Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write a Novel that Spans Decades


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — 49 Up (2006)

One of the most audacious experiments in cinema history, Michael Apted’s Up series has proven to be endlessly fascinating. Every seven years since 1964, Apted has interviewed willing participants from an original group of fourteen British children, and the viewer has been given the rare opportunity to watch their lives unfold. This series is about the closest thing to The Truman Show that has ever been made.

49 Up is a curious installment in the series, in that many of the members have finally found a sense of peace in their lives. With many having been through difficult marriages and divorces, and work-related hardships in earlier years of their lives, most have by now at 49 years of age settled down. While this makes for little in the way of surprises and good drama, their stories are still as compelling as ever.

Take, for example, the stories of Lynn and Tony. Their stories are fairly simple, with little in the way of surprises. A genial young girl who loved reading and writing, she became a librarian by the time she was 21, and by the time she was 28, she had a husband and two daughters. At 49, she still works at a library. Tony wanted to become a horse jockey as a young child. Instead, he went on to become a cab driver, get married, and raise a family. At 49, he is still happily married and has a fulfilling life.

Neither of these stories seems that interesting on the surface, and if each individual were being interviewed for the very first time at 49 years old, little progress could be made in terms of really understanding these people. Having the footage of Lynn and Tony and others from age 7 onward allows for the viewer the rare perspective of seeing each individual’s journey and growing maturity that allows for even the most monotonous of lives to become interesting.

The series has not been without its truly mesmerizing subjects, with Neil proving to be the most unpredictable of the group. A cheerful and bright-eyed boy at 7, he went on to become lost and pessimistic at 21, homeless at 28, and a man filled with lost hope at 35. In 42 Up, he finally looked to be turning his life around, and in this newest installment, he seems to finally be at peace in a rewarding life that involves volunteer work and a seat on the local council board as a liberal democrat. His remarkable journey proves to be far more interesting than any fiction writer could’ve thought up.

Explored more in this installment than in any before is the very nature of what the film stands for and what it does to the participants’ private lives. One of the reluctant participants Jackie literally yells at director Apted for asking too many questions about her personal life, having been angered at the way her story has been twisted around through editing in previous installments. Another participant John, who has skipped out on both 28 Up and 42 Up, relates the series to any blasé reality show like Big Brother, bringing up the issue of whether or not the series has any value.

Relating the Up series to Big Brother is like putting Star Wars on the same level with Battlefield Earth. While Big Brother is only interested in the present, with effort being made to find drama in any circumstance and make people hate each other, the Up series only wants to capture the lives of ordinary people, for better or for worse. It wants to get to the heart of what people are all about, with the power to turn back time in any given moment a genuinely useful tool.

Director Apted has said he will continue with the series as long as the stories never get boring and enough of the group continues to participate, but unfortunately, he’s older than the participants and he’s not going to live forever. No matter the future, the Up series has proven to be a real treasure in the history of documentary filmmaking and one that is worth seeing for anyone who has an interest in the human condition.

Watching Like a Writer

The Up series, which released the 56 installment in 2013, with feasibly a 63 installment coming in 2020, is one of my favorite uses of film, one that was never used especially well in fictional film until Richard Linklater’s masterful 2014 feature Boyhood. I’m fascinated by how time changes lives, as I wrote a novel all about kids growing up over many years and falling in and out of love. It doesn’t always make for great drama, to show people growing not through one major conflict in the present but through more minor conflicts over many years, but it’s a fascinating narrative structure nonetheless.


Think of a story about two characters that would take place over the course of fifty years. Who would the characters be? At the beginning of the story? At the end?

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