In my last couple of posts, I’ve been dealing with the idea of originality in storytelling. It’s a huge idea, and I certainly don’t expect to uncover all the answers here, even as I’m wrapping up this three-part series. But it’s an idea that audiences (of books, movies, etc.) often pick up on quite a bit, whether positively or negatively, and so a serious writer should know how to address it to.
I looked at two recent blockbuster movies, neither of which is admittedly terribly original: first Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and then Marvel’s Ant-Man. I’ve argued that both films share significant parallels with the first film in their respective franchises (the original Star Wars and 2008’s Iron Man). And yet, while it’s a fine line and I may be nit-picking at the details just a bit, I still feel like one of the two films is simply following a formula in the way that much fiction does, while the other is more of an outright rehash of its predecessor. Is this a legitimate analysis? Let’s see if we can find out.
Of course, it’s true that very few films or stories these days are completely original. As a book I regard quite highly observes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” And as many people before me have stated, most stories are just combinations of old elements in a new or different way. I have found this to be true as a reader, a moviegoer, a student of literature, and as a creative writer. Universal concepts such as the hero’s journey and the monomyth work themselves and their familiar tropes into nearly every story, or at least into action movies with major elements like heroic quests, good versus evil, etc. I don’t deny that these elements show up pretty strongly in the Star Wars galaxy, the Marvel universe, and quite a few other places too.
Also, as I mentioned last time, Marvel admittedly has a proven formula that works, and most of their movies stick to it to some degree or another. They have a similar lighthearted tone, similar themes of saving the world from evil threats, and similar plot structures where the hero and his allies have to overcome impossible odds together (I say “his” because none of the Marvel Cinematic Universe solo films have featured a female main character…yet).
And while these elements are all significant parts of the movie, that may be where the similarities end. The settings of each are vastly different, ranging from modern-day America to deep space, from World War II to mythical realms. The same goes for the protagonists who inhabit each setting. Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America all have vastly different personalities and backgrounds, and Ant-Man’s is different from all of theirs as well. Although they face similar obstacles and overcome similar crises, the characters are each distinct and unique. In this sense, I might posit that the formula Marvel has become known for is comparable to the hero’s journey itself. They both refer to a certain set of tropes and plot structures, but those elements can be applied to nearly any type of hero in any type of setting. In that sense, one could argue that Ant-Man and the other Marvel movies copy elements from a certain common formula, but not necessarily from each other.
Also, one should remember that the Marvel movies are based on comic-book source material. There are a lot of vastly different characters in the comic book universe (all with a much more complicated history than any you’ll see onscreen), and so there’s quite a bit of material to draw from. That’s why, while Ant-Man featured Scott Lang as the main character, it also included Hank Pym, who in the comics was the original Ant-Man, and other characters who are recognizable to a comics fan like me, such as the Wasp and Cassie Lang (yes, even the little girl in the movie eventually becomes a superhero of her own). So does the comics background make the movies more original? No, not really, but it does mean that the movies draw elements from an outside source rather than directly ripping off each other. They have a wide range of source material to draw from because the comics have been going on for so long, and they can include characters and elements that aren’t necessarily central to the same plot formula that keeps recurring in merely the movies.
But, all of that being said about the Marvel movies, I still maintain that The Force Awakens was, to a large extent, a rehash of the original Star Wars, A New Hope. To reiterate, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy the movie on some level, but just that it felt somewhat lacking in depth and ambition. It didn’t copy merely a formula such as the hero’s journey, but it copied one particular movie very directly. There was a desert planet that looked like Tattooine, but totally wasn’t Tattooine! And a planet-destroying weapon that’s kind of like the Death Star, but oh, it’s completely different from the Death Star! And Rey, while an interesting and compelling character so far, is to a large extent a female version of Luke Skywalker. I don’t want to give away too many details or spoilers, but see my last few posts for further details on how closely the two films and their plots mirror each other. In many ways it seems to me that they should have just called it A New A New Hope.
So yes, I am concluding that Ant-Man was a good (or at least better) kind of predictable, while The Force Awakens was more of a rehash than it should have been. Maybe I’m just splitting hairs here, as neither movie was completely original, and both fell into the category of “fun, but not amazingly awesome” for me. Of course, an ideal story, a truly memorable and groundbreaking one, might be more original than either one. But keep this difference in mind as you write. Audiences will usually accept it more or less if you follow a time-tested pattern such as the hero’s journey, but not necessarily if you borrow too heavily from one work in particular, like The Force Awakens did to A New Hope. (Then again, The Force Awakens is still proving to be amazingly successful at the box office, so despite the criticisms from a sizeable group of viewers, it’s clear a lot of people are still quite willing to accept it).
Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote about originality to ponder in your own writing. And though it’s a lofty ideal to reach, maybe this will help. C.S. Lewis says: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”