Saturday, February 8, 2014

Are Borrowed Ideas Bad Ideas?

If you're a writer, you've probably been in this situation at least once: you come up with an original idea for a story, you get really enthused about it and start building on it, and then you discover that the idea isn't so original after all. It can be pretty disappointing for some of us to reach that realization, and looking at how much flack movies like Avatar and books like The Hunger Games have gotten for supposedly "borrowing" ideas from other works, it can also be pretty discouraging. Granted, both of those examples have been insanely huge successes, but not many aspiring authors have that kind of confidence in ideas they've barely begun to develop.

So what do you do in this situation? Should you abandon your idea altogether, should you alter it beyond recognition, or should you leave it as is and see how things turn out? And actually, is it even so bad to have a story that isn't 100% original?

One defense that people often make for alleged ripoffs is that there are only so many story ideas out there, so of course every book, movie, or TV show is going to remind us of something else. While I personally don't agree with the idea of there only being "so many story ideas" in existence, I will consent that we haven't come up with many new ones in a while. That being said, I do agree that stories shouldn't be condemned right off the bat for having familiar elements. What it comes down to, at least for me, is just how many familiar elements a story has and how well it presents them.

On the surface, The Hunger Games does have a similar premise to the 1999 novel Battle Royale; it centers around an annual tournament in which a group of children are thrown together in an isolated place and forced to fight to the death while being heavily monitored by the government, and (spoilers) two competitors end up defying the rule that there can only be one victor and walk away from the tournament together. Where The Hunger Games differs is that its tournament is constantly juxtaposed with a social commentary on the shallow glamor of celebrity life and how morally blind the public can be to things that are trendy. Also, the rules, setting, and reasons for the tournaments in each story are not the same, just the intended outcome.

Lastly, whereas Battle Royale is a single book, The Hunger Games is a trilogy of books that pretty much stops focusing on the tournament and becomes an entirely different entity by Part 3. What happens to the boy and girl who survive the tournament in Battle Royale? We don't know, because the story ends there. The Hunger Games sequels, however, go into great detail about Katniss and Peeta's lives after they defy the rules and how they eventually overthrow the dictator responsible for the tournament. Suzanne Collins had an idea that wasn't entirely new -- unbeknownst to her at the time, by the way -- but she gave it a unique spin and developed it into something that was able to find life and a storyline beyond its initial premise. The first Hunger Games book only sounds like a ripoff if you describe it as generally as I did at the beginning of the previous paragraph.

And then there's the film Eragon. I can't speak for the book series by Christopher Paolini since I haven't read it, and I'll give the screenwriter the benefit of a doubt too, but I find it very hard to sit through the movie without recognizing story elements from the original Star Wars film. It's one thing to have the same premise as another work; it's another thing to have the same plot. I know the idea of a lowly peasant getting thrown together with a princess, a wise old man, and a rogue scoundrel to battle an evil empire wasn't new even when Star Wars used it, but the specific storyline in that film was unique. The movie Eragon's storyline, in contrast, is practically note by note identical to Star Wars. Replacing the lightsabers with swords and the spaceships with dragons and horses doesn't make the narrative different.

What makes this worse is that Eragon doesn't even retell that story well. A lot of its scenes just putter out and give up at the end, and you never feel like you know anything about the characters or their personalities. It doesn't even feel like you really saw a film by the time it's over. Believe it or not, I might have actually excused the movie if it had told that story better than Star Wars. At least then it could have argued a case for its derivative-seeming nature.

This is the way I feel about Avatar. I never really minded how unoriginal the story in that film was because honestly, I don't think the movies it supposedly ripped off were that good to begin with. Condemning Avatar for borrowing from movies like Pocahontas and FernGully: The Last Rainforest is kind of like condemning The Hangover for borrowing from Dude, Where's My Car? It's not exactly tainting the good names of any masterpieces. Avatar may be corny and as subtle as a brick to the face, but it's one of the better versions of the "ignorant-person-destroying-the-forest-until-he-bonds-with-the-natives-and-saves-it" story.

Getting back on topic, what should an aspiring writer do if they realize their story idea isn't so original? Before deciding to pull the plug on your idea, you should take some time to really examine what you've got. How much does your story remind you of that other one that already used your premise? Does your story offer something unique from that other one? Most importantly, do you as the writer see potential in your story? If you have enough confidence in your idea and if you can even devise a way to make it more distinct from other similar works, you should proceed with it. If it seems like a weaker retread of something else, I would suggest setting it aside for later and going back to the drawing board in the meantime.

And if by chance you don't discover those similar works until after your story's been published, then hopefully you made your story as good as you possibly could.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Is "Conan the Barbarian" a Good Movie?

It's no secret that I love fantasy films, but it's probably fair to say that before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy came along, the genre had a rather mixed reputation in Hollywood. Most of its best known entries like Hawk the Slayer, Beastmaster, and Willow were considered mediocre at best, and they usually fall into the "guilty pleasure" category for a lot of viewers today. By far the most infamous member of this lineup is the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Conan the Barbarian, a film that was destined for countless parodies (including a fake preview for a sequel called Conan the Librarian in Weird Al's movie UHF) and was panned for straying from its source material long before the name "Tauriel" ever hit IMDb.

