Geek Punditry #12: Nothing New Under the Sun

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.

Nothing original my shiny hiney.

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

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fed.

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. 

“Hello, literature police? I’d like to report a murder…of my hopes and dreams.”

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.)

“To suffer the slings of outrageous fortune, turn to page 32. To suffer the arrows, turn to page 19.”

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

“My name? Nobody-El.”

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.  

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Geek Punditry #9: Pop Culture Comfort Food

Reportedly, there are studies that indicate people like rewatching old TV shows and movies because there is comfort to be found in familiarity. I don’t have those particular studies in front of me because I don’t feel like looking them up at the moment (this is a highly scientific approach), but I completely believe it. When the world is starting to be too much, I often find myself going back to movies, books, or comics that I have enjoyed before. There’s something about returning to old stories that makes it feel like you’re reconnecting with a friend. There’s an ease and a comfort that can be desperately needed when there’s a weight on your shoulders, when the anxiety begins sending the pins and needles across your skin, when every text or phone call makes you worry that the worst has happened. I go back to these things a lot, is what I’m saying.

And since I know I’m not alone in this, I thought that this week I would share with you some of my storytelling comfort food. I’m going to tell you one example from each of my preferred forms of media (movies, TV, books, and comics) that I can and have returned to more times than I can count, stories I know as well as the walk from my car to the front door, characters who are as close to me as family. When I’m feeling down or beat up or that nothing is going to be okay, these are the places I turn to so that I can be reminded…sometimes it can be.

Movies: Back to the Future 

A series that never fails to take you back in time.

In the interest of clarity, I guess I should say the Back to the Future trilogy, because heaven knows I can never stop with one. The first movie came out when I was 8 years old, and I distinctly remember sitting down in front of the fireplace after my parents rented it and put the VHS tape in. I remember how quickly and deeply I fell in love with the film and how we went to the movies together to see Part II, and how we went out during a storm while out of town on a family vacation on the opening weekend of Part III to see just how the saga concluded. I even remember my father commenting on the weather and saying that anybody who went out in it to see the movie must have been a die hard fan. Which, of course, I was.

I know I don’t have to explain to anyone why these films are so great, and I’m certainly not going to waste any time on a recap, but I’m going to tell you what it is about them that makes me feel better. Part of it, like with all of the things I’m going to share with you, are the characters. There’s something about the unorthodox friendship between Doc Brown and Marty McFly that resonated with me even as a child. I had already spent years dreaming of being picked up by a tornado and thrown to Oz or finding a closet door with a passage to Narnia, but even at eight it was starting to seem like either of those would be a stretch. Finding an eccentric mentor who would bring me along on grand adventures seemed much more plausible. Even now, at a stage in life where I find myself relating more to Doc than Marty, that relationship seems pure and genuine. (Ironically, I think that’s part of the reason Rick and Morty became so popular so fast – it’s a parody of the Doc/Marty relationship, but that parody wouldn’t have worked as well if there was something foul or sordid about the original.)

Then there’s the basic fantasy of time travel, of being able to hop into a machine that can whisk you away to another place. The idea of seeing the past and the future is tantalizing, and I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t be tempted to use Gray’s Sports Almanac the same way Marty intended to. 

The other thing, which people may perhaps not think of immediately but I consider of utmost importance, is the music. The best movies often have memorable scores, but Alan Silvestri’s composition is one of the all-time greats. The sweeping tones automatically bring to mind the film, hit those triggers in your memory and pull you into the world of Hill Valley, and charge your heart with anticipation. The music moves from exciting to thrilling to, ultimately, triumphant. When you hear Alan Silvestri’s score to Back to the Future, you find yourself capable of believing that even when things are tough, like they were for Marty McFly, there is a solution that will make everything turn out okay in the end.

And c’mon. The car is really cool.

Television: Cheers 

Where people know troubles are all the same.

Bet you expected me to say Star Trek, didn’t you? Yeah, I know, Trek is my jam, but sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.

