Origin Stories 

Tracing pop-culture stories to classic sources

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Every story is inspired by another. There are no original ideas, only fresh takes on tried-and-true genres and story flourishes. One of my favorite activities as a geek is to trace the DNA of my favorite stories back a generation or two and see what stories inspired the writers or filmmakers.

It happens in comics; it happens in movies—it happens everywhere. Compare the opening lines and shot in one of my favorite Batman graphic novels, The Long Halloween, with the opening shot and monologue of the first Godfather film. “I believe in America,” spoken from the mouth of an earnest immigrant asking for justice, turns into, “I believe in Gotham City,” spoken from the mouth of a billionaire orphan seeking his own kind of justice. That entire book exudes influence from The Godfather, which in turn influenced Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in a major way.

The first time I was truly blown away watching these influences at work was when I first heard of a film called The Hidden Fortress. I was a mere 14 years old, at the library looking for something to sate my new thirst for Kurosawa films after a teacher had introduced me to Seven Samurai. I stumbled onto an old VHS copy of The Hidden Fortress. The blurb on the top of the package assured me that this was the film that inspired Star Wars.

At 14, I was still naive enough to believe that Star Wars was a force of nature all on its own. How could it have been inspired by anything else?

Taking the film home, I was delighted to see this old, black & white samurai picture exhibiting the same story themes I’d loved so much in Star Wars. There were hilarious peasants who even shared lines with R2-D2 and C-3PO, and the Han Solo-like Toshiro Mifune saving a strong-willed princess and dragging her through enemy territory to do it. This experience did two things for me: It started me on my long obsession with Kurosawa (which is, indeed, a worthy obsession), and it piqued my curiosity about what other things influenced the stories I loved reading and watching.

I found many (hundreds? thousands?) of books, comics and films that I might not have ever consumed had a storyteller I admired not said, “I really loved watching this and seeing that and consuming this over here.” It was Woody Allen who got me into Fellini and Bergman. It was Alan Moore who rekindled my interest in Sherlock Holmes and Jules Verne. It was Martin Scorsese who tuned me in to John Ford. Jackie Chan helped me find Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

The most fun I have watching shows like The Clone Wars is decoding the influences that go into each episode. Sometimes you can tell right off the bat what film they’re borrowing lovingly from. They’ve done episodes that remind one of Predator or The Third Man; there were episodes that even cribbed directly from King Kong and Godzilla with a straight face.

My two favorite episodes, though? “Lightsaber Lost” (The Clone Wars, Season 2, Episode 11) re-imagines Kurosawa’s heavy noir Stray Dog, about a cop who loses his gun to a pickpocket and must find it before a crime is committed with it; it’s transformed into a story about Anakin Skywalker’s padawan, Ahsoka Tano, on a similar quest after a thief steals her lightsaber. The other was called “Senate Spy,” a retelling of one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, Notorious. Cary Grant is recast as Anakin Skywalker, sent to watch over the now undercover Padme (Ingrid Bergman’s stand-in) as she has to seduce a former lover, filling the shoes of Claude Rains. There’s jealousy, deception and more Star Wars action than you can shake a fist at.

The next time you’re reading a book or comic, or watching a movie, consider tracing the DNA of its influence back a generation or two. More than likely, you’ll like what you find.

Bryan Young is editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.

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