor couple who eked out an existence in a run-down, snowbound village. They lived hand to mouth, so much so that when the wife became sick the husband simply sold his car to pay for her medical expenses. Without this intervention the woman may not have survived. Universal themes here included poverty and love – storylines also found in, for example, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and many others.
What really underscored the universal nature of this film was that the disc sent to the cinema house arrived without subtitles. That’s right, my friend and I watched the whole thing without understanding a single word of the dialogue. I’ve never forgotten that film. Even though my friend unhelpfully told me she couldn’t remember the title because there were no subtitles, the story itself, regardless of language, made such an impression on me. A story of commitment regardless of struggle.
Another story which I have long enjoyed is that of Footloose – the tale of a boy who can’t stop dancing and inspires a town of miserable people to enjoy themselves again. I saw the original in 1984, the remake in 2011, and just last week the stage play by The Young Performers. It was lovely. A story with a similar theme is the 2015 Swedish film Heaven on Earth. In this tale (which I watched with subtitles) against all odds a woman revitalises a town and its church minister and tiny congregation by forming a choir to sing Handel’s Messiah.
Although my limited experience is hardly evidence of the universal nature of stories, this small sample certainly seems to support the notion. A feast of tales indeed.