Harold Lloyd versus Snarf: Old Plots in New(er) Settings

thundercats poster

“So, you know that episode of Thundercats I was finishing?” my husband asked one morning.

“Urnghuh? Um…sure,” I answered, my foggy tones conveying that no, I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet. I wrestled my hair into order with a scrunci and tried to look awake.

“It had the same plot as that Harold Lloyd movie we watched yesterday.”

harold lloyd

That got my attention. “What?”

“Grandma’s Boy, the Harold Lloyd movie? It was the same as the Thundercats episode.”

For those of you not familiar with these two entities, Harold Lloyd was a famous comedic actor, known for a shy persona juxtaposed against daredevil stunts.

Harrold lloyd
CGI? What’s CGI?

His career stretched from the silent films in the 19teens all the way into the ‘talkie’ era.

IMDB sums up Grandma’s Boy:

“Always the mama’s boy, or in this case a grandma’s boy, Sonny joins a posse after a tramp accused of robbery and murder. He is unable to conquer his cowardice until Grandma tells him of his grandfather, also a coward, who overcame his fears with the help of a magic amulet. With new courage (and the charm), Sonny captures the fugitive and becomes the hero of the day.”

While I don’t imagine that the 1922 film was the first to use the idea of ‘the lucky charm that gives courage,’ it certainly wasn’t the last.

Enter a 1987 cartoon, in which a cat-lizard creature on Third Earth needs to save his more physically capable friends. He lacks courage until…you guessed it…he gains a ‘magical’ talisman. Which doesn’t end up being magical at all. Just like in Harold Lloyd’s film…

snarf
Don’t mess with Snarf!

Of course the two stories are different. Different setting, characters, medium of presentation…but the bones of the story are the same.

The question, I think, is whether this is a failing in the stories.

I’d say, no. (Edited to: Not always.)

Is it any surprise that ideas get reused? After all, in the wisdom literature of the Bible’s Old Testament the author acknowledges,

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

This was, oh, about 2,500 years ago…

I asked my husband the obvious question. “Which was better?”

He thought for a moment. “Thundercats.” *

Huh.

Writers, I find this encouraging. If your story idea isn’t exactly original, it doesn’t mean that it is unusable. A new voice might breathe new, exciting life into an old story.

Cat-lizards don’t seem to hurt either.

 

My conclusion: If you use an old theme, make sure you do it well!

thundercats
It would’ve been better if we were the stars, Wily Kat!

Has anyone else seen this same basic plot used elsewhere?

*My husband just gave me a hard time about ‘lying to my readers,’ so here is a disclaimer. All conversations are approximated. “Baby brain” ensures that I don’t actually remember things like words people say to me anymore. If I actually remember having a conversation pre-coffee, I count that as a win. 🙂

 

 

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Dunkirk

We don’t often go to the movies. It just isn’t worth it- having to manage babysitting, scheduling, and the fact that most of the newer films just aren’t interesting enough to spend ten bucks a ticket on (just think how much chocolate that can buy!!!)

It takes something special to get us out the door and into a theater.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was one of those rare cases.

The story behind the movie caught my attention a year and a half ago. I began writing a story set in 1943, fairly confident that I knew World War 2 well enough that I would be able to flesh it out with just a little research.

Surprise! A 6 year war involving most of the world was a bit more complex than I remembered from highschool history. In particular, mentions of ‘the bracing defeat at Dunkirk’ kept appearing in my searches.

Dunkirk? What IS that- and what in the world do they mean by a bracing defeat?

I looked it up. I realized that if I didn’t know about this event, I knew nothing about the era I was trying to understand. The real research began…

For those of you who, like me, don’t know the significance of Dunkirk, I’ll try to summarize.

Hitler’s Germany, after a long period of threatening actions in Europe, invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.

And…the war stalled. Little actual fighting took place as the Allies waited behind France’s defensive Maginot Line. (This time period was nicknamed ‘the phoney war.’)

Months later, in the spring of 1940, Hitler made his move. The Blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war,’ smashed the French and British defenses. The Allies were driven back, and back, and back. Finally, the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force ended up marooned on Dunkirk beach, waiting for Hitler’s troops to capture or kill them, or for rescue to arrive from across the Channel- a miracle that would get them home.

This is the point of the story where the film begins.

dunkirk poster 2

Without giving anything away, (though, if you know the history, you know the overall outcome,) here are a few of my impressions.

