Have you ever read a book or watched a movie, and even as you were taking in the story being presented, you also started thinking of an entirely new tale ? A new story that took one of the elements of the first, but then ran with it in a completely different direction? It might not be a very large element either, it might be the smallest of ideas. In either case, you would have the urge to grow a tree from the roots of another.
The first time I can recall having this experience was when I was thirteen and watching Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith. Not exactly a timeless classic, but still able to make an impact once or twice.
The scene that arrested my imagination takes place after Anakin Skywalker has fully turned himself over to the Dark Side, purged the Temple he once called home, dispatched all of the Separatist leaders in a tormented lava planet called Mustafar, and at last pauses there to await further orders. There is a brief moment of him looking over the burning rock, totally alone in the world, his every bridge to his past life burned. The music swells with a tragic chorus, and though he does not show remorse, he hardly looks happy in his new life.
I saw that scene, and my thirteen-year-old self was deeply moved. I thought to myself “Oh wow, it’s over for him.” I imagined that if I were in his shoes I would be experiencing a moment of quiet reflection, and I would be having deep misgivings about the steps I had just made. But what good could misgivings do any more? At this point, Anakin can never go home. There is no apologizing for crimes such as these. Though he might have believed in his cause in the moment, he must surely be weighed down now by all the good that he left behind, all the things that are forever lost. He has become a new creature, alone and apart.
As it turns out, the film never actually explored those themes. In fact Anakin is shown to naively believe that he still can have all the good things from before, and that those he loves will somehow be accepting of his choices. And so, since the film never gave expression to the things that I had been feeling, I found myself trying to imagine a plot that did.
This led me to conceiving of an entirely new story, one where a lowly, everyday man would happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in a moment of haste make a choice that forever changes his life. Though he would dearly wish to return to his previous life, to would be impossible to do so.
However I couldn’t stop at these overall themes, I felt driven to flesh it out with world building, narrative style, and thematic tone. Though I never did actually write the story, I envisioned a strange science fiction piece, one that would take place on an alien planet. Upon that world’s surface entire cities would float on massive vessels, and the inhabitants would be extremely dry-skinned, only partially humanoid, and have a vast number of strange customs and rituals. I knew that they would measure their world by running lines out into the water as they churned over it, and that they would preserve their ideas on Rubik’s Cube-esque devices, where you could rotate different sections to rearrange the words and thus discover new chapters of text. I knew that my main character would be entirely content with the small confines of his city-world, until he inadvertently broke the delicate balance and perhaps even destroyed his entire floating city.
And the whole thing felt absolutely nothing like Star Wars, from which all of its core ideas had originally arisen. An entire world, species, and plot from nothing more than a stray scene in a film, one that didn’t even take its story in the direction that I thought it was going.
Homage, or Something Entirely New?)
For an interpretation to grow until it becomes an entirely different beast from its progenitor is not a new idea. In fact…Star Wars itself is an example of this!
George Lucas shared that his original vision came about after seeing the Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress (Kurowasa, of course, was no stranger to having his Japanese stories reinvented by numerous Western filmmakers). What stood out to Lucas was the idea of two bumbling side characters embroiled in the epic of others.
From that initial seed Lucas created two new bumblers in the form of the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, he preserved the plot hook of a princess needing to be saved, and he still had a veteran warrior leading the party. But otherwise Lucas’s story treads entirely different ground. The story is set in an alien galaxy, the central focus is moved to a more traditional hero, the themes become mythical, and even spiritual, and the plot revolves around rescuing the soul of a wayward father. Star Wars can hardly be considered a remake, or even an interpretation of The Hidden Fortress, and yet the seed of its first idea did come from there.
And from Star Wars came the seed of my own little story idea as well. Thus one story lights the spark of another, which lights the spark of another.
In fact, it has been argued that there is no truly original work in any creative medium whatsoever. It is very hard to think of plots to stories or notes to a song without having the mind inundated with all the similar approaches that have been done before. In the process of writing my recent murder mystery, it was inevitable that flashes of every other murder mystery I have ever experienced would pass through my mind. Indeed, where did the idea to even write such a story come from, if not because I first got the notion from the work of others?
Yet my story was still a unique creation. Or at the very least, a unique amalgamation of other diverse creations, just as a child is derived from two others, yet is a new creature all their own.
Interestingly, there was a small kernel of Washed Down the River that also inspired an entirely new tale to me. My own work suggested to me a new character and a new plot that could exist within the world of the first. I’d like to continue to extend that branch out a bit further, and on Thursday I will post the new/not-so-new creation.