I’m going to begin this series of blogs with a look at how I view the challenges in writing a script that is based on an intellectual property which already exists. I don’t believe remakes, reimaginings or reboots are a bad thing at all. Star Trek, Dawn of the Dead, True Grit and The Magnificent Seven to name but a few are all amazing films. There is a lot of stigma attached when these sort of films are announced but if they’re done well they can even surpass the originals (even though hardcore fanboys have probably already sent out a squad of assassins to hunt me down for suggesting it).
Everyone has an imagination. There are infinite story possibilities that can be conjured by the human brain and it is incredible that most blockbusting films in the last ten years have been based on pre-existing properties. Are the paying audience scared of handing over £10 to watch a film that is an original piece of entertainment? The answer to this is somewhat blurry. Two examples of late would be Inception and Super 8. Both films were original stories, both films came from established talents and both offered smart, exciting entertainment.
Inception was extremely successful while Super 8 was less so although it still made a lot of money. Perhaps the differences in marketing and cast drove more people to see the former. A film with the same marketing strategy and director as one of the biggest movies of all time coupled with an all star cast will always do better than one which relied on nostalgia for E.T. and a cast mostly made up of kids new to the scene. I was still sad that eight out of the top ten performers in 2011 were sequels. I’m not saying all of those in the top ten were bad films. I enjoyed most of them. In 2010, Inception placed at number six while this year Super 8 languishes at eighteen.
As a writer, is it worth having an original idea? The answer is most definitely yes. Avatar and Star Wars must be two of the main examples of original ideas being successful. Pixar consistently deliver box office hits with their genius storytelling and countless other films have made it on their own merit so don’t get demoralised when Fast And Furious 12 tramples over whatever film is produced from your script. The thing that matters the most is that the script you produce is honest to yourself and as long as it tells a good story or has a valid point to make, then you shouldn’t lock it away in a drawer, too scared to show it off. Hopefully, someone will take a chance on it.
Most of my ideas are original and those are the ones I most enjoy writing because you can create your own world, characters, story and it’s much more satisfying to see something that works because you planned it that way.
I do have one or two scripts in the works at the moment however that are based on pre-existing properties but rather than me adapting them because I see £’s in my eyes, I’m adapting them because I love the worlds those stories exist in and I have enjoyed those properties for years. These scripts are relatively easy to create as you already have a wealth of material at your fingertips be it a book, video game, film, obscure 15th Century epic poem… It’s what you do with that information that matters. In my opinion, simply churning out a straight up adaptation of what’s already been before is somewhat worthless so I take that material and develop my own stories from it.
Comic book writers in particular will know that the character they work with are so timeless and endlessly inventive because different writers and artists have their own views on what they can do that nobody has done before. Comic book heroes will go through endless iterations and reinventions and yet still have the ability to be loved by fans. Film fans tend to be more unforgiving but as Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight saga proves, that’s not the case all the time. Nolan has managed to turn Batman in to a modern day epic mythology.
The Adventures Of Tintin is a perfect example of this done well. Rather than take one of Hergé’s stories and put what’s on the page straight on to the screen, various strands from different story arcs were chosen and melded then bolstered by newly created scenarios to give a version of Tintin that fitted Spielberg and Jackson’s sensibilities while still retaining the magic and intrigue of the books.
Even The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy wasn’t entirely faithful but it still worked. A particular script I’m working on at the moment (we’ll call it Blue for now) follows a very well known character who has been around for just under twenty years and there have already been numerous iterations in various different mediums. It was important that I found something fresh and what I did was simply take this vast and endlessly imaginative world that had already existed and then added to it. The great thing about stories based in sci-fi and fantasy is that you can create your own rules and as long as they’re followed within the context of the script, you’re fine. You can then place your character in that world and do whatever you like. I chose an origin story for this one as this character has never been on the big screen (properly) before and I wanted to build the story from the ground up. We see how the character changes and how the emotional element of the story develops in this really complex way and so far it’s working very well. I’m confident that my own spin on the character has never been seen before. The script was actually inspired by another writer’s work adapting it to a medium different from the original so in a sense my take is not the first to play with the original form.
The angle I’m taking with Blue was fully realised in my mind when I finally decided what the personal journey of the main hero was. At first it was simply a tale about freedom fighters in a world ruled by a ruthless dictator. There wasn’t enough emphasis on who the main character was. Of course, everyone knows the name but that doesn’t make for an interesting film. The recent big screen hit The A-Team didn’t succeed because it had a scene involving a mid-air tank battle (although that was damn cool) but because we were allowed to invest in the brilliantly drawn characters. They had history, personality and relationships that popped out of the screen and I personally spent most of the film with a grin on my face watching them do their thing.
The origins of the character I’m working with and his ultimate destiny suggested a story in which he is simply someone searching for a parental figure. He is somewhat lost and although he becomes a hero and a leader of underground fighters, he is torn as he fights against the one character he used to trust and love. It’s kind of Star Wars after Luke learns his father is the bad guy. It’s that sort of relationship. Once I had this, the bigger picture became more clear and the character’s path through the story was defined. Other well know characters pop up in the story and I’m having a blast finding ways to include them while not having the sheer volume of supporting characters cast a shadow over the main story. In the beginning it’s a nod and a wink to the audience but once their world is turned upside down, they become more prominent. I wanted to include them early on so the feel at the end of the script was consistent with the beginning. Suddenly throwing in a bunch of faces towards the end would have made the script lose it’s focus.
I’m sort of picking a few favourite bits from the original material but the majority is of my own evolution of the story.
Another script I’m currently developing (we’ll call it Detention) based on something that already exists is simply a question of taking the ideas and philosophy behind the piece and translating it to a different setting. In this case it was taking a Japanese story and placing it in a near future U.K. The challenges in doing this weren’t so hard. The story carries a heavy social and political message (while also being exceptionally thrilling and daring) which is pretty universal and perhaps even more so after the crazy events of this last year. I took the rules and the basic premise of the story and put my own characters and events in to the script. It’s not exactly a remake but (wait for the in- trend word of the moment…) a reimagining.
I was only inspired to begin Detention after the riots in the U.K. earlier this year. Our current culture of slightly trashy reality television which I personally hate was also an influence. It’s a pretty angry film. Fun but angry. I originally started working on it as a completely original story but when I saw the correlation with the particular property it’s based on I began to realise this was actually a far stronger idea.
Zombie films are a nice example of where you can recycle an idea over and over again and it will turn out to be successful as long as you do it well. I actually prefer Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake to George A. Romero’s original. A bunch of mismatched survivors struggle to survive both a zombie apocalypse and each other is not an original idea but it’s what the films say about humanity that is important. The Walking Dead takes it deeper and while the tv series veers from the path set in the comics, both talk about relevant issues and questions that humanity prefers to avoid.
I have taken care in both of these projects not to copy exactly what has come before however in order to honour the originals, of course there are numerous references that existing fans will pick up on. As soon as I saw that red shirt on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot I knew what fate held in store…
Your personal stamp on the script is in some ways even more important in adapting stories as this is what will make your script stand out. Tom Cruise has been insistent that the Mission: Impossible films are not made to conform to previous instalments in the same way that James Bond films did until the Daniel Craig installments. When you see slow motion doves in M:I-2 for instance, you know it’s a John Woo joint.
I hope you enjoyed this post and perhaps you took something from it. Next time I’ll be talking about my original scripts.