Monday, September 17, 2012

Origin Stories...Why?

This isn't a formal essay by any means, just a rant (and I am all for discussion from any of you) but pondering what I think ruins a lot of films (and some prequel novels) when it comes to beloved characters from books is the idiotic need to give an origin story.

I can think of dozens of films where for the reason of making things "clear" so that we may know and understand the characters motivation, we are actually given a weak, forgettable story.

Taking things back to my beloved pulp roots, all we needed to know in 'Phoenix on the Sword' was that the king, Conan, had once been a barbarian. Solomon Kane is a puritan, Tarzan the ape man, the "Thin Man" and his wife like to drink while solving mysteries, John Carter 'of Mars', the Gray Mouser and Fafrhd are "Ill Met" in Lankhmar, are any of Lovecraft's protagonists not some befuddled scholar who just now stumbled upon some maddening relic or knowledge? (don't answer that)-but we don't need to know anything more do we?

In the Wolverine movie, they managed to take one of the most popular comic book characters and give him a turd movie. Why?
On one hand its the ridiculous Hollywood reliance on special effects over story, but also the tacked on, reaching back to traumatic childhood events that scar our poor hero and he has to spend the rest of the movie dealing with such a far-reaching pain. Same with the recent Conan movie, same with the newly relaunched Spider-man movie. Too much baggage. It is obvious to all the fans of these respective hero's that a film version of beloved story-lines could have been opening weekend gold over the revision "lets explain everything" that the suits give us.

Remember the suits are not artists, they are bean counters.

The making "clear" of a characters past eliminates the wonder and mystery of storytelling, it takes away the needed drama of why people watch/read. The audience doesn't tune in for information - if they did, they would be watching documentaries.

The wonder and mystery is why Harry Potter worked and it's why the original Star Wars trilogy worked. People didn't watch ROME or give Gladiator an Oscar, because they wanted to see what it was like to live back then-it was because of the wonder and drama. As much as I despise and absolutely loathe Avatar it followed the bare bones premise on character back-story too.

I am positive I am not alone in my imagination of what "The Clone Wars" were upon first hearing them in Star Wars, being so much better than what we were given in the latter trilogy.

Thinking about westerns-they all involve the stranger, whom we the audience know almost nothing that are best. "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", "True Grit", "Unforgiven"; same with the Samurai/Kung-Fu movies, "Seven Samurai", "Yojimbo", "Hidden Fortress", "Enter The Dragon".

All of these display a tendency toward the action tale/movie, but that's what I like. I'm not here to discuss what I don't like/do = period romance pieces on Nantucket island.

In explaining too much to an audience whether film or print, we lose wonder. There is the argument that things need to be understandable and I get that, but no art has lasted the ages that did not make us wonder. Mona Lisa's smile anyone? And without wonder you will never get an art that lasts.


14 comments:

Paul R. McNamee said...

Remember the suits are not artists, they are bean counters

I took a screenwriting class a long, long time ago and I was invited by the instructor to join a screenwriting group which I was active in for a long time, too.

A great thing screenwriting will teach you is how to build structure.

On the downside, the structure is expected and predictable. The bean counters want consistency, and movies are formulaic. Once in a while, this can turn out a gem. Casablanca was churned out just like any other studio movie of its time. But they struck lightning. There are many movies from that same year no one has watched since that year.

I am seeing now that action hero (be they superheroes or fantasy heroes) 'require' an origin story. I've seen it in action twice, personally, as the development of Solomon Kane and Conan the Barbarian (2011) unfolded and persons involved posted in the Conan.com forums about "needing" an origin to sell the movie to audiences unfamiliar with the material (and studios won't buy unless this provision is met.) Often, predictably, added to that is how the origin must tie to the current story and coincidences abound to the point of disbelief. (Plenty of that in Solomon Kane, unfortunately.)

I believe this is something new. Remember Tim Burton's first Batman? Bruce Wayne was already Batman when the movie started. The redo needed a first movie from the start and origin, hence Batman Begins. Not that it was a bad movie, but it illustrates the recent-ness of the phenomena, I think.

