March 4, 2013 by Ian Goldstein
What makes a cultural phenomenon? Why do some stories resonate with audiences and earn a permanent place in American popular culture? How do franchises like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Avatar, to name a few, earn billions of dollars and millions of die-hard fans?
I’ve been considering these questions for a while, and I think I’ve come up with one answer. These three franchises have something in common: they combine familiar elements in original ways. Rather than offering something truly original (as in less popular avant-garde and independent media), they appropriate and recombine established parts of our culture to tell a new story.
Let’s start with Harry Potter. In writing her bestselling heptology (yes, this is a word), J. K. Rowling made sure to include beloved elements of past magical stories. Wizards with flowing beard and conical hats, magic wands and mirrors, potions, invisibility cloaks, mythical swords, ghosts, goblins, and werewolves are all present. Rowling combined these with parts of British culture also familiar to her domestic readers. Hogwarts is clearly modeled on an elite English public school (equivalent to a private American prep school), where the select future leaders of society live in Gothic halls, dine in grand rooms, and adjust to live apart from their families. These schools, like Hogwarts, pride themselves on illustrious histories, eccentric traditions, and athletic achievement. Rowling also added some ideas from racial eugenics with a distinct Nazi ring (purebloods/half-bloods/mudbloods) and took the idea — perhaps best known from Star Wars — of an innate power that can be used for either good or evil.
This is not to say that Rowling was wholly unoriginal. By setting these familiar tropes in a contemporary alternative universe and in a coming of age story beginning from a child’s perspective, Rowling created a saga with just enough originality to earn a place in the hearts of countless readers and filmgoers.
Three decades before Harry Potter, George Lucas used creative appropriation to craft his own universe. The story of Star Wars bears clear similarities to that of Ancient Rome, where a democratic Republic was transformed into a sprawling Empire. The centrality of lightsaber duels is indebted to swordfighting in swashbuckling adventure stories. Lucas also used elements of Nazism as shorthand for evil: the actors portraying the Imperial military leadership would not be out of place in another movie as Hitler’s henchmen, and a weapon meant for destroying planets is certainly a tool for genocide. Yet by placing these elements in space and combining them with groundbreaking special effects and an masterful symphonic score by John Williams, Lucas made movies that connected with generations of audiences (let’s just ignore the prequels here).
James Cameron chose his own cultural and historical elements to craft his blockbuster Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time. Much has been made of Avatar’s similarity with Disney’s Pocahontas (see this clever trailer mashup) and Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. The Na’vi clearly represent American Indians or another indigenous people, with the humans being European imperialist oppressors. The movie portrays a military-industrial complex and environmentally destructive corporations run amok. The visuals of the destruction of Hometree, with settling gray ash, even bring to mind images from 9/11.
These are ideas with strong emotional resonance in American society, and they help explain why the movie drew so much attention as well as political acrimony. Cameron combined them with more original elements like genetically engineered, mind-controlled avatars; high-tech weapons juxtaposed with awe-inspiring natural vistas; and landmark use of motion capture and CGI technologies to earn his film a place in the record books.
I do not mean to suggest that these franchises (yes, Avatar is a franchise: multiple sequels are in the works) are mere ripoffs; I have enjoyed each of them. What I am asserting is that their use of creative appropriation can help explain their immense popularity. Audiences love seeing things they’re already comfortable with combined in new ways. This analysis could just as easily apply to Pirates of the Caribbean (as Roger Ebert put it, the films “[excel] in such departments as buried treasure, pirates’ caves, pet parrots and walking the plank, although there is a shortage of eye patches and hooks) and Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien, after all, did not invent elves, dwarves, or wizards). I would encourage those in Hollywood looking for the next big series to try finding some beloved elements of our culture and putting them together in an original way; of course, this is easier said than done.