Six Degrees of Separation: Artistic Faithfulness in Storytelling

Today’s piece is an examination of “artistic faithfulness” – the degree to which one writer borrows from another. With writing this takes on a unique form. I see a lot of people griping about repetition in media, especially with all of the remakes, reboots, sequels, and prequels coming out of Hollywood. To be fair, there is a degree of capitalism behind it pushing what studios will produce in a world where lower risk tends to yield higher reward.

On the other hand, I believe it has a lot to do with less-sophisticated-than-they-think-they-are audiences failing to recognise that words are the medium of writing. Composition in writing, as in any artistic endeavour, relies on the use of elements to structure the basic building block: ink, paint, clay, (or in the case of writing) words.

Complaining that one sees the same story “all the time” because themes appear often is, to me, like hearing someone complaining that too many painters are using the colour blue.

It’s a matter of audiences (not always, but in some cases) seeing the forest only for the trees and then complaining that all of the forests look alike.

This (completely opinion) piece is about those works that have a clear influence and the role that influence has on the new product.

Original Story

Example: Couldn’t tell you – are there any? Really?

If one digs far enough into history one might be able to find the handful of true original stories. Depending on the source, you might hear that “there are only seven original stories in the world” or sometimes fewer. Ron Howard once said that there may only be one – everything after is a variation on that.

Regardless of how one views this, we live in a world where any new story has influence, either direct or indirect, from at least one other story already in existence. But to what extent?

“Original” Story

Example: “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott

At the highest level we have the “original” stories, which are the ones we consider unique. Because of all the adaptations (and option for a nice segue later), consider this in terms of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”. The story is largely autobiographical, accounting for much of its unique nature, but one can still draw parallels between “Little Women” and other coming-of-age stories.

For example, the novel itself contains references to “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” a 1678 Christian allegory. While the parallels might not be apparent, especially to a contemporary audience and without the explicit references, even “Little Women” borrows from other works to frame its themes.

Still, let’s take this as a starting point because this wide gap in influence often gives the impression of “Little Women” as an original work.

Faithful Adaptation

Example: Little Women (2017) Screenplay by Heidi Thomas

I chose “Little Women” as the starting point because it provides so many adaptations. Better still, the adaptations fall into several different categories here and I am referring to screenplays (I find it easier to relate writing concepts via film).

The first level is the faithful adaptation in which one presents an original work in a new medium or otherwise retains much of the original story. The 2017 miniseries takes Alcott’s novel and translates it for television…essentially by turning the novel into a screenplay. We see the same events and the same dialogue that appear in the novel presented in a new media.

Formatted Adaptation

Example: Little Women (1994) Screenplay by Robin Swicord

Prior to the recent adaptations, the most popular version of “Little Women” on screen might be the 1994 version with Winona Ryder and Christian Bale.

The only real difference here is that, as a film, this version did not enjoy the lengthy run-time that allowed the mini-series to present the full details of the novel on screen. Robin Swicord, in her effort to produce a feature-length film, had to choose which scenes to include and which scenes to omit.

While we still see a film version of the novel, this one must make choices about content and therefore makes material changes to the source material that distinguish it from a faithful adaptation.

True Adaptation

ExampleS: Little Women (2019) Screenplay by Greta Gerwig; Romeo + Juliet (1996) Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann & Craig PEarce

What that version still has going for it though it strict adherence to the source material. If we move on to the next level, the “true” adaptation, we start to stray from the source.

When Greta Gerwig adapted “Little Women” in 2019, she took the novel and re-worked it to produce something new. This new product, still very much “Little Women,” is also a level distinct from the original work.

The clearest example of this is Gerwig taking the novel, which was presented in two parts, and presenting the parts concurrently. By running part one and part two parallel with one another, Gerwig makes wholly new points about the theme and casts the existing elements in a new light. The story is still about the March sisters and their progress, but because the story abandons the original chronology in favour of juxtaposition we have something new.

Alcott’s “Little Women” (remember, tied closely to “The Pilgrim’s Progress”) are trying to adhere to good Christian values as they age. The story is very much a product of its time. Gerwig’s version presents the March girls as children and as young women simultaneously, thus negating the progress part in favour of showing us before and after together.

Whereas Alcott seems to celebrate the progress despite all its challenges, Gerwig’s version seems to mourn its inevitability.

Allow me to switch gears before moving on and provide a second example: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Here again we have what is unquestionably William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s the same characters living the same plot. Luhrmann changes the setting to a contemporary American one while retaining the original Shakespearean dialogue. As with “Little Women,” the resulting new version is both the original thing and something wholly different.

Loose Adaptation: The Palette Swap

Examples: WEST SIDE STORY (1961) SCREENPLAY BY ERNEST LEHMAN; THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) SCREENPLAY BY WILLIAM ROBERTS; Old School (2003), Due Date (2010), Joker (2019) Screenplays by Todd Phillips

Then we cross over the next boundary where a story is still directly from another one, but we are going to at least pretend its not the same story. In “Romeo and Juliet” terms this would be West Side Story (briefly I feel it necessary to mention that Shakespeare borrowed this story himself, merely expanding on it rather than inventing an “original” story). The Capulets and Montagues are gone, as is Italy, replaced with the Jets and the Sharks in New York City.

The story is still about star-crossed lovers because it is the same story in every meaningful way. Unlike the “true adaptation,” this is not about presenting that original story in a starkly new way to say something new, but rather to update the story and make it more relatable to a modern audience. Whereas younger audiences might not appreciate the Shakespearean dialogue of the original, they can certainly understand the new context.

One also sees this with “The Magnificent Seven,” which is just a Western re-telling of Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai.” It replaces the samurai with American gunslingers to tell the same story.

Sorry, Todd. I find his films entertaining and I actually do not have a strict problem with this group beyond offering an artistic critique. This category is essentially Phillips bashing because he has so many examples. What defines this group of stories is that they are essentially a direct re-telling of another story where each of the subjects (locations, characters, etc.) receives a new name to pretend it’s not the same thing.

Why do I mention these Phillips movies? Old School = Fight Club. Due Date = Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Joker = Taxi Driver.

It’s also the reason I suggest that “The Magnificent Seven,” while often considered a classic, might fits here. The harm is not taking heavy influence from a single source but rather in doing a poor version of it. This new version of the story not only fails to add a new dimension or reframe existing themes in a new light, it also manages to deny the thing that made the “original” what it was.

Due Date is a funny film. Zach Galifianakis and Robert Downey, Jr. were fantastic. At the end of the day though, it lacks the depth of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” instead serving as an excuse to move from one punchline to another. Again, funny. Galifianakis’ character arc does not possess the heart that John Candy’s did though.

In other words, it’s the sort of thing where a writer understands the brilliance of a story without necessarily understanding why the story is brilliant. It captures the cadence of the original story but not the essence.

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