Cheers, the sitcom about a little bar in Boston, has two distinct stages, and I love them both…but not equally, if I’m being honest. In the early years, the show was mostly a workplace romcom about Sam and Diane, with the rest of the characters there to add flavor. It was a fine show, it was a funny show, but I was a fairly young child at the time and, although my parents watched it, I didn’t really start paying attention to the series until I got older. This may be part of the reason that – although I would never skip the Diane years when doing a rewatch – it’s the Rebecca years that leave the most indelible mark on my memory.

But my relative age isn’t the only reason the second life of Cheers is my preferred era. Like I said, during the Shelley Long years, the show centered around Sam and Diane’s relationship. This was good. This made for some excellent television. But after Long left to become a major movie star (I recently watched her performance in 2012’s Zombie Hamlet, and I highly recommend it), they replaced her with the recently-deceased Kirstie Alley, and although there were the occasional flirtations with making her couple off with Sam like they did with Diane, the writers wisely realized that the same chemistry wasn’t there, and shifted the focus from a romcom to more of an ensemble comedy. The other characters grew in prominence, Rebecca Howe found a different niche to fill than the one vacated by Diane Chambers, and the show blossomed yet again. 

While the likes of Woody, Cliff, Carla, and Norm all had their moments in the pre-Rebecca days, post-Diane they had far more episodes in the spotlight. Frasier Crane was a Diane castoff who stuck around, but it was in the Rebecca era that he bloomed to one of the stars of the show, eventually spinning off into his own series (also a comfort watch for me), with a revival of the latter currently in the works. I’m not saying that the early years of Cheers weren’t GOOD, please don’t misunderstand me. It was a remarkable comedy, the character of Coach was sorely missed for the rest of the series, and the episode guest-starring John Cleese is perhaps one of the funniest half-hours of television ever put to film. It’s just that the pure love I feel for the series, the way I have affection for these characters as if they were personal friends of mine, the fact that I remember that Frasier’s first wife “Nanny G”’s phone number was 555-6792…that’s all a product of the Kirstie Alley years, and I’m fine with that.

Boy, I deserve some sort of trophy for THAT deep cut. 

Book: The Princess Bride by William Goldman. 

Skipping this would be inconceivable.

I may be cheating a little bit here, since much of what is wonderful about this novel is also applicable to the movie, which I also love and watch as comfort on many an occasion. But this is probably the novel I have read more times than any other (a feat which I insist is more impressive than the movie you’ve watched most often). It is the book I pick up when I’m sad. It’s the story I turn to when I’m depressed. It’s the tale I want to hear again when I feel like there is nothing good and beautiful in the world. I need this story at those times, because if it were true that there is nothing good and beautiful in the world, then how could a novel such as this even exist?

I know you’ve seen the movie, so I won’t bother to retell you the story. Instead, I’ll tell you about the elements unique to the book so that you can understand why it resonates with me so deeply. 

First of all the framing sequence. In the film, the tale of Westley and Buttercup is being read by a grandfather to his sick grandson. In the book, Goldman creates a metatextual story (this was before metatextual stories) about his own family, in which his father read the story to him as a child. It was not until adulthood that he tried reading it himself to his own son (a fictional son, by the way, as the real William Goldman had only daughters) and realized his dad skipped all the boring bits and just read him “the good parts.” The book is presented as adult Goldman abridging a classic novel by getting rid of all the flowery muck and bits of Elizabethan satire that modern audiences wouldn’t give a crap about. It’s a really funny conceit, and it’s executed so perfectly that a lot of people reading the book for the first time don’t realize the framing sequence is fiction as well. (It’s me. I’m a lot of people. I didn’t get it the first time.)

Second, the writing is simply marvelous. A lot of the great bits of dialogue made it into the film, which isn’t a surprise since Goldman wrote the screenplay himself, but there simply wasn’t room for everything, and many of those pieces left on the floor are absolutely priceless. For instance, the movie largely ignores Buttercup’s parents and their unending bickering, for which they keep score. It skips over the history of Fezzik entirely and leaves out all but the most essential parts of Inigo’s backstory, which makes an already amazing character so much richer. There’s more time spent with Humperdink, more time devoted to Vizzini, and much more to Westley and Buttercup’s burgeoning romance. Because yeah, it is a kissing book.

