Stories are always borrowing from each other, intentionally or otherwise. It’s impossible to completely avoid material used by someone else. Even if you somehow managed it, the resulting story would probably feel stilted and out of touch. When this kind of borrowing is done well, people call it an homage, if they even notice it. When it’s done poorly, people call it derivative at best, and plagiarism at worst.
But what is it that separates successful borrowing from failed borrowing? Why do some elements work so well in one story but fall flat in those that come after? I’m glad you asked, because I just happen to have a few examples for your consideration. Perhaps by the end, we’ll know how something we love can turn obnoxious when used again.
1. Epic Battle: Lord of the Rings vs Alice in Wonderland
The Lord of the Rings movies changed filmmaking forever. They put fantasy movies on the map and inspired a wave of imitators. In particular, LotR’s battle scenes are worthy of praise. These titanic clashes between the forces of good and evil do more than justice to their source material. The charging Rohirrim and mighty walls of Minas Tirith are truly epic. But a few years after Middle-earth left theaters, along came an Alice in Wonderland movie that tried to mimic the battles of Gondor and Mordor. It did not go well; its battles are at best boring and at worst laughable.
Why It Works in Lord of the Rings
Middle-earth is a setting built from the ground up to be epic. It is larger than life – not just in its battles, but in everything. The landscape, the cities, even the music. Everything feels like it’s bigger and more intense than anything from real life. This is true of the books as well as the films. Lord of the Rings is the only place you can get away with description like this:
A column of elves rode upon us, their armor all shining in the moonlight, and I was frozen to the sod in terror, for their captain bore Crownbreaker, the sword that slew the kings of Kazekmal and Erengur in the Silver Days.
Both film and book spend a lot of time building up just how big the setting is. People joke about LotR being all about walking, but that’s a feature, not a bug. The travel narrative illustrates just how big Middle-earth is, even though the heroes only explore a small part of it. On the journey, they see towering peaks, wide rivers, and massive cities carved from the sides of mountains.
Not only is this world big, but it is also serious. The Dark Lord Sauron isn’t messing around. If he wins, it’ll be death for the lucky ones and cruel enslavement for everyone else. Because the stakes are so high, Middle-earth is the perfect place for serious people to lead huge armies into battle.
Why It Doesn’t Work in Alice
The book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is many things, but it is neither epic nor serious. Just the opposite, in fact. Lewis Carroll crafted a story of nonsensical rhymes, unending tea parties, and croquet games played with hedgehogs. He also wrote in deliberate political satire, like the “caucus race” in which everyone runs in a circle and no one gets anywhere.
In this surreal farce, epic battles are pointless. Any army mustered in Wonderland would get lost and scattered long before reaching the enemy. This is not to say that it’s impossible to do a war story in Wonderland; it would just have to be a lot weirder than the straightforward clashes from Lord of the Rings. Alternatively, you could create a standard fantasy setting with Wonderland-inspired names, though this would probably give your audience the wrong expectations.
The 2010 film does neither. Wonderland is still full of over-the-top absurdity, up to and including a tea party that won’t end. In that context, epic battles just seem out of place. It’s hard to care about what happens when swords clash because the rules Wonderland operates by make such a clash meaningless.
2. Wedding Violence: Game of Thrones vs The Shannara Chronicles
When the Red Wedding first aired on Game of Thrones, it was an international event. Fans everywhere exploded with feelings: pain, anger, sorrow, and excitement. The audience would not soon forget watching some of their favorite characters brutally murdered at what was supposed to be a peaceful wedding. Then the Shannara Chronicles pulled a similar stunt in its second season, likely hoping for a similar reaction. The episode is even called “Crimson!”* Unfortunately, Shannara’s matrimonial murder party was but a pale shadow of GoT’s emotional carnage.
Why It Works in Game of Thrones
In both the books and the TV show, the Red Wedding was the conclusion to a story arc that had been brewing for quite some time. Rob was supposed to marry a daughter of House Frey, but he broke that vow in order to marry his lover. After a lot of political drama, it seems like Rob’s mother, Catelyn, has finally pulled things back together, only for the ax to fall when audience and characters both were least expecting it. Zooming out, the Red Wedding marks a winding-down of the conflict over Westeros’s throne. With Rob’s death, the Lannisters ruled unopposed, at least for a little while.
