Over on io9 this week, Charlie Jane Anders ranted about how audiences doth protest too much when original films “crib” story tropes from previous works. And they then go out of their way to point out plot points that they’ve seen before (which is an inherent guaranteed possibility in genre fiction, and that’s pretty much all we get fed these days in the multiplexes, on our HD screens and our stream platform of choice).
Kirby Ferguson dropped a much-loved 4-part video series, Everything is a Remix, that smashes the concept of originality in narrative fiction, particularly when it applies to business-oriented narrative fiction, which all TV and movies are.
Storytelling that is truly innovative, as much as is possible in a finite visual medium like film & TV, is notoriously hard to market (and that’s an entirely different discussion). What gets people’s goat is when the liberal borrowing isn’t re-presented in an emotionally compelling way that sheds new light on the human condition so that it feels fresh, compelling, and the emotional payoff is satisfactory.
People don’t want to look closely at things that they love (e.g. STAR WARS, which cribbed so much from Akira Kurosawa’s THE HIDDEN FORTRESS isn’t not even funny…), and then decry stuff they find a fault with emotionally. When a narrative rings false in other ways (characters, convincing setting, performances), then you focus on the story stuff that is now in-your-face familiar (and done more satisfyingly in the previous version).
What’s less forgiving is where there’s an outright steal, because the current author feels the audience . I remember back in the early or mid 90s, comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis (before he became this ur-writer) wrote and did the art for two comics AKA Goldfish and Jinx, and in one of the Jinx stories there was a huge plot point where Jinx stumbles across a car wreck with the driver inside, and he reveals the location of a huge wad of cash before dying (I’m missing some details, but my point is still valid)… and this came right out of Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (and he probably borrowed it from somewhere too). It’s the main story point in Leone’s Western; it’s way prevents Tuco (Eli Wallach) from killing Blondie (Clint Eastwood). These initial comic stories put Bendis on the map, yet I don’t recall him being taken to task; in fact, he was lauded, because he brought a language and voice to his characters that was modern and unique… so we overlooked the swipe Leone. Comic writer Jai Nitz also lifted from Leone in his super-cool Dark Horse noir Dream Thief. I won’t tell you where and how, but you know Leone’s work and have read the comic series it stands out (but maybe not to modern audiences)… and the setting, circumstances, and characters are modern, too.
However, one of the bigger culprits is that big budgets require mass appeal, and mass appeal means tapping into the collective unconscious and utilizing the tropes of what Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey (but you knew all this, so why am I repeating it?).
WHAT SACRED COWS?
A lot of people, self included, absolutely loved Joss Whedon‘s short-run space opera Firefly, and yet we’ve seen many of the plot points of nearly all the episodes played in other stories… what Whedon did was either reverse a cliche or ardently embrace it and call it out, and it was his characters and how they reacted to expected convention (although being meta-aware of storytelling conventions within a story seems too wink-wink, you know?) Consequently, you hardly ever hear someone deride Firefly… even though Whedon effectively cribbed Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon and then stuck that archetype in a post-Civil War framework in a space opera universe of his own design… remixing at its finest.
See, there’s only such much you can do in TV and the movies, because of how attention spans function and what the content broadcasters deem as “viewable”, not to mention budget, that you’re bound to have repetition in storytelling. Not to mention that reductive conceit of there only being “seven stories.”