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Originality and origin stories

Tuesday | November 7, 2006   open printable version open printable version

Kristin here–

In the November 6 issue of Newsweek (also online), Devin Gordon comments on the recent trend in franchise series to throw in a prequel covering an earlier period in the main character’s life.  “So-called origin stories—how fill-in-the-blank became fill-in-the-blank.”

At first David and I wondered whether Gordon, like so many film journalists, would go for the easy answer.  There are at least two easy answers in the context of popular films, and especially blockbuster franchise films.  One, their stories reflect something about the current psyche of the nation.  Alternatively, they are symptoms of Hollywood running out of creativity and backbone and going for the tried and true.

The public psyche theory may sound profound at first, but it’s basically a quick way to write a story without knowing much of anything about film history or how the film industry works.  There may be all sorts of reasons why a given kind of movie is made at a certain time.  We all know about genre cycles.  But society is vast and multi-faceted, and it isn’t hard to make any given film seem to “reflect” some aspect of it.  Might the vogue for origins stories mirror a widespread desire to return to a more innocent era before 9/11?  Bingo, you’re got your hook and can make your deadline.  (Don’t get me started on the fact that most big films these days are negotiated, greenlit, planned, and in production for years before they appear, thus presumably reflecting not our own Zeitgeist but one that has come and gone.)

As to Hollywood running out of creativity, there are plenty of people in Tinseltown with great scripts and the desire to make them.  We’re living in an age, though, when the big studios are owned by conglomerates.  More than ever, the studio decision makers and the investors who buy their stocks keep an eye on the bottom line.  Variety’s October 23 front-page story, “Less Dream, More Factory,” is on the layoffs and other cost-cutting measures that the big studios face.  (By the way, we aren’t putting links to stories in Variety.com, since it’s a subscription-only site.)  So the tactics of producers now must be to focus on exploiting the most popular characters and story premises for their tentpole projects.

Gordon recognizes this and puts his finger on a major reason for the vogue for “origin stories.”  The studios have to prolong their most lucrative franchises, which are essentially their owners’ big brands. Yet those franchises can grow formulaic.  One way to renew their energy can be to leap back in time.

Gordon opines, too, that “Ironically, playing it safe financially also provides studios with the cover to take creative chances.”  He points to the fact that Peter Webber, who is directing Young Hannibal, has only the indie hit Girl with a Pearl Earring to his credit.  Similarly, art-house darling Christopher Nolan gave one big franchise a new respectability and audience with Batman Begins and will try to continue to do so with The Dark Knight.

Linking origin stories to the hiring of such filmmakers is perhaps a bit of a stretch.  The new Bond film, Casino Royale, the earliest in the order of Ian Fleming’s original novels, shows a younger agent.  Much of the flashier high-tech props of recent entries in the series are apparently gone, with a grittier feel to the film.  Yet it was directed by Martin Campbell, who also had made an earlier entry, GoldenEye, as well as both the Zorro films.

It’s true that recently Hollywood studios have shown a strange propensity to hire independent or foreign directors to helm entries in franchises.  In the wake of his hit Once Were Warriors, New Zealand’s Lee Tamahori was imported and made Die Another Day and xXx:  State of the Union. Warner Bros. brought in Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también) to make the third Harry Potter film, presumably because many critics had dubbed the first two, by Chris Colombus, too bland.  Perhaps the studios simply see franchises as needing shaking up at intervals.  Yet this is part of a larger trend of indie directors suddenly boosted to blockbuster assignments, as when Doug Liman went from Go to The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

An “origin story” in the sense that Gordon is using the phrase is a type of prequel that jumps back far enough to show the protagonist distinctly younger and different from the way he is in the original film or series.  It then explains how he changed into that protagonist.

Hong Kong filmmakers are adept at prequels of this sort.  God of Gamblers: The Early Years, shows us the source of the protagonist’s lucky ring and his taste for gold-wrapped chocolate, both of which are major motifs in the original God of Gamblers.  The case of A Better Tomorrow is more complicated.  John Woo and Tsui Hark had intended it to be a stand-alone film, and they made the mistake of killing off the most charismatic character.  The film was such a hit, largely on the basis of Chow Yun Fat’s performance as Mark, that A Better Tomorrow II gave Mark a twin brother, Ken, and put Chow back in action.  That film’s success led to a prequel to the first film.  A Better Tomorrow III traces how the Mark character acquired his fighting skills and his signature costume and habits.

Origin stories are not entirely new to Hollywood, either.  As far back as 1974, The Godfather Part II wove in flashbacks to a time well before the first film’s action, tracing Don Corleone’s rise.  In 1979, there was Butch and Sundance: The Early Days.

Origin stories can be thought of as expansions of a basic convention of mainstream storytelling: the flashback to crucial formative moments in a character’s life. In that sense, perhaps the quintessential origin story is Citizen Kane. Today, when everything is potentially franchisable, such an early-days sequence can create a series. The prologue of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade shows young Jones launching upon an adventure that prefigures the man he will become. (In what surely is an inside joke, River Phoenix even acquires Harrison Ford’s chin scar.)  That sequence in turn spawned The Chronicles of Young Indiana Jones TV series (“Before the world discovered Indiana, Indiana discovered the world”) and four cable movies.

As a term, “origin stories” was coined by students of mythology, who use it to refer to various ethnic groups’ accounts of the origin of the world.  In that case, it didn’t have anything to do with what we now call prequels.

Then the term got taken up in discussions of comic books to identify the sort of thing that Gordon is talking about.  Before television, comic books were the ultimate franchise form of the twentieth century.  In comic franchises, particularly those centering on superheroes, a book or short series of books might be devoted to an origin story.  (Dave Carter’s blog has a lengthy entry on comic-book origin stories, giving examples.)  It’s not surprising that one of the main origin films, Batman Begins, came from the comics.

Gordon does not mention another reason why studios might want to continue a franchise by jumping back to the hero’s origins:  actors can age too much to continue a role.  It’s been over 14 years since The Silence of the Lambs, and Anthony Hopkins could probably not be convincing in another turn as Lecter.  Possibly we’ll get a chance to see whether a 60-something (or 70-something at the rate things are going) Harrison Ford can bring audiences in for the on-again-off-again Indiana Jones continuation.  Or actors may exit the franchise, as Jody Foster did before Hannibal.  Or grow up too quickly, as the Harry Potter kids are doing before our eyes.  Or die, as Richard Harris did in the same series, forcing Warners to substitute Michael Gambon as Dumbledore.

But origin stories don’t have these problems.  Just get new actors.  One thing tentpole franchise films have taught us is that, as strongly identified with a character as a star may become, if the character and premises are even stronger, a new actor will be accepted.  It’s happened with Batman, Superman, Bond, and almost did—and could yet–with Spider-Man.

Such stories, however, have their dangers as well.  If the audience is devoted to the character as he (and it’s mostly he so far) is, will they care about seeing him as a very different person?  If Hannibal Lecter is the middle-aged psychopath we love to hate, do we want to learn that he was once a vulnerable, suffering youth?

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