Yet, Batman has the origin story, but it is worked in as flashbacks and backstory revelation, rather than the current trend of linear A to B to C.

when it comes to beloved characters from books is ... idiotic need to give an origin story.

I can think of dozens of films where for the reason of making things "clear" so that we may know and understand the characters motivation, we are actually given a weak, forgettable story.

but we don't need to know anything more do we?


I agree. The sad thing is - with established characters - usually I can imagine much better starts. I'm not against them pastiching in an origin that was never written - yet they rarely manage to give an origin that smartly lines up with the characters' evolution. So then you end up with both a bogus origin tale and an end character that has nothing to do with the source material. Even as entities to themselves, ignoring the original literature, most of these movies cannot stand on two legs.

I am positive I am not alone in my imagination of what "The Clone Wars" were upon first hearing them in Star Wars, being so much better than what we were given in the latter trilogy.

My thoughts exactly on that one!

In explaining too much to an audience whether film or print, we lose wonder. There is the argument that things need to be understandable and I get that, but no art has lasted the ages that did not make us wonder. Mona Lisa's smile anyone? And without wonder you will never get an art that lasts.

Great point. Rather than belabor Solomon Kane, which is fresh in my mind, I'll probably comment more on the specifics of that one by doing a review post on my blog.

David J. West said...

I look forward to that Paul. Thanks for all your input.

David J. West said...
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David Alastair Hayden said...

I agree. Sometimes an origin story is a fantastic thing, but that should never make them automatic. Seeing way too many of them. They lack faith in the viewers and their storytelling abilities.

The Wasp said...

I'm glad Richard Stark's Parker has no more origin than a thief looking for his money. We don't need to know anything else about K E Wagner's Kane than that a take on the Biblical Cain. Yeah, too much explaining getting in the way of the storytelling and action too often.

As to the Clone War, you are so right. I envisioned armies of jedis fighting armies of Sith, not a couple of jedis and two Sith. Each ten minute episode of the animated Clone Wars series had more imagination and wonder than all the bloated mess of the second trilogy.

David J. West said...

Well said David, I wish more films had faith in the audience.

Too right WASP, I should have had Kane in there!

My imagination for the Clone Wars was so much more grand-I agree that the animated versions have more depth, character and magic to them than the films.

Keith said...

Well said, David, and everyone who commented. Origin stories are a dime a dozen. The only person who comes to mind who could take a character and breathe new life into him/her (whether they had an established origin or not) with an origin story was Alan Moore in his work for DC comics back in the 80s.

It's been years (decades) since I saw them so my memory may be faulty in regard to the character's origins, but Clint Eastwood's man-with-no-name spaghetti westerns would not have been improved with an origin story.

Charles Gramlich said...

And, by giving us an origin story, they're missing out on something that fans love to do for themselves. They'd be better off letting the fans imagine such childhoods. In my works, Ruenn Maclang has something of an origin story, though not detailed, but Thal, the other series character I did, doesn't. I know it but never told it.

David J. West said...

Right on Keith, the spaghetti man with no name only would have been weakened.

Charles, sometimes leaving it all alone and up to our own imaginations is the best storyteller of all, because that wonder can never go away, when we never know.

Marny said...

If you wanted to formalize this a little more, it would make a great paper or presentation for LTUE. Paper deadline is November 15.

David J. West said...

Much appreciated Marny, I had not thought about that yet, but I sure wouldn't mind being more involved with LTUE. I'll really think about that.

David J. West said...
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Ty Johnston said...

I couldn't agree more. That mystery is one of the reasons I started my fantasy series right in the middle of the overall tale. I'll probably be tempted at some point to do some prequel "origin" tales, but if I do, it won't be for reasons of explaining characters and their motivations, but to open the doors to other, even-oriented revelations. Maybe I can pull it off, maybe not.

David J. West said...

We have to try Ty.

I have visions in my head of doing origins sometimes if only to revisit some scenarios in my head-but NOT to milk the proverbial cow.

You couldn't get a better example of that than the "new" Star Wars trilogy. I don't know anyone who was satisfied.