The 15 Most Successful Stories-Within-Stories in Movie History13
By Steven Novak
The 15 Most Successful Stories-Within-Stories in Movie History
While there are a wide variety of variations on the theme, basically a story within a story is a literary device in which one story is told during the action of another story. Everybody from Edgar Allen Poe, to Herman Melville, to Shakespeare, to Itchy and Scratchy from The Simpsons, to a ton of Star Trek episodes, and even KoldCast TV’s own theatrical comedy series EXIT Stage Left have toyed with the concept over the years. Framed stories, nestled through-lines, subsequent layers, storytelling loves to throw a wrench in it by making you think. It’s a tough device to use, but when done properly, it adds depth and quality to a story. Here’s 15 stories that did it right.
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1. Tales of the Black Freighter – Watchmen
Based on what is essentially viewed as one of the absolute greatest graphic novels in the history of graphic novels, director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s epic piece of work received mixed reviews from both critics and fanboys alike when it was released in 2009. Though it never made it to the theatrical cut, the “Ultimate Edition” of the film released on DVD featured an animated story, within a story, of a marooned mariner and his doomed journey to warn his hometown about the coming of a “Black Freighter” that destroyed his ship and killed his shipmates. It features a raft made out of corpses – enough said.
2. The Story of Sammy Jankis – Memento
Memento is the film that first made the world at-large take notice of a young director named Christopher Nolan. (He’s a pretty big deal these days.) Guy Pearce stars as a guy named Leonard Shelby that’s on the hunt for the man that raped and murdered his wife. The problem is that Leonard suffers from a little something called anterograde amnesia, which renders his brain unable to store new memories. The story within a story here is a terrifying little tale about another guy named Sammy Jankis, some insurance fraud, some insulin injections, and a wife that falls into a coma.
3. Brock Landers: Angels Live in My Town – Boogie Nights
Released in 1997, Boogie Nights is the story of well-hung idiot played by Mark Wahlberg who lands himself a rather lucrative career in the porn industry – you know, because of the whole “well-hung” thing. Though we only really ever see the credits, the story within a story here is a secret agent skin flick called Brock Landers: Angels Live in My Town. Technically calling this a “story” is stretching the meaning of the word a bit. The clothes, the awkward fighting, the hairy chests, and the karate chops make it far too cool to ignore though.
4. Red, White and Blaine – Waiting for Guffman
Directed by Christopher Guest and released in 1997, Waiting For Guffman is a hilarious little flick about an eccentric director, played by Christopher Guest, and his misguided attempt to get a community theater production, chronicling the history of his town, on Broadway. The film features quite a few bizarre excerpts and even more bizarre musical numbers from the show, and it’s here where we get our story within a story. “Stool Boom” (a reference to the fact that the towns economy was supposedly built on the sale of household stools) is by far and away the show stealer.
5. Hamlet 2 – Hamlet 2
Hamlet 2 has an awful lot in common with Waiting for Guffman. At the same time though, it’s a fine example of a story within a story, and is absolutely bonkers funny to boot. Released in 2008, the film stars Steve Coogan as recovering alcoholic, turned high school drama teacher, whose intensely-personal, wildly-controversial production of “Hamlet 2” is performed for the town. Not only does his self-penned sequel to Hamlet feature time travel, but a “sexy” Jesus Christ as well – a sexy Jesus in Levis.
6. Mel is Out of Focus – Deconstructing Harry
The story within a story device is one that writer/director Woody Allen has used a lot over the years, and his 1997 film about art and the creative process, titled Deconstructing Harry, is absolutely loaded with examples. Woody stars as a neurotic author named Harry Block who is coming to terms with fact that while he can’t seem to function in life, he can in his art. At one point in the film, he recalls a short story he wrote in his youth about an actor played by Robin Williams that has quite literally gone “out of focus.”
7. The Orchid Thief – Adaptation
Written by Charlie Kaufman (who seems to absolutely love the idea of messing with the story within a story concept) and directed by Spike Jonze, Adaptation is a fantastic little film from 2002. It stars Nicolas Cage as a writer named Charlie Kaufman who is struggling to adapt a popular novel called “The Orchid Thief” into a script for a movie. Charlie’s twin brother Donald moves in and succeeds only in compounding his writer’s block. The film takes place during the filming of the movie Being John Malkovich (which is an actual movie written by Kaufman and directed by Jonze a few years prior) making the entire thing a story within a story.
