Narrative Devices: Chernobyl

Okay, so maybe they employed a bit of creative license here and there (and by “they”, I mean Craig Mazin, the writer of CHERNOBYL) to tell a more focused story and drive a narrative that would keep us riveted. It worked, didn’t it? I took a while to get around to it, but in the end I binged the five episodes of this epic mini series. It has, of course, spurned me on to learn more of the actual, factual events of what happened in the early hours of that April morning outside Pripyat in 1986.

The writing in this show was amazing. Some seem to think it an amazing feat that the writer behind The Hangover should have somehow gone on to wield the pen for this one, but great writers are nothing if not adaptable and are constantly evolving and improving. By the by, I thought The Hangover was a great movie and a brilliantly original idea. I didn’t bother with the sequels, which tried to work to the same template and were shite allegedly, but that’s not the point. Apart from great one-liners and writing so tight from Mazin it could have come from the Sorkin Masterclass on dialogue, there were a couple of instances of a particular narrative device being employed to tackle scenes and events unfolding where exposition was necessary.

The first time this device reared its head was when the firefighter, who had been blasted with radiation tackling the blaze and was severely burned, was visited by his wife in the Moscow hospital and appeared to be making a miraculous recovery. Cut back to Chernobyl where Boris Shcherbina (Stellan SkarsgÄrd) is asking Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) about how radiation sickness progresses, and Legasov proceeds to tell him there is a phase where it looks like the patient is making a recovery before experiencing excruciating pain and a phase where the organs and flesh begin to decompose and die. As we cut back to the hospital, we are not only educated as to what we see the poor firefighter undergo, we know what is coming next and cannot take our eyes away from the screen.

The same technique is employed when Bacho (Fares Fares), who is leading the small team exterminating contaminated domestic animals in the villages surrounding Pripyat, is asked by Pavel (Barry Keoghan) how the dogs are surviving, where they are getting food, and Bacho tells him that, when push comes to shove, they are eating each other. Maybe all of two minutes later, we see Pavel enter a flat and discover a dog with its pups feeding on, what we must assume because of what Bacho has just told Pavel (and us) is one of their deceased brothers or sisters.

Exposition is necessary; we have to find ways to get the information our readers or viewers need to process what they are digesting without it being death by data. The way Mazin and director, Johan Renck, did it was clever and, safe to say, without it we would have been a little confused ourselves working out what was going on with the firefighter (“Hang on, he looked like he was fine a minute ago”) and just what the hell those pups in that dark corner were chowing down on.

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