Floating around the internet quite frequently these past two years have been infographics and articles complaining about Hollywood “giving up on original ideas.” Like the one below shows, from a box office standpoint, our selection of films has become increasingly saturated with adaptations, remakes, and reboots. Just looking at the year 2012 as an example; we had an adaptation of a popular novel; a sequel, a compilation, and a reboot in super hero franchises; the 23rd James Bond film; and third, fourth, and fifth entries into hugely popular film franchises. That rounds out the top ten box office hits, and it presents an interesting dilemma for film buffs: did this happen because we created the demand for it, or did it happen because Hollywood gave us no choice?
While this is a debatable topic, the more interesting question for me surrounds the virtues of these films and their quality in the context of film as an art form. Our culture places an absurd value on being the first to do something (absurd because most of the things done “first” weren’t actually done first). Edison didn’t just sit down one day and “invent” the light bulb and he certainly wasn’t the first to propose the idea of a glass bulb that could light up a room with electric light. For film, we consider Star Wars to be a revolutionary film in terms of scale and originality, but the story, characters, costumes, and style were all borrowed, transformed, and combined by George Lucas. Whether that is from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, the Western films Kurosawa borrowed from, Greek mythological archetypes, Flash Gordon serials, or Samurai dress, garb, and weapons, Lucas stole most of what made Star Wars, Star Wars.
But the question at the end of that revelation is: does it matter? When telling my dad about Star Wars and its derivative, it was interesting to see him truly affected by the possibility that this integral film from his childhood, wasn’t an original, authentic creation. With all respect to my father, I find the way he was affected by this to be disingenuous to the way creativity works. There is an excellent documentary series about this called Everything is a Remix. In short, he describes how everything is a product of the human capacity to copy, transform, and combine, that nothing is truly and wholly original, and that to expect it to be so is unrealistic and naïve.
But what does this all mean? To me it means that while acknowledging the work done by artists is important, it is not so important as to discredit the work done by derivative artists. Star Wars is a great film and to argue that its originality (or lack thereof) diminishes its quality is ludicrous. Arguing that Braveheart is a bad film because of its lack of historical accuracy is ludicrous. Arguing that the Harry Potter films are bad simply because they do not follow the books to the “T” is ludicrous. Film is a derivative art form in and of itself. It stole images from photography, drama from theatre, music from opera and recording studios and artists. It transformed them into moving images that tell a story. It combined them through the new art of editing to create the mirage of originality. But make no mistake, film as an art form is derivative and to dismiss individual works solely for being derivative is ludicrous.
This column is called Stolen Stories and it will be covering a variety of topics. Comparisons of films to what they have been adapted from, analysis of different adaptations or interpretations of the same story, critiques and reviews of a series of adapted works, and multinational interpretations on the same story are all up for grabs here. The goal is to step back from the simple argument of derivative works being bad, and look at how a film’s interpretation and presentation changes the film’s meaning.