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Literary Lost: Viewing Television Through the Lens of Literature

Sarah Clarke Stuart

(Continuum; US: Jan 2011)

Lost wore its literary references on its sleeve, making sure viewers saw the spines, covers and symbols of dozens of books over its six season run. Sawyer (Josh Holloway) built a library from dead passengers’ luggage, Ben (Michael Emerson) quoted Steinbeck and read Joyce, and Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) had a thing for Dickens. Books were referenced in episodes titles, characters’ names, and locations on the island. From there it was just a quick jump to Wikipedia or the local library to begin connecting the dots.


The series’ writers relied heavily on well-worn references to books like Alice in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, eternal references that everyone knows even if they haven’t read the books. The strange worlds populated by little girls who chase rabbits or wizards and aren’t all they claim to be loom large in the consciousness of people everywhere. In Lost they refer to specific characters and incidents, but often these references are about tone, feeling or sentiment as much as they are about plot.


The creators of the show made much of the fact that they viewed each season as a single chapter in the overall “novel” of the show, and despite nay sayers’ concerns, executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were insistent that they knew how the series would end almost from the beginning. Even talk of the mechanics of the show, the piecing together of the narrative, was done in terms normally ascribed to books. 


In this clever and concise book, author Sarah Clarke Stuart explores the close relationship of the series with nearly 100 different works of literature ranging from ancient works like Gilgamesh to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Some books are related to the show either through their direct reference or appearance on the show, such as Of Mice and Men and Watership Down, while others are only thematically related, such as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.


Stuart argues that Lost serves as a kind of reader’s advisory for its viewers, directing them to books both popular and classic that explore themes similar to the show. “Canonical works of fiction appear on screen to underscore an episode’s thematic concerns [and] invite…discussion,” she writes. This is probably the series’ greatest legacy, that each episode was picked apart and analyzed by fans at home in their living rooms, in chat rooms or in articles such as Entertainment Weekly’s online “Doc Jensen” column. Clarke’s take is that Lost served not only as appointment television for its viewers, but as an inspiration to seek out the books it referenced, the exact opposite effect a television show is suppose to have.


Stuart thankfully ignores the temptation to critique the show or log complaints about plot holes, unanswered questions or the ending, instead sticking to straight analysis. Works like this do the series a favor by enriching what’s on screen, digging out the hidden and the obvious allusions that renew interest in the show and invite repeat viewings long after its ending.


All stories contain elements from other works, Clarke says, but more than other shows, Lost is a synthesis of all its external influences and sources, especially books. It was a conscious decision on the part of the creators to show the parts that made the series whole. Because the series ended in 2010, Stuart is able to view the series and its literary cousins as one complete piece, something other books about the show are sorely lacking. The internet is obviously a great tool for digging through both academic and fan analysis, but for lovers of books and the show, this book is a great starting point that will help avoid the rabbit hole of the online world.

Rating:

Jeremy Estes lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


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