A long time ago, in our own galaxy, George Lucas wanted to make a movie, one that would feature far off worlds, heroic spacemen, and evil alien villains. But this wasn’t Star Wars. It wasFlash Gordon.
It’s no secret that Lucas grew up a huge fan of Flash (“A-ah! Savior of the universe!”) and other serialized space operas like Buck Rogers. He even met with King Features Syndicate, the rights holders behind Flash Gordon, to talk with them about making a movie based on the character. But King Features wanted more control than Lucas was willing to give up. So Lucas took everything he loved about those old serials, added a little Joseph Campbell and Akira Kurosawa, and made Star Wars instead, forever changing the pop culture landscape.
Would a George Lucas adaptation of Flash Gordon been as good or even as culturally significant asStar Wars? The world will never know. But I would argue that it’s the synthesis of other influences that makes Star Wars special and stand apart from other sci-fi films. It’s a space opera. It’s a western. It’s a fantasy. It even has elements of gangster and samurai films.
I bring this up because I think it’s rare to find filmmakers in Hollywood today who are actually inspired. If someone grew up and was influenced by a certain film, TV show, or comic book, it’s easier now to actually make that into a new movie than it is take what inspired you, go off, and make it your own. Hence a world that gives us a pseudo-prequel to Alien and a film adaptation ofFifty Shades of Grey, which is literally Twilight fan fiction. Go online and you’ll find tens if not hundreds of Star Wars, Batman, and Lord of the Rings fan films.
Working with established characters and environments can be fun and challenging in its own right. It allows you to add to a growing canon of stories, similar to how the ballads of Robin Hood or the adventures of King Arthur were added to and expanded upon for centuries. Established characters can also allow an author to make a more pointed criticism, just as Gore Verbinski used the characters of Tonto and the Lone Ranger to deconstruct the traditional image of the American myth.
But some of the best work in pop culture history came about when someone wasn’t able to use Intellectual Property to tell their story. In addition to Star Wars, there’s Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a graphic novel that came about only after his controversial attempt at a Justice League comic was shot down by DC. Looking back, the story works better as a reflection of the superhero genre as a whole than it does as an integral part of it.
Great art is supposed to inspire us, not allow us do the same thing over and over again, simply recreating old stories or rewriting them to suit our own desires. We should be internalizing them, extracting the things that to speak to us and merging those with other elements, allowing something that has been reshaped to emerge.
All art is built on influence, no question about it. But the best art takes a step beyond the influence. Even William Shakespeare, one of the most influential writers of all time, did this. His critics have often accused him of simply retooling old stories, but the brilliance of the Bard’s writing is that these elements were merely dressing for his genius, not the source of it. Quentin Tarantino is the cinematic equivalent. You ever hear the story of the boxer who wouldn’t throw the fight? Check out Pulp Fiction. How about the one where a group of soldiers goes on a suicide mission behind enemy lines? Check out Inglourious Basterds. And the one about a bunch of criminals that pull off a jewelry heist? Check out Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino uses these plots and genre expectations to pay homage and make up his own stories, not rip them off.
Pacific Rim is a great example of this type of inspired storytelling. Director Guillermo Del Toro grew up watching and loving movies like Godzilla and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. But instead of remaking one of those films, he combined his love of monster movies with mech warfare to make something unique and original. Del Toro wanted to give the audience the same experience he had watching Godzilla destroy Tokyo, and he managed to pull it off without resorting to a remake (coincidentally, a Godzilla remake comes out next month). Del Toro acknowledged this type of storytelling during the film’s production, hoping the film could reach and influence an entire generation the same way Star Wars did. While I don’t think the film has the same sort of cultural influence that Star Wars did, Del Toro certainly succeed in building the type of world that has made Star Wars such a joy to revisit.
But Pacific Rim is the exception to the rule. Recent changes in IP laws have given us access to hundreds of films and books that were previously untouchable. Everyday these laws are getting looser and looser and it’s only a matter of time until fan fiction just becomes fiction. We’re actually already heading down that road as Amazon has recently debuted Kindle Words, a platform for publishing authorized fan fiction. Rights holders allow fans to play with their creations and fan fiction writers get to legally make money off their work. This isn’t helping people be more creative, it’s just encouraging them to be lazy in their writing, and paying them for it too. Why write an original story when you can finally get paid to publish your Harry Potter fan fiction?
Sadly, that’s the world we live in, a world of remakes, reboots, and adaptations, so much so that it’s hard to find anything original or inspired on the big screen anymore. But that is not to say there is no merit in remaking a film. If a story is worth telling, it’s worth telling again. Even Star Wars, for all its originality, is an imaginative retelling of the Hero’s Journey. If remakes can be accomplished with insight and imagination, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t exist. Most remakes are bad not because they’re remakes, but because they’re bad films to begin with. A reboot might be a shortcut of sorts, as a huge part of the creative foundation has already been put down by somebody else, but it’s these newfangled details that can make for some of the most innovative, exciting, and lasting elements.
Maybe remakes and reboots are the modern day equivalent to the oral tradition that preserved and passed down literary works like Beowulf, The Odyssey, and even the Bible before the printing press came into existent. You could argue about the cash grab mentality behind them or the fast rate in which they’re produced, but fifty years down the road people won’t be concerned about that. They’ll just be concerned with how good they are.
The key to any type of storytelling, original or otherwise, is to make it your own. The best way to honor our favorite stories isn’t to recycle them, but to use the things that speak to us as a stepping stone to our own stories.
In the meantime, we can appreciate the fact that a George Lucas Flash Gordon probably wouldn’t have featured a cheesy soundtrack by Queen: