Something Old, Something New

A New Voice)

Romeo and Juliet has been a classic since its premier in 1597, and like many of Shakespeare’s works it has been reimagined countless different times. What if the story were set in a different timeline? What if the characters’ sexes were swapped? What if the ending was tweaked? But typically these reinterpretations remain closely tied to their original source, they feel like a branch off of its trunk.

Every now and then, though, a reimagining comes along that is notably different. And one such example occurred in 1957 with the release of the Broadway musical West Side Story. West Side Story is unmistakably based on Romeo and Juliet and shares many plot developments with it, but it really does feel like its own thing. There are two main reasons that I can identify for why this is the case.

The first is that the world of West Side Story is completely reimagined from the ground up. All of the dialogue is original, with even the most classic of lines (“Wherefore art thou Romeo?”) replaced by entirely new speech. New characters like Officer Krupke are incorporated, even though they don’t have any direct analogue in Romeo and Juliet. Also entirely new plot points are added, such as the council where the two gangs decide the terms of their rumble.

In short, nothing from the original story was deemed sacred, and none of it had to be adhered to if it didn’t fit West Side Story’s new setting. The feud in West Side Story is based on racism in New York, not on a royal family quarrel, and that fundamental change meant that many connecting elements of the story would also need to be altered to remain consistent. The writers of West Side Story made all those changes without reservation. In fact, when all is said and done, it hardly feels appropriate to call West Side Story an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at all. It is its own thing, with the ties to Romeo and Juliet being little more than an homage.

The other reason why I believe West Side Story stands apart is because it is designed within a completely different genre. Romeo and Juliet was a classic tragedy, while West Side Story is a modern musical. The integration of big band music, dazzling dance choreography, and soulful lyrics take West Side Story beyond just looking and sounding different from Romeo and Juliet, now it feels different as well.

Unrecognizable Familiarity)

Perhaps an even more drastic reinterpretation of the Romeo and Juliet story was the 2013 film Warm Bodies. Like West Side Story, this film takes the tale into a totally new genre, this time zombie horror. And once again it throws out all of the dialogue and relationships and characters that don’t make sense in that world, and incorporates new ones that do. So dramatic of a shift was this film that I didn’t even realize it was a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet until it reproduced the famous balcony scene in its own amusing way.

The Lion is King is also a reinterpretation of a Shakespearean classic: Hamlet. It features the king-father who has been murdered by the evil uncle, a son whose duty is to right that wrong, and a long period of soul-searching before he is willing to face that calling. Virtually everything else, though, is dismissed for an original narrative, just like our other two examples.

When I try to think of what one should call stories like West Side Story, Warm Bodies, and The Lion King, I really don’t think terms like adaptation and re-imagining do justice to how distinct they are from the original material. I think a better term might be that they are a reincarnation. They have held on to a few key characteristics of the original, but everything else has been conceived as an entirely new body.

My Own Invention)

I’ve been trying to do something similar with my latest story: The Salt Worms. It’s a story that is molded after the traditional hero’s quest. Our main character, Nathan Prewitt, has traveled across the entire United States, bringing with him a weapon to destroy the giant sand striker worm that keeps the entire populace pinned down. This is his great calling and burden, much like Frodo carrying the one ring to Mount Doom.

In fact, Lord of the Rings is the story that I am most trying to “reincarnate” with The Salt Worms. Our main character carries an item of awesome power, he has a faithful companion, Manuel Castillo, and those that learn of his possession want to steal it from them.

But the differences between Lord of the Rings and my story are far more numerous than their similarities. Rather than trying to recreate that classic I am throwing out all the things that don’t fit, and adding things that do. I am also changing genres, trading out high fantasy for post-apocalyptic near-future. The changes are so vast that I doubt most people would pick up on the connection to Lord of the Rings without having me point it out to them.

Now my little story isn’t going to begin to make the same sort of waves as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, nor will it be as revolutionary a reincarnation as West Side Story or The Lion King, but it’s been a fun exercise in how to pay homage to a classic while still remaining a story that is entirely my own. Keep an eye out as I continue The Salt Worms, and see if you can pick out more ways that I reference the original while putting my own twist on it as well.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

On Thursday I posted the first section of a story which was written in homage of Shane Carruth’s work. Shane is the writer/director/producer/star/composer for two films called Primer and Upstream Color. They are two of the most original stories that I know of, and each pushes the boundaries of imagination in exciting ways.

He has also written a script for a third film called A Topiary, but that one failed to receive funding years ago and will likely never come to fruition. The description of it, though, was that a group of boys would discover a strange machine that allowed them to piece-by-piece begin building mechanical creatures. The formation of these would be based upon a few fundamental rules which would compound and escalate to alarming degrees, eventually resulting in epic battles between the boys and the giant machines they wielded.

