One of the most common criticisms of modern movies is that there aren’t any new ideas. People point to the nearly endless stream of sequels, prequels, remakes, and franchises as evidence that Hollywood has run out of creative juice, as if there’s somehow nothing original in seventeen movies about a robot that can turn into a jet ski. There are two problems with this, though. First, it’s not really true. There are thousands of scripts circulating in the movie industry at any given time – each year a “Blacklist” is released of the best unproduced scripts currently making the rounds, and some of them eventually find a studio or a director to take them on. The problem isn’t that original stories aren’t out there, it’s that the people holding the strings of the purses are afraid to spend money on them. You can take a chance on that period drama about a coal miner who discovers a secret that will topple a kingdom, or you can make the ninth installment of an action franchise that you know is going to make at least $200 million even if it’s terrible. I’m not saying I agree with this decision, mind you, but I certainly understand it.
The other problem with this complaint is the assumption that this is a recent phenomenon, that it’s only in the last few years that this mythical well of creativity has run dry. What happened to those great epic films of the past based on totally original ideas? Things like Jaws or The Wizard of Oz or The Ten Commandments? You know, things that were made from whole cloth. It’s nonsense, of course. People have been borrowing stories since the first story was told. And you know what? That’s okay.
I took a quick glance at IMDB’s top 100 narrative films and counted at least 40 movies that I know are based on books, plays, real life, or are sequels – and those are just the ones I’m aware of. I’m sure that there are more, but I don’t have time to read the trivia on all of them. This also doesn’t count those films that aren’t “official” adaptations, but borrow liberally from earlier stories (such as Star Wars taking elements from Buck Rogers and Hidden Fortress). A large chunk of our most acclaimed cinema is taken from other sources. And there’s nothing wrong with that. William Shakespeare himself “borrowed” from everybody. The histories, obviously, aren’t original ideas, but beyond that we have Romeo and Juliet based on an Italian poem, Othello was lifted from a collection of short stories, and Hamlet was a straight-up ripoff of The Lion King.
No, seriously, it’s based on an old Danish myth about a young man who has to seek revenge after his father is murdered by his uncle. There were, in fact, several versions of this story going back hundreds of years before Shakespeare cherry-picked his favorite parts of each of them, added a ghost, wrote the song “Hakuna Matata,” and BAM! made it the most famous play in the English language.
Something else to consider is that as vast as the well of human creativity is, we’ve been exploring it for a really long time, and there aren’t a whole lot of corners left to excavate. Back in 1895, Georges Polti published his list of “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations,” in which he outlined what he believed was every possible plot that any writer can use. Granted, these 36 plots are incredibly simplistic (abduction, revolt, enmity of kin, Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla, etc.), but I first read about these plots in a writing book nearly 20 years ago and since then I’ve never come across a story that didn’t fit at least one of them, not even Space Jam. The point, then, is not to come up with an entirely original idea, because that seems to be virtually impossible. The point is to find the story you want to tell, and then tell your version in an entertaining and satisfying way.
Too many writers get hung up on being original and freeze. A long time ago I had a friend read a story I wrote only to panic when she asked me when was the last time I read The Chronicles of Narnia. It had been years, but upon reflection I realized I used a device remarkably similar to an element from the Narnia novel The Magician’s Nephew. I hadn’t done it intentionally – I hadn’t read the book since elementary school and I had very little memory of it – but the device was so similar I have to concede that I was drawing on it subconsciously. Another time a friend of mine asked me if I’d heard of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and because I trusted his recommendation, I picked up the first book. I loved it and I also got sick to my stomach, because the conceit of the Greek Gods in modern times was something I had been working on in a novel of my own that pretty much died on the vine. I obviously wasn’t stealing that idea, because at the time I had never read Percy before, but the knowledge that there was such a popular book out there that used some of the same ideas slaughtered my enthusiasm for the project. In retrospect, that was a mistake. The take I was planning really wasn’t at all similar to Camp Half-Blood, the only real similarity was that it was contemporary mythological characters, but I was so shaken that I lost the thread of that story and was never able to find it again.
Rather than abandoning a story with old roots, a writer should cultivate those roots and find a new way to grow. Stan Lee famously combined Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to create the Incredible Hulk, after all. Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven bought stock in decades of slasher movies to give birth to the Scream franchise. George Lucas drew on Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks when he conceived of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (I know that sounds like the kind of thing I would make a joke about, but it’s not. That one’s a straight-up fact.)
Let’s go back to Shakespeare. Everyone knows Disney borrowed from Hamlet when they made The Lion King, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Romeo and Juliet inspired West Side Story, MacBeth became Kurasowa’s Throne of Blood, The Taming of the Shrew became Ten Things I Hate About You. As of this writing, William Shakespeare is credited as a writer for 1746 projects on IMDB. That’s nearly 2000 movies and TV shows, stories told in mediums that were not invented until he had been dead for almost three centuries. (He’s also credited once under “music department” and a baffling SIX times as “additional crew.” I could click on those links for clarification, but I kind of prefer my headcanon, in which he was involved in craft services on the set of The Human Centipede.)
What’s more, those 1746 credits are only the films that specifically list him as a writer, not those that borrow from him without applying the credit, nor does it account for the thousands of stories that use his work outside of the realms of film and television. I did college and community theater for many years and one the best shows I was ever in was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged], a gut-busting comedy featuring three actors trying to perform parts of all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays in one evening. Then just yesterday I got Ryan North’s book To Be Nor Not to Be, in which he retells Hamlet as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. I’ve read it through once so far, choosing the “original” path of the play before I branch out and test the wackier versions, but even the “original” is really funny. (North also seems to have a much greater fondness for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern than most people, treating them in a way that’s very much at odds with Tom Stoppard, who himself used Shakespeare for the basis of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which in turn inspired the epic drama Bubble Guppies.)
A lot of writers wear their influences on their sleeves. Stephen King – who you should realize by now is a perennial favorite of mine – used Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” as the launching pad for his own The Dark Tower, the series he calls his “magnum opus.” The series has feelers and roots in dozens of his own novels and short stories, but also in the works of other creators. Along the way he sprinkled in a visit to Oz, a riddle game that feels like Twisted Tolkien Theatre, robots stolen from Marvel Comics, and nuggets of Harry Potter to fill in the gaps. King, in turn, has inspired many other writers, among them his own sons Joe Hill and Owen King and the entire writing staff of the TV show Lost.
Mythology is another popular source to “borrow” stories from, which is why I tried to do it myself before Rick Riordan inadvertently kicked my teeth in. The Odyssey, for example, has been retold multiple times: the Coen brothers transplanted it into turn-of-the 20th Century Mississippi for their film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, DC Comics used it as the basis of the Adam Strange/Starfire/Animal Man section of their year-long experimental series 52, and a few years ago some schmuck from Louisiana replaced Odysseus with Santa Claus and tried telling his own version of the story.
DC is actually returning to the Homeric well beginning this week with a series called Superman: Lost. In the first issue of this 10-issue series by writer Christopher Priest and artist Carlo Pagulayan, Clark Kent and Lois Lane are hanging out at home one evening when he’s summoned away by the Justice League to deal with an emergency. He comes back only minutes later, but now he seems to be in a state of shock. After a few panels of Lois trying to figure out what’s happened, Clark drops the bomb that – from his perspective – he’s actually been gone for 20 years. The first issue is excellent, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the story to see why he’s been gone so long, what timey-wimey ball of phlebotinum is going to be applied to bring him back to the present, and how much is borrowed directly from The Odyssey. Priest is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time, so I’ve got plenty of faith going in.
The point is, originality is not the be-all and end-all of storytelling. True, it’s always great to be genuinely surprised, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not room for good movies, TV shows, or books that have a familiar flavor. If you don’t like something, fine, that’s your prerogative, but if the only thing wrong with it is that you feel like you’ve seen it before, try to decide if it has other merits before you dismiss it entirely. You may find something worth experiencing after all.
And if not, just go watch something original and brand-new. Like The Last of Us. Or Wednesday. Or that new show Night Court. Or…
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. Please do not mistake this “originality isn’t everything” position as an endorsement of plagiarism or, even worse, using AI to write a story. Both of these are crimes for which you should receive, at minimum, a toilet that won’t stop running all night long even after you take off the top of the tank and stick your hand in the water to try to adjust it. That’s what you’ve got coming to you. Jerk.