8. The Books of Sutter Kane – In The Mouth of Madness
Like Adaptation, John Carpenter’s grossly underrated In The Mouth of Madness is a movie that plays with the concept of a story within a story like a spastic two year-old with a box full of LEGOS. In the film, Sam Neil stars as a private investigator named John Trent who is hired to find a missing author and retrieve a new novel the reclusive writer owes his publisher. Somehow Trent not only ends up inside Kane’s work but manages to become the subject of it as well. The ending is a glorious mind screw that will stick with you long after viewing.
9. The Hard Goodbye – Sin City
Based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller and directed by fanboy favorite Robert Rodriguez, Sin City is a film made up entirely of stories within a story. The one that seems to stand out from the rest has always been The Hard Goodbye. Mickey Rourke stars as a thickheaded thug that wakes up next to a murdered prostitute and vows revenge. In his quest for some payback, he goes one-on-one with a fleet-footed cannibal, breaks into the apartment of a wonderfully topless Carla Gugino, kills a cardinal, and is eventually sentenced to death via the electric chair.
10. Prelude to The Gold Watch – Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino is a director that loves to play with stories within stories, and pretty much every movie he’s ever made features a version of the concept in one form or another. The Gold Watch segment of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is the story of an aging boxer named Butch who is asked to throw a fight but decides not to at the last minute. In a prelude to the segment, we catch a brief glimpse of a young Butch receiving the gift of a gold watch from a military friend of his deceased father played by Christopher Walken. The watch comes with a story however – a rather gross story involving a bevy of rectums being used as hiding places.
11. The Book – The NeverEnding Story
The story within the story in the 1984 Wolfgang Peterson directed fantasy film The NeverEnding Story is basically the entire movie. The film starts off by introducing us to a kid named Bastion who has an overactive imagination, hides from some bullies in a crummy old bookstore, meets the creepy owner, and steals a book the old dude warns him is “not safe.” While hiding out in the storage attic of his school, Bastion delves into its pages and very literally gets caught up in the fantastical lives of the characters.
12. Will’s Story – Big Fish
Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is among the most personal, and is arguably the best film in the career of director Tim Burton. The script focuses on the strained relationship of a father and son and their attempt at reconciliation on the father’s deathbed. Played by Albert Finney, Edward Bloom is a man who spent his life recalling tall tales to his son, and the film depicts many of these stories. As Edward’s death draws near, his son Will turns the tables on the old man and tells his dying father his very own tall tale. It’s at this point that even the “toughest” of grown men in the audience start bawling like preteen girls.
13. The Book – Princess Bride
Released in 1987 and based on the novel of the same name, like The NeverEnding Story, pretty much the entire film is a story within a story. Commonly referred to as a framed story, the entire movie is an enactment of a book being read by a sick boy’s grandfather, and played by Peter Falk. The boy, a young Fred Savage, sits in bed and listens intently to the adventures of Princess Buttercup, Prince Humperdink, Westley, the fencing master Inigo Montoya, and of course Andre the Giant – because a fantasy film without Andre the Giant is barely a fantasy film at all.
14. The Play – Synecdoche, New York
Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (yep, him again), Synecdoche, New York is another one of those films that not only plays with the literal concept of a story within a story, but loves blurring the lines of reality as well, and does them both with an “I’m smarter than you” grin. In the film, a depressed theater director played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman earns an unexpected MacArthur Fellowship giving him the funding to pursue his artistic interests. He is determined to put together a piece of work that is filled with “brutal realism and honesty.” He gathers a massive cast, rents out a warehouse, and very slowly begins to sink into his art.
15. The Television Show – Galaxy Quest
1999’s Galaxy Quest is a highly-underrated comedy starring Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sigourney Weaver, and Sam Rockwell (which is a pretty great cast) as a group of actors stuck trying to make a living off the characters they once played in a sci-fi television show cancelled seventeen years ago. They are abducted by a group of aliens who think the show was real and need help defending their home world against a reptilian humanoid warlord named Sarris. Sigourney Weaver shows a lot of cleavage, and Tim Allen fights a rock monster – that’s what I call quality moviemaking.
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Steven Novak is a writer, illustrator, graphic designer and admitted lifelong nerd with an embarrassingly large DVD collection. He is currently working and living in the Southern California desert. His most recent fantasy/action adventure novel, “Forts: Fathers and Sons,” is available everywhere books are sold.