Box of Chocolates . . . or How to Get Away With Stealing Stories
“If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” — Henry Ford
Writers steal their stories all the time, and often this blatant thievery goes unnoticed . . . until the trained eye digs a bit deeper.
Here, take a comparative look at Disney’s Pocahontas vs. James Cameron’s (Avatar):
In 1607 (2054), a ship carrying John Smith (Jake Sully) arrives in the lush “new world” of North America (Pandora). The settlers are mining for gold (unobtainium) under the supervision of Governor Ratcliffe (Colonel Quaritch). John Smith (Jake Sully) begins exploring the new territory, and encounters Pocahontas (Neytiri). Initially she is distrustful of him, but a message from Grandmother Willow (the tree of souls) helps her overcome her trepidation. As the two begin spending time together, Pocahontas (Neytiri) helps John (Jake) understand that all life is valuable, and how all nature is connected via the circle of life. Furthermore she teaches him how to hunt, grow crops (tame dragons), and of her culture. We learn her father is Chief Powhatan (Eytukan), and that she is set to be married to Kocoum (Tsu’tey), a great warrior but a serious man whom Pocahontas (Neytiri) does not desire. Over time, John (Jake) and Pocahontas (Neytiri) discover a mutual love for each other. Back at the settlement, the men, who believe the natives are savages, plan to attack the natives for their gold (unobtainium). Kocoum (Tsu’tey) tries to kill John (Jake) out of jealousy, but he is later killed by the settlers. As the settlers prepare to attack, John (Jake) is blamed by the Indians (Na’vi) and sentenced to death. Just before they kill him, the settlers arrive. Chief Powhatan (Eytukan) is nearly killed, and John (Jake) sustains injuries from Governor Ratcliffe (Colonel Quaritch), who is then brought to justice (shot with arrows). Pocahontas (Neytiri) risks her life to save John (Jake). John (Jake) and Pocahontas (Neytiri) finally have each other, and the two cultures resolve their differences.
Or George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope vs. J. K. Rowling’s (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone):
Luke Skywalker (Harry Potter) is an orphan living with his aunt and uncle on the remote wilderness of Tatooine (in suburbia). He is rescued from aliens (muggles) by wise, bearded Ben Kenobi (Hagrid), who turns out to be a Jedi Knight (wizard). Ben (Hagrid) reveals to Luke (Harry) that Luke’s (Harry’s) father was also a Jedi Knight (wizard), and was the best pilot (Quidditch player) he had ever seen. Luke (Harry) is also instructed in how to use the Jedi light saber (a magic wand) as he too trains to become a Jedi (wizard). Luke (Harry) has many adventures in the galaxy (at Hogwarts) and makes new friends such as Han Solo (Ron Weasley) and Princess Leia (Hermione Granger). In the course of these adventures, Luke (Harry) distinguishes himself as a top X-wing pilot (Quidditch Seeker) in the battle of the Death Star (Quidditch match), making the direct hit (catch) that secures the Rebels (Gryffindor) victory against the evil Empire (Slytherin). Luke (Harry) also sees off the threat of Darth Vader (Lord Voldemort), who we know murdered his aunt and uncle (parents). In the finale, Luke (Harry) and his new friends receive medals of valor (win the House Cup). All of this will be set to an orchestral score composed by John Williams.
See now how even the pros steal their stories without apology or the least bit of regret?
If you’re stumped for your next great story then I suggest trying this method — most often employed by eager screenwriters attempting to make a living punching up weekly scripts for potential sale. Write out a synopsis of your favorite novel or movie then go about replacing characters and other words of narrative influence through cunning creative manipulation.
Because like Forrest Gump’s famous box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.