Eclipses as Special Effects in Storytelling

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A total solar eclipse is one of the most cinematic spectacles that nature provides. The Aug. 21, 2017, event, visible across a large swath of the U.S., promises to be a true summer blockbuster.

Eclipses are storytelling special effects that authors, filmmakers, artists, and even video game designers have used for years. That’s according to Lisa Yaszek, professor in the School of Literature, Media and Communication and faculty coordinator for SciFi@Tech.

“An eclipse can give us a sense of awe and wonder. It’s a cosmic event that connects us with the universe,” Yaszek says. “On the other hand, it can be an absolutely terrifying moment for humans. The patterns of nature no longer seem to hold. The sky goes dark in the middle of the day, nature becomes silent, the temperature often drops. It’s a moment of chaos and flux, and it seems anything can happen.”

Here, according to Yaszek, are some examples of how eclipses have starred in pop culture:

  • “King Solomon’s Mines” – H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 adventure novel – has what is now considered one of the oldest storytelling concepts, or tropes, if a problematic one for modern audiences: white characters using scientific knowledge to outwit a primitive culture. In this case, white explorers use what they know of eclipses to fool African warriors. The lunar eclipse in the book became a total solar eclipse in the 1937 film version.
  • Mark Twain’s 1889 book, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” has perhaps the most famous use of an eclipse in storytelling. The novel depicts the hero, an engineer, transported back to medieval times. Taking credit for an eclipse saves the hero’s life.
  • The 1907 film The Eclipse: Courtship of Sun and Moon by French filmmaker Georges Méliès brings not-so-subtle sensuality to the celestial event. “A scientist is watching the eclipse, and sees it through his own mind as a courtship ritual or mating dance,” Yaszek says. “He is so shocked by his own thoughts that he falls out of a window and into a bucket of water.”
  • Nightfall,” a 1941 short story from science fiction legend Isaac Asimov, was the first fiction featuring a solar eclipse to have an impact on Yaszek. It features a world with multiple suns that experiences darkness every 2,000 years. “It’s an amazing exploration of science versus superstition,” Yaszek says. “Even as we become advanced, rational people and pride ourselves on that, there are still things that are unknown that can surprise and terrify us.”
  • In the 1961 film Barrabas, Anthony Quinn plays the criminal whom Pontius Pilate spares as he condemns Jesus to death. Director Richard Fleischer filmed the crucifixion in Italy during the total solar eclipse that occurred on Feb. 15, 1961,  heightening the drama of the scene.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey – Director Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece opens with the Earth, moon, and sun in alignment, but the view of this eclipse is not from Earth. “Here you get right at the alien perspective at a moment of great change,” Yaszek says.
  • Stephen King’s 1992 books Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne both feature as a major plot point the July 20, 1963, total solar eclipse which was visible in the author’s home state of Maine. “Once again,” Yaszek says, “the eclipse happens in that moment of flux and change, and it’s a moment of reversal for the characters when their own stories change.”
  • In Director Mel Gibson’s intensely violent chase movie Apocalypto, released in 2006, an eclipse saves the lives of Mayan slaves. It’s a twist on the trope of white characters outwitting primitive cultures, Yaszek says. “Here, the indigenous priests use their knowledge of solar eclipses to control the rest of their own population.”
  • “Seven Twenty-Three,” a 2009 episode of Mad Men, references the same July 20, 1963, total solar eclipse in Stephen King’s 1992 novels.  

In addition, The Simpsons has two episodes with eclipses that put Marge Simpson in the spotlight, Yaszek says. “They’re both about perspective, where Marge is right and no one else sees what’s going on. Then when the eclipse happens, the shift in light and shift in perspective happens, and Marge gets to be a hero.”


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