Image courtesy of deviantart.com
By Caroline Morris
There are no original stories.This is a bold statement, but true.
Every story stands in line with the history of the tales that have come before it. Every story is influenced by its predecessors, consciously or not. Every story is an amalgamation of elements that the author has intaken and now retells in a new order.
This lack of original stories is not a new phenomenon. This has been happening for centuries and perhaps even millenia; basically every book or movie owes part of its inspiration to the Bible or Homer. Even the greats of English literature were not truly “original.” Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales pulled from many source texts, and the plays of the supremely innovative Shakespeare were often retellings (ie. The Merchant of Venice was based on Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta).
Original, however, is not a synonym for unique, interesting, or worthwhile; it just means that no story exists on its own, untouched by other stories. Shakespeare and Chaucer worked with source material and retold stories of the past, but they put new twists on them. Though they were not wholly original, they were unique and offered new arguments, themes, and styles that were not present before.
This concept of originality should be the cardinal rule for storytelling in today’s media market. A story should only be made and put out into the world if it truly offers something new to the history into which it is entering, even if that newness is achieved by playing with and adapting a story already told.
This is particularly pertinent to the current movie industry, which is flooded with reboots and remakes. In the last five years, dozens of movies have come out or have been slated to come out that are remakes, live actions, or reentries into established fictional worlds. These include The Lion King (2019), Aladdin (2019), Beauty and the Beast (2017), A Star is Born (2018), He’s All That (2021), Toy Story 4 (2019), and Timothée Chalamet’s upcoming picture “Wonka”, among others.
To be frank, many remakes were unnecessary and took up space and resources that unique and underrepresented stories could have filled. I personally do not see what the Disney live-actions bring to the table for audiences that their antecedents didn’t have beyond new technology, which does not seem to be reason enough to make basically the same movie all over again. These movies do make oodles of money for Disney, but I find that to be an unworthy motivation for a remake.
This problem goes beyond shot for shot remakes. Many people took issue with the creation of Toy Story 4 because it reopened a trilogy that had been concluded with a satisfying ending in Toy Story 3.
The decision to reopen this fictional world seems dishonest to the nature of storytelling. It undermines what the movies before it had done, it muddles both narrative and character arcs, and it is a clear money grab that is far easier and less risky than creating new characters and worlds.
There are, of course, grey areas. Chalamet’s upcoming Wonka prequel has been debated a lot because of the previous remake in the Wonka franchise. But this film does intend to explore the life of Willy Wonka before the infamous factory tour, which is definitely a new perspective. This is a case that theoretically walks the line of worthwhile storytelling, and will have to prove itself on screen.
I stand by the fact that there can be wonderful and innovative retellings of the same basic story that each offer something new. I love Romeo and Juliet. I love Grease. I love High School Musical. They all operate off of the same basic plot, yet each is distinct and holds a different place in my heart. But this, sadly, does not hold true for the majority of the remakes and retellings in today’s market.
Personally, I’ll pass on another iteration of A Star is Born, no matter how talented Lady Gaga may be. But give me Clueless (1995), modern retellings of Emma by Jane Austen, any day of the week. Clueless honors its classic origin while creating a film that is unique and iconic in its own right.
I do not believe there are any original stories, but there can and should be shared stories originally told.