“Original” Films in Hollywood: Deconstructing the Backlash Against American Cinema
“Why are there no more original movies”? To be honest, asking this question is starting to get repetitive. Yet because nearly everyone on the internet keeps asking the same question, surely there must be legitimacy to the complaint. Whether it be an adaptation, sequel, remake, or reboot, many people feel the film industry’s only concern is to build upon franchises both new and old. Comic-based superheroes like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, and Captain America: Civil War are popping up left and right every year with most being financial juggernauts. Film studios want to ride the success of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, so they make their own films based on young adult books. When franchises like Rocky and Ghostbusters have assumably been laid to rest, film studios often go back to the same well. They either make sequels like Creed, or they reboot the series like with the upcoming Ghostbuster (2016). True, franchise recognition is in many ways the name of the game for Hollywood.
However, what if I were to tell you that not only are there plenty of original films being released each year, but more original films are being released now than ever before in film history?
It may sound crazy at first, but when looking over the landscape of Hollywood’s long history, there may be some legitimacy to this argument. It is certainly not the most popular opinion, but it is a legitimate question to ask in order to have an honest discussion about Hollywood’s future. Basically, this article will highlight major factors as to why the age of original films is more prominent now than ever.
Bigger Films Often Overshadow Smaller Films
Filmgoers who feel original films are scarce often forget to consider the fact that three times as many films get released today than any other time in history. Last year, The Washington Post released a graph in one of their articles, showing how many films were released from 1970 to 2015. The number of films being released skyrocketed in 2005, which means more chances for both original films and films based on other properties to be released. With that said, films based on other properties do admittedly overshadow original films, but it not because Hollywood is anti-originality. Keep in mind that the average filmgoer sees 3-5 films a year, and they are most likely going to watch movies set in a pre-established series.
Remember, Hollywood is a business, and trying to market a stand-alone original film is tricky. Even when it comes to news stories, the average person is more interested in announcements about a comic book film or a sequel to a popular movie. What is going to be more popular in the news: announcing who will play Captain Marvel in the next Marvel movie, or announcing an actress to star in an original film people do not know anything about? Probably the Captain Marvel announcement. When looking at 2015 alone, there were plenty of original films released theatrically. The problem is that popular sequels like Jurassic World and book adaptations like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 will resonate with audiences more. People simply have a hunger for film series they are already familiar with.
A Marvel Cinematic Universe film, for example, grabs filmgoers’ attention with pre-established characters, and the consistent rate of previous films being received well. An original film on the other hand only has the actors, director, and short glimpses of a story to propel the marketing forward. For example: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight was another great film to add to his filmography, but it was in many ways overshadowed by the Star Wars: The Force Awakens when it came to the box-office. The marketing for The Hateful Eight did everything it could to present the films synopsis without spoiling anything, and to highlight the recognizable names of Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Tarantino himself. Hollywood is not deliberately hiding original films like The Hateful Eight. It is just that when push came to shove, audiences went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens multiple times.
However, the reconnection for original films has not been completely lost thanks to award shows like the Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, and of course the Oscars. Films like Gravity, Birdman, The Artist, Whiplash, Selma and many more have been rightfully recognized for being masterfully made films. What is seemingly ironic about the criticism against the Oscars is how people online were outraged to see films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes not be nominated for best picture in 2014. Here is the thing, The Oscars deliberately honor films that do not get enough recognition, and now people who complained about not having original films are upset because two sequels did not get nominated. These complaints seem very hypocritical, but it also highlights that just because a film is not completely original does not mean it is bad. This will be discussed further on in the article.
Have We Learned Nothing from Kurosawa?
Instead of looking at originality from the context of sequels, adaptations, and remakes, let’s instead focus on originality from a storytelling perspective. What is frustrating about people complaining about unoriginality is that they often forget to consider what the word “original” really means. Some individuals, including film critics, often deem a movie bad because they can recall another movie with as similar pilot or story structure, therefore making it a “rip-off.” The problem is that people sometimes confuse a film “ripping off” another film with a film “paying homage” to another film. Akira Kurosawa, considered one of the most admired directors of all time, greatly used and inspired this kind of storytelling. While he was not a Hollywood director, his work was heavily inspired by Hollywood’s style of storytelling, and then future Hollywood directors were inspired by his work, almost like a continuous cycle. His film Throne of Blood was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Ran was a retelling of King Lear, but both of Kurosawa’s films are distinctively their own work of art.
What makes Kurosawa’s films iconic is how the context of his films are powerful, yet his plots are relativity simple. Seven Samurai can be summed up as a group of samurai defending a helpless village from bandits, but the context of the diminishing samurai culture in that time in Japan’s history is where the complexity of the film lies. With such simple stories, it is fascinating to see other directors use the same stories from Kurosawa’s work, while adding a different setting and theme for their films. Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a crime story told from multiple conflicting points of view, was retold into the crime western The Outrage. Yojimbo, the story of a samurai posing as a bodyguard for two conflicting gangs, gave inspiration to the famous spaghetti western A Fist Full of Dollars, and the crime thriller Last Man Standing. Seven Samurai has been retold many times with films like The Magnificent Seven, A Bug’s Life, and The Three Amigos.
