The Stories that Breathe

A while back, Arcana and I went to see Wicked, which is a retelling of her favorite story, The Wizard of Oz. We talked a little bit about how even though the world is the same, the characters are the same, she considers them to be entirely different stories. I understand completely, because I’ve been saying for years that I consider the original Star Wars trilogy to be a different story from the full six that are currently out. (The OT is Luke’s arc, the full six is Anakin’s.) But the whole thing got me to thinking about remakes, reboots, and retellings. 

There was a time not so long ago when the only access common folk had to “the media” were stories and songs shared by the fire after a long day’s work. If a man was very lucky (or wealthy), he might have a couple of books to read, but most stories were shared orally. Occasionally, a performer would come to town and share their stories, songs, and news from afar in a live performance of some sort, but pretty much it was just regular people telling tall tales to anyone who would listen.

As you can imagine, these stories would change from telling to telling. That’s what happens when people tell stories– they change. We embellish, we alter to suit the needs of the current audience, and we dismiss the details that no longer suit us, adding new ones that are more fitting. This used to be expected, relished, even. How will big that fish be this time? And in the retelling, the story would grow and become more meaningful to its audience, who would then want to hear it again, to enjoy once more. 

Eventually the best stories were written down, and then the printing press came along, and the written versions were more and more available to virtually anyone. Then came recording sounds on wax cylendars. And not long after, moving pictures captured first on film, then on tape. And now we have the digital age, with its bitstream highways and byways. Suddenly (within the terms of humanity as a whole) our stories are frozen in time. There is no longer a need to have Grandpa tell us the story at the hearth each night. We can access our media whenever we want. The same storyteller tells the same exact story the same exact way every single time. Every single time.

Of course it’s a revolutionary way of sharing stories! Everyone across the globe can share in the same tale, told the same way, no matter where the storyteller was born. New vistas! New challenges! New adventures! Right here, in your home town, told as no one who lives here could. To people who weren’t raised in this environment, the whole set up is truly mind-boggling. Hell, it boggles MY mind, and I was practically born with a keyboard in hand.

That doesn’t make it perfect, however.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE watching movies over and over. I’m as bad a two-year old. Ask Honey how many times I’ve had a Lord of the Rings day (about to become a weekend, as soon as Smaug gets his boxed set– even if the whole thing is two movies too long.) Or how many times, I’ll flip through our disc library and croon about how much I love this one and this one and this one and OH! this one….

But still. People get so STUCK on how things should be, how awful remakes are. Don’t remake that one, they did it right the first time. Or Why did they reboot it? It was perfect the way it was. Or how about, Geez, Hollywood doesn’t have any creative ideas. They just keep revisiting the old stuff.

I know. I used to be one of these people. But then came the Clooney/Pitt version of Ocean’s Eleven (I know it was a while ago, but go with me here), and I realized that this version actually improved on the Rat Pack’s original vision. Granted, Sinatra didn’t offer much time for artistry (legend has it each shot was allowed only one take), but the story, it turns out, is solid. And it was actually improved by a new storyteller, a new set of details (and a new budget). Then I saw the Karate Kid reboot WHERE HE DOESN’T EVEN LEARN KARATE WTF??? and I was off the band wagon again. And yet.

Somewhere along the line, it struck me that kids today would no longer be able to relate to Ralph Macchio. He’s no longer one of Today’s Youth. He’s a relic of a time before these kids were even born. (No offense, Ralph. For what it’s worth, I am too.) And while bullying is still an issue today, the life that Daniel-san lived was different. No cell phones, no computer; social media was going to a movie with your friends. Homework was written and handed in, rather than typed and emailed. A story that doesn’t have a relatable hero will die. If no one can connect with him, his motivations, or if his life is just too foreign, an audience will lose interest and drift away, especially in our current “what have you done in the last five minutes” culture.

The reason that Hollywood is remaking everything– aside from the built-in-audience factor for the business-types– is because these are the stories that the artist-types love. (In point of fact, Hollywood has been remaking already-told stories since the way-back– Tarzan, Robinson Carusoe, and Allan Quatermain immediately leap to mind. It’s just that in the earliest days, the old stories they retold were originally written, not filmed.)

**TANGENT: And don’t even get me started on this whole thing about there being no movies with original ideas. You want that? Go to your local Indie/Arts Film theatre. You’ll see stuff there that will warp your brain. It’s just not as polished as what you get from a Big Studio.**

What I find fascinating is that this evolution is still expected and even demanded in one current form of storytelling: live theatre. Each director has his own vision, as does each actor, each costume designer, each lighting designer. You can go to a hundred performances of Midsummer’s Night Dream, and reasonably expect to see an entirely different show each time. Some of that is because of the live factor. An actor may forget a line or play with an audience a little bit more one night than another. And even in theatre, it is understood and expected that not every night will Hit It, even with the perfect cast, the perfect crew, the perfect audience. Sometimes, the stars are simply crossed. But it’s also because theatre people understand that in order to connect with their audience, they must be interactive rather than operating by rote. Come to think of it, music artists get it too– how many Grammy awards have been handed out for “I Will Always Love You”? And I think that Hollywood gets that concept, too.

The way to keep a story around for everyone’s enjoyment is not to freeze it in time, but to retell it, add details relevant to today’s audience and drop the bits that no longer apply. It can be painful for those of us who already have a favorite version, but look at it this way: Are we guaranteed to get a better retelling every time? No. But we will get one that continues living, even when that means changing the lyrics and music to the songs from Annie, or taking the trip to Mars out of Total Recall (I did grieve for that one.) What you are witnessing is the growth of living, breathing stories.

Oddly enough, it takes our stories longer to evolve, now that they can shoot round the world almost instantly. Back in the day, by the time a story had circumnavigated the globe– and believe me, they did (take a look at Proto-Indo-European mythology, if you don’t)– it looked entirely different. … Sort of like how Dorothy’s fantastic voyage grew from being a simple children’s tale into social commentary on terrorism.

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