This work sounded incredibly exciting to me, particularly due to how Carruth’s previously released films each showed how skilled he was at stacking small and simple concepts into something beautifully complex, like a mosaic. His work follows a very strict pseudo-science, and he authentically captures the delight of methodically combining simple laws to discover new ones.

I basically wanted to take the exact same approach for how I wrote Instructions Not Included. So what I did was reduce the description of A Topiary to the simplest form I could. “A boy discovers a device that allows him to form new creations.” Then I gave it a very simple direction to follow, inspired by the experiences evoked in Carruth’s stories. “The euphoria of discovering new combinations and inventing new things.” And with that I started to write.

Now my own plot does not hit the same beats as any of Carruth’s work, and it does not take place in the same narrative universe. I do not copy the same mechanics he has invented nor the discoveries related to them. I do not even imitate his writing style. In this way Instructions Not Included is inspired by his work, but it is not a recreation of it.

This is one way of writing a work so that it has been influenced by another. In all, I would say there are three clear distinctions of how old work is used to influence a new one.

  1. Using the Essence of a Story
  2. Using the Style of a Story
  3. Using the Plot of a Story

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Using the Essence)

As I’ve suggested, this approach simply involves looking at what it is that makes a story interesting, and then trying to inject that same interest into a story of your own. Usually these are core concepts that you can capture in a single sentence.

For example we can lift “the Hero’s Journey” as one of the core essences behind Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and many, many others. The stories of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot each provide the same essence of “brilliant mystery deduction” yet each is distinctly different in their own right. 1984 and Animal Farm are both “cautionary dystopian tales,” though again quite different in style and overall plot.

Now you may have noticed that this idea of “core essences” just seems to be another way of saying genres. And that is because each of the ones I’ve mentioned so far are old and well-populated, so that they have been cataloged into genre terms. But newer titles that fit into a smaller niche still have an essence, even if they do not have a named genre yet. For example, a few years after Harry Potter came out there followed a number of magical adventures involving teenagers, and there wasn’t a name to refer to them by. They shared an essence, but that was all, until the term “teen fiction” was coined.

Using the Style)

But perhaps you don’t just want to just be inspired by the same things that inspired your favorite author. Perhaps you want to write a story that they might have, if they had been given a chance to do so. Imaging, for example, if an artist decided to paint cell phones in the style of Picasso. As Picasso died in 1973 he never got a chance to tackle that subject, and maybe he wouldn’t have interested in them even if he had. Even so, one could wonder how he might have rendered them and try to create the image themselves.

Imitating the style of another author is difficult to do. When Brandon Sanderson took over the Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney Jr) the general consensus was that they felt quite different. Style is derived from life experiences and the author’s own individuality. Thus you may put on an act of being like another person, but it is hard to actually think, feel, and be that person. It’s probably impossible.

But that’s not to say that no authors have been successful in imitating a style. One of J. R. R. Tolkien’s motivations for writing The Lord of the Rings was to provide England with a mythology that it was lacking. The Greeks had Zeus and Heracles, the Egyptians had the sun god Ra, the Indians had Rama, the Prince of Fire. Tolkien wanted to gift to Britain its own deep legacy, and so determined to write his work in a mythological style. He would use larger than life settings, slow drama, and core themes of good triumphing over evil. The result is one of the most authentic modern works of mythology to this day. It really feels like it came from an ancient age, though it actually released the same year as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!

Using the Plot)

I’ve abbreviated this section as making use of another author’s plot, but you could also say to use their characters, world, or creatures. There are not many authors that have tried to create a modern mythos in the way that Tolkien did, but there are many that have tried to invent new stories within the world of Middle Earth, or borrowed from his personifications of elves and dwarfs, or used the idea of destroying an object of immense power.

The thing is that most of these stories leave a lot to be desired, because they actually capture very little of Tolkien’s essence, and they produce very little of their own. I’m not saying that all fan-fiction is bad, just that there is a lot of bad fan-fiction.

More interesting is when an author takes the plot of another work, but then deliberately alters its original essence or replaces it with something entirely new. Ulysses really doesn’t read much like The Odyssey, though they share so many of the same plot points. And while Ulysses lacks that Ancient Grecian flavor, that absence is more than made up for by its being having such a rich James-Joyce-style instead. The Lion King might on paper sound like a recreation of Hamlet, but it really feels much more like a tribal African legend than a medieval drama.

Across all three of these forms of imitation there is one consistent principle. In each case the new work is still immensely original. Though you might pay homage to another author, you really want that influence to amount to little more than a footnote on your otherwise totally originally tale. Otherwise you start to stray into the realm of plagiarism instead.

I like to think that I have been firmly in the balance of original work with Instructions Not Included, and I’m very excited to get on with that story. Come back Thursday to see where it is going next!