In more recent years, the art of retelling stories in film has often been misinterpreted by audiences. The Aardman claymation film Chicken Run, for instance, has been seen as too similar to the 50s thriller The Great Escape. However, Chicken Run included a scene where a chicken is bouncing a ball against a wall, which is a scene strait out of The Great Escape, meaning the animators were deliberately paying homage the cinematic classic and not stealing it. On top of that, they are both completely different genres, The Great Escape being a World War II drama about men escaping a Nazi camp while Chicken Run is a humorous children’s film about chickens escaping from an insane farmer. What stops these films from being rip-offs is that the filmmakers were not trying to capitalize off other popular films being released at the time. Films like Battle Beyond the Stars and Starchaser: The Legend of Orin are considered Star Wars rip-offs because they are science fiction films that borrowed many elements and plot threads from Star Wars. These films cared less about creating an exciting film, and only wanted to ride off the success off Star Wars’s hype.
Then there are circumstances like Christopher Nolan’s Inception being called a rip-off of Satoshi Kon’s anime Paprika. Inception may have not payed any homage to Paprika, but it is not a rip-off. Why? Simply because the contexts of the films are very different, and that is an essential factor when determining originality or unoriginality. The theme of Paprika is about how a persons’ personality on the outside is often completely different from their dream personality, is which they can be whoever they want to be. The theme of Inception on the other hand is about how living in a dream for too long distorts reality and can prevent someone from moving forward in life. Both films used the concept of tapping into dreams to explore different aspects of the human psyche. Live-action films being unfairly blamed for ripping of other anime is nothing new. The Matrix shares similar aspects to Ghost in the Shell, and the same thing for Black Swan with another Satoshi Kon anime, Perfect Blue. To put it simply, anime has such a wide range of genres that finding similar aspects in live-action films is bound to happen eventually. With just so many stories being told through human history, no film can possibly be 100% original.
Sequels Can be Original Too
Here is an interesting question. Can some sequels be considered original? The oblivious response would be a definite “no,” but do not forget to consider what someone means by “original.” Max Max: Fury Road, for example, is the forth film in the Mad Max series and yet nearly every film critic has the film somewhere on their top ten 2015 movies list. Granted, Mad Max: Fury Road is another car chase action movie, very much like Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, but it almost does not matter when taking into account the film’s profound storytelling. With a style all its own and a feminist message that is very powerful without being too preachy, Fury Road really is a film unlike any other. By that alone, Mad Max: Fury Road should be considered original for what it has contributed to cinema and its ever growing format. With the right script and director, some sequels can develop original stories and concepts.
Sequels are often berated for borrowing too much from the first film, therefore making it bad. This is never more clear than with the critical reception on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and its huge similarities to Star Wars Episode IV. While some audiences saw the similarities as endearing, most others saw it as blatant pandering to the enormous fan base. Sequels do admittedly have the tendency to borrow heavily from there first films, and films series like the Hangover trilogy have suffered because of it. However, for a legendary franchise like Star Wars, borrowing elements from past installments should not be considered as repetition, but instead as a working formula.
Look at a series like the Back to the Future trilogy. Both sequels repeat similar aspects and plot points to the original, but by doing that, the whole trilogy felt complete. They all follow a similar formula, and the new twists like Back to the Future part 2 being set in the future and Back to the Future part 3 being set in the old west is what separates them from each entry. Compare this to the Star Wars trilogy. Even The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were, at the time of their releases, also seen as very similar to the original, and look how those two turned out as time moved on. Star Wars: The Force Awakens does share similarities to Episode IV, but if anything, it is what makes it feel like Star Wars again, and thats all audiences really wanted.
Adaptations are Original in Their Own Special Way
Film adaptations are unoriginal by nature because they are simply adapting a book, T.V show, or video game to the big screen. However, that does not mean film adaptations cannot invoke a new experience in a viewer. For adapting books especially, reading a story, in which the reader images the look of the world described to them, is completely different from having a visual experience like film. Take Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel, The Shining. The film may be an adaptation, but watching the film and reading the book invoke very different emotions. By changing some aspects from the book, Kubrick’s film uses eerie and traumatizing visuals to scare the audience as opposed to the books, which explained the scary visuals to the reader.
As much as fans cannot stand it when directors change aspects of their beloved book or TV series, film adaptations need to make changes in order for the film to stand on its own. In Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert’s review for the 1990 adaptation of Lord of the Flies, they both agree that making the film seemed pointless because it took no risks and adapted the book without giving it any new innovations. With this in mind, when fans complain about a film leaving out key aspects from book, one starts to wonder if the accuracy or inaccuracy actually speaks to the quality of the film. A filmmaker’s first priority when adapting a novel is to make the best film possible, and being completely faithful to the book is not entirely necessary.What a director should do when directing an adaptation is to at least pay respect to the original source material.
