So a couple months ago I made a post about re-hashing old stories. That one was about artists using their own voice to re-do something old. People complain about how all the old themes have been used up and are just being recycled now, but it’s not necessarily that simple. Part of it is taking those old stories and making them important again for the current generation.
Take Romeo and Juliet for example. How many times has that been re-hashed in various formats? The theme of “star-crossed lovers” is pretty universal – it’s not specific to Romeo and Juliet, we’ve seen it a billion times over. So why do we keep seeing Shakespeare’s version? Because it’s a good example of the theme, it’s well-written, and most importantly, so that the current generation establishes a connection to it. When a guy’s hopelessly in love, we sometimes refer to him as “Romeo” – it’s part of our common parlance. Without re-establishing that connection each generation, we lose some of the context.
Looney Tunes spawns a number of famous phrases, but Looney Tunes haven’t been a thing in ages. How often do you hear “What’s up, doc?” now? The same goes for “Wabbit season,” “It’s despicable,” “Spear & magic helmet,” etc. Mostly when they’re used now, it’s as an homage instead of vernacular. Counter this with my example of “Romeo,” which is not said as an homage, but vernacular.
The above are examples in art crossing over and infecting our speech and staying with us, but the most obvious example of re-use are the hero’s journey. Artists have been putting new faces and places on the hero’s journey for ages, and probably always will. It’s a theme / story which works, but why? Because it occupies some space in our brains, and we can identify with it on a personal level, maybe even on a day-to-day level.
Ok, that’s a pretty broad example, what about something more specific? It’s been said that James Cameron’s “Avatar” is mostly a re-hashing of “Dances with Wolves,” which is a re-hashing of “Pocahontas,” etc. It’s not a new story : white guy shows up in a native culture & does everything the natives do but better, falls in love, and eventually has to help fend-off the encroachment of his old world. While we could use these stories for a lengthy discussion about the after-effects of imperialism on the Western psyche, the point here is the renewal of the same theme for a new generation. While I for one could do without that story, it’s one that’s obviously popular enough to continue holding a position in our narrative.
To combine this with my previous post about voice / style, I’m hypothesizing that it comes down to this : the current generation always feels a need to take the older stories which shaped it and re-tell them in their own present-day voice. If I’m right, this means about 20-ish years from now we’ll see stuff like Harry Potter get its first re-boot, and Lord of the Rings its third (fourth?).