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.

That’s So Cliché

Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pexels.com

Let’s Make a Bad Guy)

Most stories have a villain, which is a character who embodies the opposition to the protagonist. The protagonist must overcome this opposition, which means the villain must be destroyed, in most stories violently so. As such, the villain needs to be painted in a very negative light. So negative that the audience won’t have any qualms about them meeting an untimely end.

And such a common problem has a very common solution: make the villain do something so reprehensible that everyone will deem them unfit to live. The most obvious choice is to have them kill someone else early on, an innocent bystander who doesn’t deserve to die and who therefore must be avenged. Perhaps the bystander makes a small mistake and incurs the villain’s disproportionate wrath, or maybe the villain just kills them for the fun of it. Once that happens no more arguments have to be made. The audience hates the villain and will cheer their downfall!

Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all because this is the six-hundredth time they’ve seen this sort of scene play out. Every year there comes a deluge of films, television series, and novels that overuse this formula until it has lost any meaning whatsoever. Each of these scenes come and go like all the rest and we just can’t feel anything about them anymore.

Let’s Make a Good Guy)

Of course things are hardly any better in the hero department. Want to make the main character likable? How about we see them do an act of charity to someone pitiable? Perhaps share a loaf of bread with a beggar, or cheer up a crying child, or help an animal that is hurt. There, now the audience knows that our protagonist’s heart is true and they love them for it!

Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all. It just gets so hard for us to assign any feelings to a hero like this because they feel exactly like what they are: a contrived formula, not an actual person.

But what’s interesting is that each of these clichés usually have their root in a story that was actually impactful once upon a time. Take the example of the hero helping an animal that is hurt. Perhaps the earliest instance of this is in the tale of Androcles, where a runaway slave takes refuge in the den of a fearsome lion! The lion is in no condition to chase Androcles, though, it is suffering from a large thorn stuck in its paw! Androcles takes the thorn out and the lion is intelligent enough to feel immense gratitude for it. The two become fast friends, which friendship eventually leads them to a life of freedom.

Once upon a time that was a moving tale. But it’s been stolen from so many times that it becomes formulaic and incapable of eliciting emotion. Ironically, by the time someone first hears the story of Androcles today they will likely have heard so many other rip-offs that they won’t be able to appreciate the weight this original used to carry.

Shortcuts in Communication)

The main culprit in all this derivative work is good, old human efficiency. We are a species that ever endeavor to optimize and simplify. And while this is an excellent practice in many cases, it neuters the emotions behind any humanizing experience.

Consider the example of how we strive to communicate ourselves in more and more succinct terms. I must say, I find it very amusing how older generations will decry the vowel-missing lingo of modern text messaging, utterly failing to realize that this is only the natural progression of a trend that they themselves pushed forward. Far before the advent of cellphones prior generations were already greatly abbreviating our style of communication. First formalities were dropped, then grammatically complete sentences, and now vowels. Is that really so surprising?

Obviously increased efficiency is desirable in many walks of life and even in communication it has its uses. Knowing the right combination of gesture and tone can allow us to convey a complex meaning in a fraction of a second. But It can be taken too far and render the whole experience redundant.

Brian Christian makes note of this fact in his book The Most Human Human. Here he points out that we now have entire conversations that are nothing but short clichés in which no actual substance is ever communicated.

“Hey, good morning.”

“Good morning. How are you?”

“Doing well. And you and your family?”

“All doing well, thanks for asking.”

“Nice weather, today, isn’t?”

“Yes it is. Oh, you know what, I’m afraid I’ve got to run!”

“Oh, me too. We should catch up later.”

“Definitely. Well, see ya!”

There is literally nothing communicated in exchanges such as these. The entire give and take is performed on pure autopilot. Half the time we’ve already got our default response loaded in before we even hear the what the other person says to the last robotic statement we made.

Stories Should Say Something)

And I’ve read and watched entire stories that were exactly the same way. A synopsis of these tales could very accurately be given as “it begins, the usual stuff happens, and then it ends about how’d you expect.”

To be fair, I get it. Originality is hard. I myself feel the temptation to take a trusty cliché rather than invent a new way to express what I want in a story. I ran into this exact problem during the last section of The Favored Son. Here I wanted to show that a leader was really a tyrant, and I kept slipping into the tired, old routine of him losing his temper at some innocent peasant and brutalizing them.

Fortunately I fought down that temptation. I stuck with it until I felt I had something a little more original to say. This more original scene was also far more complex. In it I introduce a group of slaves who are dragging a massive stone behind the tyrant, for a reason that is never explained. It is clear that they are a broken people, though, paying a penance of some sort. Then the members of a resistance ride onto the scene and urge a few of the slaves to escape with them! One of them does, to which the other slaves seem quite distressed. The reason for this is made clear when the royal guards chase off the resistance riders and the tyrant makes the remaining slaves atone for their missing fellow by slaying one of them.

The final outcome of this scene was the same as the cliché: the tyrant kills an innocent waif. But the path to this was far more intricate and involved. One gets a sense of political struggles, of victims being manipulated by competing powers. It is different, it is original, it took effort, and it is therefore far more likely to make an impression.

I will endeavor to keep fighting down the pull towards cliché, and instead imbue my stories with something more thoughtful. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of my story and pay special attention to how I incorporate original ideas instead of settling for something more trite.