I don’t begrudge Goldman any of the cuts, of course. The very premise of the novel is that sometimes parts of a story don’t translate from medium to medium. But if you’ve only seen the movie you haven’t experienced the whole story.

The last thing about this book is perhaps the most important: the message. In the framing sequence, Goldman discusses a conversation with an old neighborhood woman who served as something of a mentor to him. This segment concludes with the child Goldman learning that life isn’t fair. Rather than being angry or hurt at the realization, though, he is utterly jubilant to hear the news, because once you accept that life ISN’T fair, isn’t SUPPOSED to be fair, then a lot of the crap the world throws around suddenly makes a LOT more sense. This is, I think, a very important message, and the great thing about it is how it is presented in a way that is joyful and positive rather than dour and depressing.

The point I’m getting at is that if you haven’t read this book, you should, and I’m envious that you’re going to get to experience it for the first time, which I will never have the chance to do again. But hey, that’s all right, because life isn’t fair.

Comics: The Triangle Era Superman.

This was MY Golden Age

Okay, this paragraph is just for the uber-nerds like myself who already know all about the “Triangle Era” of Superman. The rest of you can skip to the next paragraph. Ahem. I’m about to give a super-condensed history of the era. I know I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. Like William Goldman, I choose to focus on the good parts rather than telling everybody the intricacies of comic book numbering and whatnot. Please don’t send me corrective emails.

In 1986, DC Comics hired writer/artist John Byrne to revitalize the Superman character. He took over both Superman and Action Comics, the two titles that starred the hero, and they added a third book to the line as well, Adventures of Superman, which was usually done by other creators such as Marv Wolfman. After a while, Byrne left the character in the hands of other writers and artists, and while he had done good work in his time, it was after his departure that a certain kind of alchemy began to happen. With Superman starring in three comic books a month, the writers and artists would have to collaborate to make sure they weren’t contradicting or causing problems for each other. This collaboration began to grow more intricate, and in time, the three different titles began to function almost as one. Stories that began in Adventures of Superman one week would continue in Action Comics the week after. Before long a fourth title was added, Superman: The Man of Steel, so that there were four monthly Superman books that worked almost as a single weekly title. Then someone noticed that 4×12=48, but there were 52 weeks in a year, so a fifth title (Superman: The Man of Tomorrow) was added to fill in the extra gaps. At some point, DC started to put a triangle on the cover of each issue demonstrating which week of the year it was to help readers keep track of what order the books went in, thus the “Triangle Era” was born.

The weekly nature of the serial was a great concept. Knowing that there would be a new chapter of an ongoing storyline each and every week forged hardcore loyalty and created a devoted fanbase that still exists today. What’s more, although the main story was ongoing, each individual series had its own subplots that made it stand out. Adventures, for example, was more often going to deal with the mad scientists of Project: Cadmus, while Man of Steel devoted time to a story about an orphanage and a young child who would eventually be adopted by Perry White. The books were part of a larger whole, but still had their own flavor and identity.

The Triangle Era lasted over ten years, but those early days happened just as I started reading the books and featured many of the writers, artists, and storylines that are still most dear to me: Lois learning Clark’s double identity, their engagement and marriage, the somewhat vindicated-by-history era of Superman Blue/Superman Red, the classic “Panic in the Sky” storyline, and of course, the legendary Death and Return of Superman were all products of the Triangle Era. Like all comfort media, part of my love for these books is no doubt because these were the comics I read in my formative years. But there’s also the fact that, for a very long time, these comic books were just really good. The world of Superman, which had not-undeservedly been called stale and out of date a decade earlier, was suddenly energetic, exciting, and full of new characters, concepts, heroes, and villains. Many people have made Superman comics over the years, but Dan Jurgens, Brett Breeding, Roger Stern, Bob McCleod, Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett, Louise Simonson, and Jon Bogdanove remain the gold standard in my mind.

As the song goes, these are a few of my favorite things. These are stories, characters, and worlds that I never grow tired of. These are the things that mean something to me, things I flat-out refuse to let go of, things that come together and help make me who I am.

So what are yours?

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. He bets you thought he was kidding about Zombie Hamlet, didn’t you?

Pictured: the career worth leaving Cheers for.