In the first three parts of this series — here, here, and here — we have been exploring Hollywood’s default business strategy of ‘similar but different’ pretty much on their side of the playing field.
Now it’s time to move the ball to our (i.e., writer’s) side.
As we have noted, simply because a movie is ‘similar but different’ doesn’t mean it will necessarily be a bad one. Indeed there are remakes that are arguably better than the originals, one of which we will consider below.
Thus if we acknowledge it’s possible to create ‘similar but different’ stories that are good, even great, it behooves us a writers to figure out how to do that.
For purposes of this discussion, I will suggest two narrative elements we can use to write entertaining and compelling ‘similar but different’ stories, thus allowing us to survive, even thrive as we play the screenwriting game in Hollywood. Today we look at one of those elements: Archetypes.
Now I suppose only I could attempt to pull a discussion like this back to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, but honestly doesn’t ‘similar but different’ apply to the very idea that all stories share universal elements? Whether we talk about The Hero’s Journey, metamorphosis, and other character or narrative archetypes, aren’t we essentially looking at variations on familiar themes?
The difference between the Hollywood studio version of ‘similar but different,’ furiously digging through development slates for something that hearkens back to a successful previous movie, and a Campbell-Jung approach tapping into character and narrative archetypes, patterns that have evolved over thousands of years and exist both in our consciousness and unconsciousness, is a matter of depth. And therein lies the secret: By using archetypes to dig deeper into our stories, we go beyond a shallow, surface level approach to writing, which is prone to generate nothing more than ‘knock-offs,’ to find and create stories that resonate with script readers and movie viewers on multiple levels of entertainment, meaning, and emotion.
Archetypes have power because they carry with them associations we have made through the tens of thousands of stories we have read, heard, or listened to in our lifetimes.
Archetypes are true because if used well, they reflect genuine and real aspects of the human condition and the universe around us.
Archetypes are entertaining because we recognize them consciously and intuitively, both as familiar forms and when crafted against type to surprise us as fresh variations.
In other words, understanding and being attuned to archetypes as we craft our stories, even ‘similar but different’ ones, allows us to find deeper drama, humor, thrills, action, suspense and all the rest of the psychological reactions we hope to evoke in our characters and plots.
A great example of this is the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit. As noted previously, a remake is Hollywood’s perfect version of a ‘similar but different’ story: It is the same movie, only done with a different cast and a revised script to reflect contemporary sensibilities and freshen up the narrative. Any filmmaker who sets out to do a unique and compelling retelling of a previously told story has a huge challenge. In my view, one of the major reasons the Coens succeeded with True Grit is because of their understanding and use of archetypes. Whether they were conscious about these elements as they wrote the script or not doesn’t matter. The fact is their cinematic version of True Grit is infused with powerful character and narrative archetypes.
I have already done an analysis of the story’s archetypes here, so I will only summarize my thoughts [I encourage you to go back and read my OP].
In the movie, we see the five primary character archetypes:
Protagonist: Mattie Ross
Nemesis: Tom Chaney
Mentor: Rooster Cogburn
Trickster: Mattie’s father
Each character provides a specific function to the story and in aggregate create a rich tableau of personalities and interrelationships.
Moreover there are several narrative archetypes at work as well:
* The Hero’s Journey: Mattie leaves her Old World — the family farm — traveling to the New World — the wilderness — in order to pursue the goal of killing her father’s murderer.
* Metamorphosis: Along the way Mattie confronts both her adult self and juvenile self, going through a transformation of her psyche.
* Romance: In LaBouef she finds an idealized version of a potential lover.
* Surrogate father: In Cogburn, she finds a more powerful and compatible version of a father figure.
* Good versus evil: She is an innocent who is exposed to the harsh realities of a dark and dangerous New World.
* Stranger in a strange land: She is a fish-out-of-water.
* Underdog: The odds are stacked against her.
I’m sure you can find more.
These character and narrative archetypes connect with us psychologically in a variety of ways and in so doing create a depth of experience that transforms this remake of True Grit into a powerful ‘new’ version of the story.
So how to survive as screenwriters while playing the ‘similar but different’ game in Hollywood? One set of tools we have is archetypes. Use them well and we can play their game while playing our game… and everybody wins.
In order to use archetypes well, we don’t come at them randomly, but must see how they service a story’s central organizing principle — its psychological journey.
That is the subject of our final post in this series which will post tomorrow.
[Originally posted October 27, 2011]