The Red Wedding was also carefully set up by the writers to make it as plausible as possible. Not only was the Freys’ grudge against Rob well established, but the audience was also primed for the plot’s true mastermind: Tywin Lannister. Tywin had a powerful reputation not only for political cunning but also for absolute ruthlessness. When it was revealed that he was behind everything, it made total sense. As a final stroke, the writers made clear how seriously the people of Westeros take hospitality rules. This explained why Rob and Catelyn were willing to let their guard down. It was unthinkable that even someone like Frey would harm his guests.
Because the Red Wedding is so well set up and so important to several GoT storylines, most of the show’s audience was willing to sit through a bunch of their favorite characters dying horribly. This is no easy feat, and it’s a testament to GoT’s quality. The Red Wedding deaths had dramatic weight, even if that weight was also a punch to the gut.
It also helped that GoT spent its early seasons building up a believable setting and crafting satisfying plot arcs. That earned them a lot of credit with the audience, credit the writers drew on in order to get people through the loss of so many characters.
Why It Doesn’t Work in The Shannara Chronicles
Shannara’s attempt at a Red Wedding is barely set up at all. I’d actually forgotten that the characters involved were even getting married until the show suddenly cut to them in fancy clothes. Then the bad guys somehow snuck into a heavily guarded castle to attack the ceremony. I have no idea how that was accomplished. Maybe they can teleport.
Right off the bat, this lack of credible setup makes the scene more comedic than tragic. Instead of fearing for what’s about to happen, the audience is left to wonder how the attackers even got inside. The fight itself isn’t great either. Only one main character dies, but his death is so drawn out it feels like surely someone had time to come help him.
The dramatic weight is also missing. Rob’s death is a powerful subversion. He’s put down just before he’s about to win the war. In Shannara, the character who dies is in the middle of his arc, so his death leaves behind nothing but audience dissatisfaction.
Finally, Shannara simply doesn’t have the same level of credit GoT does. Shannara doesn’t have a believable setting or terribly satisfying plot arcs. Its charm comes from earnest attempts at cheesy high fantasy. Switching from that to brutal violence is simply too much to ask of the audience.
3. Morally Questionable Misfits: Firefly vs Dark Matter
Firefly didn’t invent the quirky group of misfits. It wasn’t even the first story to make its quirky group of misfits into space criminals. But it was certainly a fine example of the trope with some of the best-written characters ever to grace a TV screen. Even after a decade and a half, it still holds up. The personality clashes are both convincing and organic, with dialogue that makes you laugh and keeps you on the edge of your seat. So it makes sense that Dark Matter would want to copy Firefly’s formula. Create a team of weirdos, set them in a ship, and let the fun begin, right? But for some reason it didn’t quite work this second time around. The characters were insufferable rather than charming, and they weren’t a team so much as a rowdy mob.
Why It Works in Firefly
Any show about criminals has the potential to make its characters unlikable. Crimes are often morally unacceptable – after all, that’s why they’re illegal! To avoid this risk, Firefly goes out of its way to make sure none of its characters ever go too far. The second episode is even specifically about how Malcolm is willing to steal, but not when the goods are vital medicine for terminally sick colonists. Whew!
Firefly also spends a considerable amount of its limited time establishing why the government is evil, and it does a good job. In fact, government forces act more like an occupying army then a civil authority. The government and its central planets are also incredibly rich but won’t share with poorer planets, so no one is going to object when the characters steal from them.
With one exception, none of the Firefly characters are mean or cruel. Mal and Simon clash all the time, but this comes from differences in their personality and priorities, not because they want to cut each other down. Firefly even manages to have a married couple, Wash and Zoe, argue and bicker without making one of them seem like a jerk.
The big exception of course is Jayne, who’s totally mean. But even here, Firefly softens the blow because Jayne is just such a dork. In one scene he’s throwing his weight around being a general ass, then in the next scene he’s obsessed with a hand-knitted hat or displaying a childlike fear for his life. It’s impossible to stay mad at him!
Why It Doesn’t Work in Dark Matter
Dark Matter tries to show that its space criminals have a moral line they won’t cross, but the attempt falls flat because several characters immediately break it. They kill when they don’t have to, torture for information, and the like. This makes it very difficult to sympathize with any of them. Even the characters who don’t murder and torture are tarnished because they’re still happy to hang out with their horrible friends.
