Lillie Lainoff is an English major at Yale University.
One day during my sophomore year at D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson High School, my English teacher informed our class that there were only six, maybe seven, original plots in all of literature and film. Not even William Shakespeare’s plays have original story lines, she said. As a lover of all things Shakespeare, I was shocked.
“And, I hate to break it to you,” she added, “but ‘Avatar’ is just ‘Pocahontas’ with blue people in space.”
These works were all wonderful pieces of art, creative and well-developed, she told us, but they were not original.
It wasn’t until my freshman year in college, while trying to find a unique topic for a research paper, that I really thought about what originality means. I spent so much time trying to pick an original topic for that paper that I had barely any time to write it.
The quest for originality can become obsessive. Works that are deemed unoriginal — as in, anything that bears too much resemblance to something else — are criticized. For example, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards , the most prestigious U.S. competition for teens, judges students’ submissions on “originality, technical skill and the emergence of a personal voice or vision.” The range and quality of work they receive each year is extraordinary. But would one teenager’s meticulously painted self-portrait be any less beautiful if it had been inspired by the work of Frida Kahlo?
I suspect that most of our good, great and even monumental ideas are not original. Odds are, one of the other 7 billion people in the world has had the same idea for that start-up or phone app you’re about to develop, that movie script or essay you’re about to write. Every idea, including the ones I’m expressing here, can be written thousands of ways. Some of them will be creative, others daring. But they will probably not be original. As Mark Twain once wrote in a letter to Helen Keller, “All ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”
According to the Web video series “Everything Is a Remix,” of the 10 highest-grossing films each year from 2001 to 2011, 74 were sequels, remakes, or adaptations of comic books, novels and other sources. These include best-picture Oscar winners (“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”), films based on theme-park rides (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”) and fairy tales (“Tangled”). Is it right to hold this against them? No.
Even though the plot of “The Lion King” may be a dead ringer for “Hamlet,” you can’t deny the magic of watching Rafiki lift baby Simba into the air or stop yourself from singing along with the characters.
Or take the popular series “Divergent,” which, like many other dystopian young-adult trilogies, follows a teenage girl who is tasked with bringing down a corrupt regime. Critics often compare it to “The Hunger Games,” citing similarities in characters, plot and themes. For example, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers called the “Divergent” movie “a baldfaced attempt to cash in on the success of Suzanne Collins’ ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy.” He calls the films’ plots “virtually identical” because they both revolve around “two lovers fight[ing] to stay alive in a cruel, controlling society,” adding that “at least The Hunger Games spawned two terrific movies and a breakthrough star in Jennifer Lawrence. Onscreen, Divergent ignites only indifference.”
His points are valid. But if we accept that it is impossible to come up with a completely original character, plot or theme, then of course the two series are going to have similarities; like most young-adult books, they are based on the same core ideas: discovering who you want to be and where you belong, standing up for what you believe in, and, if you’re lucky, falling in love.
If we criticize the perceived lack of originality, we must do the same to almost every piece of writing published in the past few centuries.
I’m not suggesting that we stop trying to be original. There are new, unprecedented concepts out there; they just happen to be scarce. So better to strive for quality — whether through creativity, honesty or powerful rhetoric.
If in that process you stumble upon something truly original, wonderful. But the next time you are starting a business, painting a portrait or writing an essay, focus less on coming up with an original idea and more on making it the best product you can.
I ended up writing my research paper on how women’s efforts in the American Revolution laid the groundwork for the women’s rights movement that came later. It might not have been the most original idea, but the paper was clear and concise — and it was on a topic I’m passionate about.