Rather than tracking the broad military strategies and leadership of the day, Nolan choose to follow a few of the ‘regular people’ of the conflict: young soldiers trying to survive, RAF pilots flying their Spitfires across the Channel, hoping to have enough fuel to be of some help to the troops and evacuation ships, and a civilian sailor doggedly facing challenges at sea as he heads across to help in the evacuation.  I liked this choice. Since I knew how the battle came out, following individual characters kept the suspense high as I wondered whether they would survive.

I haven’t really cared for dogfight scenes in other films; Dunkirk surprised me. The aerial scenes were well done- it was, as my husband said, the most successful attempt we’ve seen to put the audience into the cockpit. Of course, I also like Spitfires 🙂

The writing and dialogue impressed me. Having just watched a few movies with chronic over-explaining in them, (Revenge of the Sith…shudder,) the carefully placed words and silences gave the feeling of observing actual events rather than of sitting through a movie.

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is also worth noting.  I didn’t find it musically interesting- it’s not the sort of thing I’d buy and listen to for fun. However, he used a variety of sounds to punctuate and accompany the action. In particular, a sound of a ticking clock in the background created a sense of urgency, of time slipping away.

On the negative side, the chronology of the film was somewhat confusing. The section of the film about the soldiers covered one week, the section about the boats one day, and the section about the planes one hour. Each of the sections was interspersed with the others so that the audience wasn’t away from one group of characters for too long, until the end when all of the threads came together. This was an interesting idea, but I didn’t feel that it was executed well. Some of the scenes became a bit repetitive since they had already happened in another timeline, and I was sometimes confused by what had happened and what would happen, as the timeline kept moving back and forth.

I’m not well versed enough in the uniforms and vehicles of the day to bring up critiques on misplaced or misapplied straps or webbing with any credibility- I’ll leave that to others. Overall I liked the ‘look’ of the film, though yes, I suppose the troops were still a little too clean, and their teeth were certainly too good for the era. 😀

SO, I’m giving Dunkirk my personal rating of 8 out of 10. (It’s a bit higher than it might be otherwise, because I like the era.) Chronologically confusing, it was still an interesting, well done ‘slice of history’ film, and worth the watch.

 

 

 

The Big Parade: A Silent Story

 

Big parade posterI must admit, I was skeptical of my husband’s interest in silent films.

I had never seen one, but I thought I knew what to expect. Silent films equaled the jangle of organ-grinder style music, makeup resembling cake icing, and overacting reminiscent of the comedic scenes with Lena Lamont in Singing in the Rain.

With such low expectations, the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films he played for our family were a pleasant surprise. The comedy bits were engaging and creative, and the music was well-orchestrated. Best of all, the kids found the movies fascinating- this was something we could ALL enjoy!

By the time I unwrapped The Big Parade, I was prepared to give silent films the benefit of the doubt. Still, King Vidor’s serious film was a departure from Keaton’s comedic Steam Boat Bill Jr. How would a film about an American soldier’s experiences in France during World War 1 play out as a silent film?

I didn’t expect to find a new favorite movie.

The leading man, John Gilbert, plays a wealthy American with no real idea of war, who grows into a protagonist we can root for and weep for. Renee Adoree plays his love interest in France, and the two of them pull the viewer inexorably into the story until one can almost forget that in the entire film they haven’t spoken a word.

the big parade 2

While a silent film must lean heavily on the skills of its actors, creating one must have also posed interesting challenges for the writers. I wonder how much time it took to distill the text to its barest elements, highlighting the key points of the story without bogging down the pacing. Text that fit the situations would have to be chosen carefully, to tell the story, but also to avoid a fuss from the censors. (For instance, I suspect that the words to the song “In the Army Now” may have been edited for the film. “Rich” and “Son-of-a-gun” don’t quite rhyme…) However long it took, it was time well spent.

The attention to the story shines through the filming of each scene. One of the most powerful sequences is Gilbert’s introduction to battle. The following quote from imdb.com describes it very well.

“King Vidor recalled, “I timed the march of the US youth into battle and possible death as a slow, measured cadence with the muffled beat of brass drums heralding doom–a metronome to simulate exactly the gait of the soldiers”.

The sequence is eerie and tense and tragic, without the need for flashy special effects or gore. The story carries the emotional impact, even through a black and white movie made 92 years ago.

Another nod to the skillful writing of the film- it manages to be anti-war without diminishing the courage and the sacrifice of those involved. I could go on, but as The Big Parade demonstrates, sometimes fewer words make more impact!

Writers, Readers, and Movie Viewers: Have you found other areas in writing and filming where ‘less is more’?