Fans hated the film Dragonball Evolution because the film clearly lost the charm seen in the original manga and anime. By dumbing-down the characters motivations and blatantly americanizing an anime very much rooted in Japanese culture, the film failed to please both fans and casual viewers. An adaptation mistreating the context and themes of its original is what makes a bad adaptation.
Are Biopics Original Films?
One of the biggest questions I kept pondering while writing is: can biopics be considered original films? On one hand, they are adapting a person’s life story, and being an adaptation technically makes it unoriginal. On the other hand, adapting a life story is very different from adapting a book, or TV series. While a lot of biopics are based off memoirs, or interviews of famous people, unlike a book, a writer and director need to find a seamless way to piece someone’s life story in a cohesive narrative. For example, The recent Tom McCarthy film Spotlight was not based on a single book, but multiple stories written by the Boston Globe team, meaning the writer and director needed to construct a three act structure based on what information they had. Citizen Kane, considered the greatest movie of all time, was moderately based on William Randolph Hearst, and yet no film aficionado would ever be caught dead saying Citizen Kane is unoriginal. So unless a film is a direct adaptation of a book or documentary, biopics can be considered original films.
Lets do Some Math
Even with all these discussions of what constitutes “originality” in films, people will still go around and say “Hollywood is so unoriginal.” Really! When looking at all 2015 film released nationwide, some may find it surprising just how many original films were released last year. Here is a list of all the theatrical released Hollywood films in 2015 that were not an adaptation, sequel, remake, or reboot.
The Wedding Ringer. Blackhat. The Boy Next Door. Black Sea. Strange Magic. Mortdecai. Project Almanac. Black and White. Jupiter Ascending. McFarland, USA. The Lazarus Effect. Focus. Unfinished Business. Chappie. Home. Get Hard. Ex Machina. Unfriended. Little Boy. The Age of Adaline. Hot Pursuit. Tomorrowland. Aloha. San Andres 3D. Spy. Inside Out. Dope. Max. Self/Less. The Gallows. Trainwreck. The Vatican Tapes. Southpaw. The Gift. Ricki and the Flash. Straight Outta Compton. Underdogs. American Ultra. No Escape. We Are Your Friends. The Visit. The Perfect Guy. Black Mass. Sicario. The Intern. Steve Jobs. Bridge of Spies. Crimson Peak. The Last Witch Hunter. Burnt. Our Brand is Crisis. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. The 33. The Night Before. Spotlight. The Good Dinosaur. Krampus. Sisters. Joy. Concussion. Daddy’s Home. The Hatful Eight. That is 62 original movies in total.
Now let us compare how many film based off other properties were released nationwide. In total there were 23 sequels, 28 adaptations, 3 remakes, and 4 reboots. In total, that adds up to 58 films. It turns out that there were more original films released last year than all the sequels, adaptations, remakes and reboots combined. Hollywood does not look so unoriginal when looking at these numbers. Some of the films like Inside Out, Spy, and Ex Machina were critically acclaimed while others like Jupiter Ascending, Aloha, and We Are Your Friends were box-office bombs. This brings up the last and final point of this article.
Originality Has Nothing to do With Quality
There is somewhat of a misconception floating around the internet that mediocrity in Hollywood films will disappear if there were more original films and originals stories being told. The problem with this mentality is that the Hollywood system cannot build a foundation off nothing but original films. What would it be like if Hollywood made fewer sequels, adaptations, or remakes each year? Eventually, audiences are going to miss seeing some of their favorite books adapted on the big screen, or further explorations into worlds with sequels. Audiences like having familiarity in their movies, and that should not be seen as a bad thing. Granted, Hollywood will, in some cases, squeeze a franchise dry even if nobody is asking for more movies; the Die Hard and Paranormal Activity franchises often come to mind. However, just because a couple of sequels and adaptations are unsatisfying does not mean the whole genre of sequels and adaptations need to be thrown into the same pot. That does a disservice to all the beloved sequels and adaptations.
So what about from a story telling angle? As previously said, so many stories have been told throughout time that obviously any film nowadays cannot really be called completely original. That is inevitably true, but the problem is that some people can take this the wrong way. Some see it as Hollywood writers not trying hard enough to conceptualize original ideas, yet once again, Hollywood cannot base a foundation on a mindset that is entirely pessimistic. There are no magical writers out in the world that can make a completely original film script with a snap of a finger, so why are present Hollywood writes blamed for that exact reason? Is the original Star Wars unwatchable because it borrows elements from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress? Of course not, because originality does not make or break a film’s quality.
While some films are bad because their plot points and characterizations have been done to death in other films, repetition is different from originality. Instead of judging a film from how original the story is, it might be better to judge what a film adds to a familiar story and how it goes off into a different direction. Part of the reason original films seem scarce is because a lot original films in Hollywood have very standard and somewhat average cinematography. Films like Blackhat and Ricki and the Flash are original film, but without memorable cinematography, they do not feel original because they blend in with so many other bland looking films. The Hollywood system may not be perfect in every aspect, but original films are, in actuality, one of Hollywood’s strongest aspects.
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