There’s nothing new under the sun, right? But is this true? Is it a bad thing?
Sometimes it is. We look at films like Dances With Wolves and we generally agree it’s a great film. Then we look at Fern Gully, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, and Avatar and some of us wonder… didn’t we see this already? Well, in a sense, yes we did. The same could be said for other similar narratives as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Eragon, and… I don’t know, maybe Percy Jackson. And the list goes on. John Woo films in the 90’s. Michael Bay films… ever.
Sometimes these efforts turn out terribly and (no pun intended) predictably so. But sometimes they surprise us with something fresh, intelligent, and (paradoxically) refreshingly innovative.
Take 22 Jump Street, for example. (Don’t worry. I’m going to avoid spoilers.) From almost the very beginning, the film unapologetically calls out how it’s going to be mostly–almost exactly–like the first film. (Stick around through the end credits for even more thematic hilarity.) The dialogue even takes us into extremely metaphysical territory with the theme of formulaic storytelling in Hollywood franchise films. Including itself! Somehow, it makes the entire effort hilarious and brilliant. In my opinion, and in everyone else’s opinion in the theater full of people I saw the movie with.
I didn’t think I would like 21 Jump Street. I was probably one of the last people to see it while it was in theaters. I generally don’t like reboots. I especially don’t like TV shows rebooted into feature films. (The A-Team, Charlie’s Angels, Dukes of Hazzard, Miami Vice, I’m looking at you! Yes, I watched those TV shows and I loved them. No, I’m not even going to mention my favorite childhood cartoons that have been cinematically beaten and left for dead.) I didn’t like Jonah Hill, and I was only only okay with Channing Tatum. All the pieces were in place for me to seriously dislike/hate the movie. I can’t remember what made me try it. But I did. And I loved it. (Except for the Johnny Depp cameo near the end.) Was it a good movie? I don’t really recall. I just laughed my ass off for 99% of it. Channing Tatum and Jonah were a comedic dream team of unlikely proportions.
Fast-forward to yesterday afternoon. I was feeling bored with energy to burn. I was out and about, and I had the option of either going home to watch my DVR or Netflix or stay out and see what was playing at the local cinema. (Naturally, writing was completely out of the question.) There are a lot of movies in the theater now that I don’t really care to spend my money on. Sex Tape, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Fault in Our Stars, Tammy… none of them move me to fork over the cash. Maybe if I was still working at the theater I’d check out Sex Tape or The Fault in Our Stars or even The Purge: Anarchy. The dollar theater near my house had some films I definitely wanted to check out: The Lego Movie, Million Dollar Arm, Neighbors. Alas, showtimes for those didn’t work for me, either being in the morning or at night. So I reluctantly picked 22 Jump Street.
Wow. I missed the first few minutes, but as soon as I sat down I was hooked. This post isn’t a film review, so I’m not really not going to talk about plot, theme, or characterization (but those were all good!). My point is that, although it wasn’t breaking new ground, it wasn’t boring or repetitive. It’s not news that, pretty much for the entire 2000s, Hollywood has been on a sequel/prequel/reboot kick. Prepacked content is highly sought after, not only for film but for television. (Don’t get me wrong. I love all the superhero stuff, but it’s reached an all-time saturation high.) Even many films that appear to be original concepts turn out to be based on something else. (Blue is the Warmest Color?) I recently read an article titled “Has Hollywood Lost its Way?”, which provides some charts and numbers on this trend. While it was written back in 2012, the trend has only increased since its publication. And although I don’t know how I feel about its emphasis on producing short films, I generally agree with the rest of the article.
What does this mean for the writer? Well… in film school, they taught us that it means we should prepare ourselves to write for other people for the first several years of our career. Write things we’re not wholly devoted to, in love with, or even particularly like. It was, as maybe I should’ve mentioned on my blog last week, all part of paying your dues in Hollywood. For some of us, it was eye-opening, for others it was a challenge. I land somewhere in the middle of the two. There are stories I want to tell, that I need to tell. But I love the medium (film, TV) enough that I am more than willing to tell other stories, stories that are not necessarily personal to me. I can make those stories personal. I think that’s part of the task of a writer.
That story you’ve been working on? Maybe they did turn it–or something like it–into a major motion picture. Does that mean you need to stop working on it? Absolutely not. It may mean some tweaking is in order, but don’t give it up. I have a friend who is going through exactly this issue, and I think I’ve told her more than once not to give up on her project if she still loves it.
So there’s nothing new in Hollywood. So what? Hollywood is churning out more content than ever. More people are going to movies worldwide than ever. Hollywood is not, as Spielberg predicted, about to implode. (No offense to the maestro himself, but he needs to look to his own career first, I think.)
Literature may or may not be a different creature. I have oft-heard accusations flung at this series or that of being too derivative of something else. A Harry Potter rip-off or Twilight fan-fiction (true or not) or Hunger Games-lite. Maybe in some cases it’s well-deserved. Maybe the story is too similar. And maybe you’re worried what you’re working on is too similar. That’s really no cause for you to give it up. Take the concern to heart, I suppose, but never just throw in the towel. There have been countless comparisons between Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl. I guess I can see the similarities, but I can also see the differences.
If there’s nothing new in Hollywood, then I say you’re looking in the wrong places and you’re looking at it the wrong way. There is an old wisdom saying that there are only seven stories in the world (or 33 or 21 or whatever number you please). Possibly. But there are an infinite number of ways to tell those seven stories. So don’t count it out just because it seems unoriginal. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.