With the announcement that Emma Stone is set to play 101 Dalmatians villainess Cruella De Vil in “an origin story, set in the early 80s with a punk vibe”, I thought it was time to repost this piece about “origins stories” I wrote a few years ago.
I’m guessing young Cruella will be a puppy-loving goth who gets her heart broken by a feckless animal rights activist, and turns to the Dark Side, and also fur coats.
Fasten your seatbelts for Pan, a “gritty Peter Pan origin story”. Joe Wright is set to direct, Garrett Hedlund has been offered the role of Hook, and Hugh Jackman will play Blackbeard the Pirate, though no word as yet as to who’ll be playing Peter. And if you thought you’d already seen a Peter Pan origin story in Finding Neverland, think again; this new one will be about how Peter and Hook used to be buddies, and how (I’m guessing here) Hook loses his hand and turns to the Dark Side. [ETA I still haven’t caught up with Pan, which came out in 2015, but I’m reliably informed that Peter and Hook are still the best of chums and that Hook still has both hands intact at the end of it… To which I can only say, FFS what is the point of a Peter Pan origins story if we don’t even see the crocodile biting off Hook’s hand?]
“Gritty” is already depressing enough, especially since “gritty” films usually turn out to be just the usual escapist nonsense with added digital manipulation to give them look steely-blue. But the term that fills me most with dread is “origin story”, which seems to have been co-opted as a trendy synonym for “prequel”, just as “reboot” is a euphemism for “remake”. From its inception as a comic-strip term describing an episode in which we learn how an already established superhero first acquired his superpower, the origin story has followed superheroes into the blockbuster movie arena.
And so we have Peter Jackson wrangling The Hobbit into a full-blown three-part origin story. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the fifth Jack Ryan movie, shows us how Tom Clancy’s hero first made the move from a desk job to fieldwork. And “origins” are all the rage in television, showing us how Hannibal lived before his arrest, Norman Bates’ relationship with his mother before he started wearing her clothes, or – that other famous screen monster – Carrie Bradshaw’s life before she started writing her Sex and the City column.
Origin stories are closely related to the “prequel”, first introduced into the mainstream (according to imdb) in 1979, when the release of Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, ten years after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, solved the problem of how to make a sequel to a hit film when your heroes were killed off in the final reel. In fact, one can apply the term “original story”, in retrospect, to any story exploring the beginnings of an already established character and showing how they turned into the person we all love or hate or fear. Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea (filmed in 1993, and again, in 2006, for TV) is the “backstory” (another buzzword) of the madwoman in the attic of Jane Eyre‘s Thornfield Hall, in which it’s revealed that Rochester’s first wife wasn’t always a cackling pyromaniac, but was once a young woman with her own hopes and dreams, much like Jane herself.
Rhys’ novel also seems to be precursor to an increasingly popular type of origin story, in which we’re shown how a villain wasn’t necessarily born evil, but turned that way because of circumstances. Gregory Maguire kick-started this modern trend with his 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, adapted into a smash-hit Broadway musical; direct film and TV adaptations have yet to get off the ground, though Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2015) made a fair fist of showing how the Wizard first arrived in Oz, and what role his philandering fecklessness played in creating the Wicked Witch of the West.
Next up in this revise-a-villain vein was Angelina Jolie in Maleficent (2014), which gave us the inside skinny on The Sleeping Beauty‘s wicked fairy, and insisted (just like Oz the Great and Powerful) that she was only wicked because a bloke had once been beastly to her. I guess this could be considered a feminist reading, of sorts, though it’s really just another case of a young woman allowing her character, destiny and morality to be shaped entirely by her boyfriends’ behaviour. To which I say: we’ve all been there, honey. Get over it. There’s really no need to turn evil.
With Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of telling an original origin story, with characters who were unknown quantities, but this was the exception that proved the rule – the whole point of origin stories is they provide additional information about an already well-known character or story. And heaven help the origin story that gets it wrong, as Prometheus (2012) was adjudged to have done, by failing to meet impossible expectations and serve up a sort of cinematic Enigma machine that would enable fans to decipher every last thing that happened in Alien or Aliens.
By the time Alien: Covenant rolled up in 2016 to explain exactly how the Alien creatures as we know them came to exist, I realised I was sick to death of them. Shine a light on a scary creature, remove all mystery and ambiguity from its origins, and it ceases to be frightening, or even terribly interesting.
But if anyone has given origin stories a bad name, it’s George Lucas, whose prequels to the first Star Wars trilogy were a three-part origin story that revealed with plodding meretriciousness how angelic moppet Anakin Skywalker ended up as an evil-helmeted archvillain. Just as Hannibal Rising diluted the horror of Hannibal Lecter by trying to explain him, so Episodes I to III robbed the once-fearsome Darth Vader of his dark glamour by depicting him as the petulant Kevin the Teenager of the Lucasverse.
Star Wars continues to pelt us with even more origin stories. Rogue One (2016) filled us in on how the rebels got their hands on the Death Star plans prior to the original Star Wars, while Solo (2018) gave us the early career of, yes, Han Solo, how he got his name, acquired the Millennium Falcon, and met other beloved characters such as Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian etc. The movie worked just fine (for me) as a sort of SF quota quickie western, but was judged to have underperformed at the box office, resulting in the cancellation of other origins stories in the pipeline: Boba Fett, the Early Days. Or possibly Obi-Wan Goes to Kindergarten. Well, thank god for that. There’s only so much origin I can take.
Franchise fans have a seemingly boundless appetite for more details of the CVs of whichever fictional characters they’re obsessed with. It’s as though they want all mystery and ambiguity removed, while forgetting it’s that very mystery and ambiguity that made those same characters so fascinating in the first place. And it’s also that mystery and ambiguity also that encourages readers and viewers to exercise their own imaginations by filling in the gaps. I’m sure some of their gap-filling is fascinating in itself, but please believe me when I say I don’t want to hear it – I prefer originals to origins, every time.
Here’s an idea for everyone who might be thinking of shining light on the origins of beloved fictional characters such as Peter Pan or Cruella De Vil. How about creating a universe of your own, with new heroes and villains, instead of piggybacking on someone else’s creativity? Or, if you are the creator, how about creating a new universe instead of wringing every last drop of juice out of the old one? For pity’s sake, move on.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in February 2014. It has since been revised and updated.