Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Harry Potter + Star Wars = every kids' film ever!

Take a good look at this:

If you hadn't already noticed, 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' is exactly the same as 'Star Wars'. There is a very basic structure to 99% of fantasy stories. Most tend to be aimed at kids, but technically all fantasies can follow this structure. You don't have to study children's literature or read up on films to spot the similarities between a lot of films. Here are a few examples:

- The 'farm boy' protagonist - Luke Sykwalker / Harry Potter / Lyra Belacqua / Frodo Baggins / Eragon / Aladdin / King Arthur / Conan / Alice / Dorothy

- The absent parents - Parents are either dead or lost (usually because of the antagonist), resulting in:

- The boring, ordinary life - Work on a farm, horrible step-parents/aunt & uncle, poor but content, unhappy school life.

- The inciting incident - This almost always comes in the form of the 'saviour' character, who comes in and takes the protagonist away from their boring life, thrusting them into a land of thrilling heroics, where they must save the world. This character is often a mysterious male:

- The 'saviour' character - Obi-Wan Kenobi / Hagrid / Gandalf, Aragorn / Merlin

- The wise, old mentor character (often acting as the 'saviour' character also) - Obi-Wan Kenobi / Dumbledore / Gandalf / The Genie / Merlin.

- Inhuman bad guys (these are either not human or wear attire/masks that completely dehumanises them) - Storm Troopers / Death Eaters / Gobblers / Orcs.

- The best at... (the protagonist is often the best there is at something) - Quidditch (Harry Potter) / spaceship flying (Luke) / resistance to the ring (Frodo) / perseverance (Lyra) / chosen (Arthur).

- The parent-destroying antagonist - Darth Vader / Voldemort / Thulsa Doom.

There are plenty of other examples, but I'm sure you get the idea - kids' fantasy stories tend to follow the same basic structure. Usually, that story takes place through the course of one film ('Harry Potter', 'Aladdin'), but sometimes it takes an entire saga/series ('Star Wars', 'Lord of the Rings').

The question is - is it a good idea to follow this structure when writing such a story?

It's there for a reason right? If it ain't broke, don't fix it! 'Star Wars' and 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' follow this structure to the letter and they're among the most popular films ever made. But is the first 'Harry Potter' film that good? Is it a patch on the others? As the books/films progress they steer away from the classic structure, taking on their own stories.

'Star Wars' takes the standard structure and shifts it round a little, throwing in unexpected twists, such as the death of the saviour/mentor character and the revelation that Darth Vader is in fact Luke's father.

So I suppose the key is to take the standard, classic structure and to subvert it. Audiences know what film makers are doing. When they go to the cinema, they can see when they're being told the same story time and time again. Everyone's a critic!

From a creative outlook, you don't want to do what everyone else has done. You want to make it as different and original as possible. And you should.

However, if it's too different, it won't work. I don't mean it won't work as a story, just that it may not working from a 'I want to get this movie made' angle.

Producers (they're the folk who fork up all the money for our creative dreams) know what works. They're probably more well-versed than anyone on what's hot at the moment and they're looking for something similar.

They'll know the 'Star Wars' structure like the back of their muggle hand and when hearing about a story, if it's similar, they'll know it'll sell. But if it's just too different, they won't be interested - because it's not done having a rich, happy protagonist meet a hip, young mentor chap, then fighting ordinary villains to save the not-so-perilous world.

From this post, I'm now convinced that the key to writing a good, saleable kids' fantasy film is to take the classic structure and subvert it until it's original, but not unrecognisable. And with that in mind, I'll be off to write my story about a young orphan who is rescued by a nice old man and then realises that it is his destiny to fight the parent-murdering overlord who threatens the world.

Good day to you, readers.

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