On top of that, many of the Dark Matter characters are just mean, which makes it even harder to like them. In particular, one character seems purposely made to be a stand-in for Jayne, but without any of the dorkiness. He plays the mean mercenary trope completely straight and is one of the flattest characters I’ve ever seen on TV.*
Dark Matter’s characters also suffer from the show’s grimdark atmosphere. While the Firefly characters are allowed to be silly and goof off sometimes, their Dark Matter counterparts have to be all serious all the time. They rarely get the humanizing moments that are vital for building audience sympathy.
Finally, Dark Matter’s setting is remarkably underdeveloped. Even after three seasons, we know almost nothing about it, except that it’s ruled by megacorporations who are generically bad and have unknowable motivations. But it also has planetary governments and a Galactic Authority who are seemingly independent from the all encompassing megacorps, somehow. This does nothing to make the show’s criminal enterprises more sympathetic, because most of the time, the audience is left wondering who the characters just stole from and why.
4. War in Utopia: Deep Space Nine vs Discovery
In Star Trek, the Federation is a utopian society. Technological innovations and egalitarian political institutions* have resulted in a society where everyone has what they need, and most people are happy. Earth is even described as a paradise. Given the general distrust people have for utopias, it’s no surprise that many writers wanted to test the Federation. Namely, they asked the question, What happens when war comes to a utopia?
Deep Space Nine was the first show to ask this question, and it worked pretty well. We got a big space war with lots of shooting and some interesting moral dilemmas along the way. A few decades later, Discovery also tried to show the Federation at war, and for its first story arc at least,* things did not go well. The war itself isn’t very interesting, and the moral questions oscillate between laughable and frustrating.
Why It Works in Deep Space Nine
Deep Space Nine spent several seasons laying the groundwork for the Dominion War. That’s not the only way to make an enemy interesting, but it certainly helps. Long before any shots were fired, the Dominion had been established as a powerful and ruthless force with the all-consuming drive to “bring order” to the galaxy.* Even though they are clearly the bad guys, their motivations are easy to understand, which if anything makes them more threatening. They feel like a real threat.
What’s more, the Federation acts the way we would expect a benevolent space government to act in the face of an existential threat. First, it tries to negotiate, and when it becomes clear that won’t work, it mobilizes all available resources to fight the Dominion. While many of the characters hate being at war, no one bemoans the morality of defending themselves from violent conquest. That might seem obvious, but it’ll be important when we get to Discovery.
Deep Space Nine also puts a lot of thought into the moral dilemmas that war creates. When characters have to bend or break their moral code, the reasons why are always clear, as well as the personal cost to them. In one episode, Sisko has to cover up the murder of a Romulan ambassador in order make sure the Romulans join the fight. He agonizes over this choice, but in the end decides it’s worth it to stop the Dominion. In another episode, Doctor Bashir risks his life to cure a deadly disease that’s plaguing the Dominion home world, even though doing so may hurt the Federation’s chances in the war. For him, saving lives must take priority. In both cases, we have a well-established problem and a resolution that flows naturally from the character’s personality and history.
Why It Doesn’t Work in Discovery
The most immediate problem with Discovery’s war is the Federation’s enemy. In this case, it’s the Klingons. They attack without provocation, and they have little motivation beyond a vague desire to restore their supposedly lost glory. While the Dominion is clearly evil, we have context for their actions. We have no idea what state the Klingon Empire is in or what problems they think will be solved by going to war. Heck, the Orcs in Lord of the Rings get more context than the Klingons in Discovery do.
As a result, the Klingons come across as over-the-top, mustache-twirling villains who make war because they like making war. Their behavior makes things even worse. They love massacring civilians, torturing prisoners, and even eating their fallen foes. Since there’s a strong argument to be made that aliens in Star Trek are actually all the same species,* the Klingons of Discovery can be accurately described as Nazi space cannibals.
Beyond the Klingon’s banality, Discovery’s moral dilemmas also fall flat. Instead of constructing difficult choices for the characters to face, Discovery has its characters bemoan the injustice of defending yourself from Nazi space cannibals and even claim the Federation somehow shares responsibility for the war.
