'Lost' reading list: the show's creators discuss literary influences, from Stephen King to Flannery O'Connor
Ever since Sawyer was shown reading “Watership Down” in Season One of “Lost,” an abundance of carefully placed works of literature have been featured on the show (in gym bags, on book shelves, in episode titles), spawning “Lost” book clubs and blogs filled with eager readers combing for clues to the fate of the stranded Oceanic Flight 815 survivors.
The unpredictable nature of the show left fans hungry for answers week after week and the referenced books have provided plenty of theorizing and heated discussions, even as the show moves towards its conclusion.
Executive producers and writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse grew up reading a lot of the same authors (Stephen King, John Steinbeck and Kurt Vonnegut) and have acknowledged literature’s influence in the way they have shaped the show.
“It’s a nod to that process," Lindelof (who is also co-creator) explained last year. "We pick the books with a great deal of meticulous thought and specificity and talk about what the thematic implications of picking a certain book are, why we’re using it in the scene and what we want the audience to deduce from that choice."
Because “Lost” was not a carbon-copy cop show, legal drama or medical show, there was not a lot of precedence for its unique structure. Lindelof and Cuse found inspiration in the making of the show in books as opposed to movies or other TV shows.
They noted Stephen King’s “The Stand” as a blueprint for early episodes. “It was this very long, character-oriented book that hung on a high-concept premise that the entire nation had been infected with this super-flu, and it was the equivalent of people crashing on this mysterious island. Both based on incredibly intricate and involved character dynamics," Cuse said.
More than 70 books have been referenced during the six seasons, including heavy reads such as the 700-page “Ulysses” by James Joyce and “The Odyssey" by Homer. Whether it's a plot line, character or theme, many elements seen in “Lost” can be traced back to a book: time travel (“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking), alternate realities ("Alice in Wonderland,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” A Wrinkle in Time"), differing points of view and flashbacks (“Catch 22") or simply the title of an episode (“Through the Looking Glass,” “Tale of Two Cities,” “There’s No Place Like Home”). All reflect the producers' and writers' fondness for great literature.
There are a few titles that have been referenced regularly throughout the series and undoubtedly for good reasons. “Watership Down,” Richard Adams' novel about a society of rabbits searching for a safe place in a threatening world, is one.
“'Watership Down' was the book that got me started reading the books on the show,” said James Brush, a high school English teacher in Austin, Texas, who started his own blog devoted to the books on “Lost.” “It always makes me think of Jack. He’s like the main character, Hazel. He’s not the biggest or strongest but he’s smart and grows wise.”
Rather than one all-encompassing book that sums up the entire series, each season seemed to have a few titles relevant to the storyline. “Each season had a book that has for me really resonated,” Brush said. “In Season 3 it was 'Catch 22' by Joseph Heller. Charlie was going to die and Desmond knew it. He was stuck in this loop of trying to get out of the current situation yet making it worse.”
Another Brush favorite: “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “The characters are drawn with a lot of psychological depth. I found similarities to Jack, Locke and Sawyer,” he noted. “The theme of patricide connected and was reinforced with their serious father issues revealed in Season 2.”
The Sawyer factor. The most unlikely bookworm on the island is the one character we see reading the most, from Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar” to “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck and “The Fountainhead“ by Ayn Rand. In the Season 3 DVD, Lindelof mentions Sawyer’s similarities to the main character in "The Fountainhead," Howard Roark. Both are rebels against the general culture of their society and prefer to be by themselves.
If one book was most influential on the show, it was probably “Alice in Wonderland.” "To say there is only one is unfair," said Lindelof, "but we keep coming back to 'Alice in Wonderland' thematically. That was a book that both Carlton and I remember very specifically as children. It was a gateway drug to sci-fi and fantasy in many ways."
Lindelof said he read a lot of Piers Anthony as a kid, and is an expert on "The Wizard of Oz." One ode to the L. Frank Baum classic: when we first meet Ben, he uses the alias Henry Gale, the name of Dorothy’s uncle, and claims to have crashed on the island in a hot air balloon.
Cuse, known to be the "Narnia" scholar on the show, cited Flannery O’Connor as his greatest influence. “We have a lot of religious themes and sudden and striking violence and she was the master at that. I love her work."
Jacob was seen reading O’ Connor’s collection of short stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” in a flashback scene in Season 5. “In one story, 'Judgment Day,' a man imagines how he’ll fake his own death, take his coffin from New York City to the South and surprise his friends with the fact that he’s still alive,” Brush said. “That’s sort of what happened with Locke when he re-manifested himself. “
Brush noted that if “Lost” follows the trajectory of this or any of these stories, a happy ending isn’t likely.
Is there one single book's plot that will predict the ending?
Some bloggers see clues in “Left Behind,” by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, in which several passengers aboard a plane suddenly and mysteriously disappear. They learn that Christ has come to take the faithful with him in preparation for the coming apocalyptic battle between good and evil and those left behind must decide to join the forces of Christ or the forces of darkness.
There's no escaping the not-so-subtle references to “The Bible” with Jacob and the Man in Black, light vs. dark, mentions of sacrifice on the horizon and Richard shouting "We are in Hell!"
Brush believes that the heart of this season, lies within “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” by Salman Rushdie and “Deep River” by Shūsaku Endō, a tale about finding balance. The premise of “Haroun” is that all stories come from a single source polluted by an evil lord. The stream of stories must be stopped by pulling a cork on all the other stories that have escaped. “If this season follows this model, one of two realities will cease to exist once one is defeated,” said Brush, referring to the sideways flashes.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that Locke is going to be defeated or be balanced out. Whoever is left on the island will be the sacrifice that saves the world.”
Images: (from top) Sawyer reading Lancelot. Credit: ABC TV. "The Stand," by Stephen King. Credit: Doubleday. "Watership Down," by Richard Adams. Credit: Avon Books. "Alice in Wonderland," by Lewis Carroll. Credit: Collectors Library. Jacob reading Flannery O'Connor. Credit: Mario Perez. "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" by Salman Rushdie. Credit: Penguin
-- Liesl Bradner