I saw this film for the first time just a few years ago, and I didn't exactly think the world of it going in either. In fact, I really just rented it for a laugh. It's an Arnie flick from the '80's, right? How good could it be? Suffice to say, I completely fell in love with the film and became so immersed in its drama that I actually got choked up when one of the heroes died three-fourths of the way through the story. Yes, Conan the Barbarian tugged at my heartstrings. I can't believe I just admitted that on the internet.

Looking back on all the jabs that this film's taken over the years, I have to wonder now: Is Conan the Barbarian a good movie? Has it been judged unfairly all this time, or does it deserve the mockery? Did it only impress me because I went in with severely low expectations that were easy to exceed? I've done a good bit of research since my first viewing, so let's see if I find an answer today.

For starters, there are a lot of undeniably good elements in the movie. The soundtrack in particular is amazing, one of the best ones out there, and the cinematography does an excellent job in conveying the grand scope of the setting. The special effects are also competently done for the most part, despite the limitations before CGI.

I'll even go out on a limb and say that the acting is halfway decent. Arnold can turn out a suitable performance under the right circumstance, and honestly, playing a big, awkward tough guy who doesn't say much is the right circumstance for him. It also helps that the supporting cast is able to pick up the slack and carry the more emotional scenes.

The main deciding factor for me though is the film's story.

It should be noted that Conan the Barbarian came out in the early '80's, right before Arnold Schwarzenegger and Reagan-era action films really became popular. Because of that, I think it narrowly avoided that over-the-top cheesy vibe that most of Arnold's other movies have. The filmmakers took it seriously, so the film ended up having a sense of dignity and weight to it. It's sequel Conan the Destroyer, however, did fall victim to that over-the-top '80's cheese and was a complete mess. And really, I think that sequel is a huge part of the issue. A lot of people probably regard Barbarian as a silly movie because they either lump it together with Destroyer in their heads or just get the two films confused.

That doesn't mean Barbarian is without its silly moments, though. There are some slapstick jokes and shots with hammy mugging sprinkled here and there, plus Arnold drops a one-liner or two that feel rather out of place. One scene that I never found necessary is when Conan steals a cult priest's robes in order to infiltrate the villain's fortress. He starts a friendly conversation with the priest and then slyly asks if they can continue the discussion in private, to which the priest agrees. I always thought the scene should have ended there and then cut to Conan already marching to the fortress in the priest's robes, much like how the scenes of him killing wolves for their fur and another character stealing a priestess's robes are just implied. Instead, we get an extra clip where the characters go to that private spot, Conan makes more idle chit-chat, knocks out the priest, then says a snide remark about it. That bit just feels like it was thrown in for a cheap laugh and doesn't really add anything.

On the other hand, some of the silly scenes do add something to the story. There's a scene earlier where Conan and his friend Subotai are wandering through the streets drunk and the former punches out a camel that's in his way, drawing a ton of stares from nearby witnesses. This would be pretty stupid and pointless on its own, but Subotai's comment afterwards that Conan is "too big to be a thief," actually turns it into an establishing plot point. Up until this moment, both the film and Conan's peers totally glorify his senseless violent behavior. By suddenly putting him in a situation where violence is uncalled for and garners negative attention, the film demonstrates that its hero's greatest strength is actually a flaw. He's a brute who charges head-on into everything without thinking, and that gets him into trouble later in the story. The whole point of his character arc is that he learns to be stealthy and strategic and becomes something greater than a barbarian by the end, and without that camel scene, this arc wouldn't have been properly set up.

Also, for all the goofy moments, there are just as many serious ones. I mentioned before that the movie was very loosely adapted from another medium, namely a series of stories by Robert E. Howard. A few scenes and subplots in the movie are taken directly from Howard's works, most notably the storyline with Conan's love interest Valeria, and while they're fairly simple, they're done quite well. My only gripe with that storyline is that Conan says virtually nothing to Valeria in any of their scenes--her name isn't even said once in the whole film--so their moments together do tend to feel one-sided.

As for the serious material that was written strictly for the movie...the subtext is usually stronger than what's said onscreen. I was never exactly clear on how the "Riddle of Steel" storyline was resolved since the characters stop talking about it after Act 2, but their actions convey an idea that's close enough to what was intended. I strongly recommend watching the DVD commentary, as director John Milius gives a lot of insight into the symbolism and character motivations throughout the film, but since you shouldn't have to watch a movie with footnotes to fully understand it, I still have to fault it.

So what's my verdict on Conan the Barbarian? Well, it depends on what version of the movie you watch. The original theatrical cut is the version normally shown on TV, and many of the deeper scenes are missing because the studio felt they broke up the action too much and made the film boring. That's a rant for another time. The version on the DVD has those scenes restored, and while they still don't make the movie Oscar-worthy, I think they do make it far better. Bottom line, the original cut merits way more teasing than the restored one, but both versions deserve a higher respect for what they're trying to do. I say it's a good movie.

But the 2011 reboot should be crucified on the Tree of Woe.