It gets weirder! When one character works on developing better weapons to defeat the Klingons, other characters act like he’s crossed some vital moral boundary. The show even plays ominous music over his lines! Are his weapons at least morally objectionable in some way? The kind that will cause civilian deaths or other terrible side effects? Nope. All he wants is better armor and faster engines. The horror! Where Deep Space Nine explored and tested Federation ideals, Discovery mocks them.
5. Snarky Droid: Rogue One vs Solo
Spoiler Notice: Rogue One and Solo
Star Wars has a long history of eccentric droids, from fan favorites like C-3PO and R2-D2 to more obscure characters like HK-47. This tradition has served the franchise well, and Rogue One took things a step further with K-2SO, a droid who openly mocked his organic companions. K-2SO is a great character with hilarious dialogue and a poignant arc, so it was no surprise that the newly released Solo film tried something similar. Solo’s droid is L3-37,* and while many of her individual lines are great, the character herself falls flat. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that the film trips her.
Why It Works In Rogue One
K-2SO has a lot going for him. First, we must acknowledge excellent voice acting by Alan Tudyk and some truly inspired dialogue. “I’ll be there for you. The Captain said I had to.” Classic.
But there’s more to this droid than funny lines and a good voice. Unlike most Star Wars droids, he actually has a character arc. He starts the film with no respect for protagonist Jyn, thinking they should have left her to rot in an imperial prison. By the end, he’s come to respect Jyn and even like her, though of course he’s too snarky to ever admit that.
K-2SO’s death also fits in perfectly with his arc. In his first appearance, he grabs Jyn and takes her prisoner. His final act is to heroically give his life to buy time for Jyn to find the Death Star plans. Watching him take blaster bolt after blaster bolt holding back Imperial troops is enough to bring tears to even the most prequel-hardened cynic.
As a bonus, K-2SO neatly sidesteps the issue of droid rights, which is a sticky problem Star Wars filmmakers are not yet capable of addressing. For the most part, he’s treated just like any other member of the Rebellion, and just to be on the safe side, he’s also the most physically powerful character in the film. This helps balance out any power differential that might otherwise taint the snarky exchanges with his meat-brained colleagues.
Why It Doesn’t Work in Solo
L3-37 also has excellent voice acting, this time by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She also has some great lines, especially when she’s giving Lando and Han a hard time. But her character doesn’t pan out the way K-2SO does, and it’s mostly because the film bit off more than it could chew.
You see, rather than sidestep the issue of droid rights, Solo tries to take it on, but it does a poor job. L3-37 is portrayed as an agitator for the freedom of her fellow robots, which could have been great. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were either unable or unwilling to fully explore this issue, so instead they play it for laughs. L3-37’s cause isn’t a sign that the galaxy is plagued with a horrible injustice; it’s a sign that she’s weird and humorous because she cares so much about something no one else bothers with.
L3-37 does start a small droid uprising, but again it’s meant to be funny. The audiences sees all these ridiculous droids running around with no idea what they’re doing. Then there’s her death. Unlike K-2SO, she doesn’t get a heroic last stand. She’s taken out by a random blaster bolt as the characters are about to escape. But at least Lando actually mourns her passing, which is sweet. Farewell, L3-37. You had some problems but—
Wait no, the film isn’t done with L3-37 yet. After her apparent death, the other characters upload her mind into the Millennium Falcon’s navigation computer. At first I thought it was just her maps, but it becomes clear that she is still conscious. All of this happens without L3-37’s consent, of course. Instead of dying, this champion of droid rights will spend who knows how long as an eternal slave to whoever owns the Falcon. We can’t even imagine the droid uprising she started will succeed; the Empire immediately sends in a Star Destroyer to suppress it.
A movie about droid rights in Star Wars could be excellent. Heck, the topic is probably meaty enough to warrant an entire trilogy. But Solo is more concerned about the journey of its titular character, and so L3-37’s plot is turned into a bad joke.
When creating a new work, it’s perfectly valid to look at stories that have come before. If a story element worked in your favorite novel, there’s a good chance it’ll work for you too. But you have to consider why an element worked and whether your story is really the proper place for it. If the element isn’t properly supported, it’ll do more harm than good.
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