What is the nature of creativity or even creation, for that matter? Speaking of matter, what does it mean for us, as creators, that the Creator made matter out of nothing? Are we to do the same, to create something out of the void?
The answer, of course, is “no.” We cannot create anything from nothing; this is the privilege and power of God alone. We are limited by our position within the created order, forced to create with what has already been created by God.
But what about creating from what’s been created by others?
I’ve long thought about how cool it would be to take a lesser known character form the public domain and create something new.
But what if I didn’t wait until they were in the public domain? What if I stole characters, stories, ideas, concepts, even dialogue from current and past projects that are still under copyright? What if I stole this material (matter) from a variety of sources and fused into something new, something that was, perhaps, greater than the sum of its parts?
If I did that, I’d probably call it Star Wars.
George Lucas: Master Thief or Postmodern Genius?
In a detailed breakdown/takedAown on Slate, Forrest Wickman provides conclusive evidence of Lucas’ use of other created works as the raw material for his own masterpiece.* When I first read this, I was at first, let down. Suddenly, Star Wars lost its luster. I was disenchanted and began questioning the value of the entire franchise, believing it to be a amalgam of stolen intellectual property.
But then, over the past few days, I’ve begun to think through it again, asking myself, “Is George Lucas really a thief?”
If he is, it’s in the same sense that all great artists are thieves. In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon makes the case that true artists use the created works of others as paints on a palette that fused into a new work on their canvas, and he offers us some quotes from several creatives to bolster his case. He’s also listed many of these on his site, and I’m going to present you with three that I think best summarize the whole idea:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.” Jim Jarmusch
“If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!” Gary Panter
“If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” Wilson Mizner
Cuts right to the point, doesn’t it? Lucas didn’t plagiarize: he researched. He didn’t write a schlocky, thinly-veiled rip-off of a single movie: he created a nuanced, genre-shattering fusion of a variety of sources. In his article, Wickman supports this idea with a quote from a New York Times article:
The article that perhaps best captured Star Wars’ achievements as a pastiche was the critic Roger Copeland’s in the Times. Headlined “When Films ‘Quote’ Films, They Create a New Mythology,” the September 1977 piece identified Star Wars’ debts to The Searchers, dogfighting movies, and Casablanca, and held it up as the most prominent example of a new kind of movie, the “film about other films.” Star Wars was “a film that makes so many references to earlier films and styles of filmmaking that it could just as easily—and perhaps more accurately—have been called ‘Genre Wars.’”
I love the idea presented right there in that article title—when films quotes other films, they create a new mythology—because that’s exactly what Lucas did. Sure, certain scenes were shot-for-shot remakes, which is still a bit troubling for me, but those scenes were were combined with concepts from other sources, which were combined with archetypal character development, and boom! We got Star Wars!
Wait! Can I Do This, Too?
This is where things get tricky. Lucas got away with some pretty blatant “inspiration borrowing.” Could you do the same thing? I don’t know. Now, if we pull out the shot-for-shot scenes and some of the fairly obviously borrowed dialogue, a lot of what’s left could be considered a “heavy homage” or a well-researched project, with that research is both deep and varied. This is what I think you could get away with, and honestly, you should try!
One of the best books from a few years ago was Ready Player One. It’s about to be a movie, and what made it awesome was, at it’s very core and in its narrative structure, it’s a cultural pastiche, a buffet of 80’s pop culture references. Postmoderns are looking for something that ticks a multitude of boxes. Look at some of the most popular shows and movie franchises right now: The Walking Dead, Once Upon a Time, The Marvel Cinematic Universe (TV & Movie), etc. Postmoderns are seeking new universes to immerse themselves in, which is why Doctor Who saw a resurgence ten years ago. In fact, if you look deeper at Once Upon a Time, you’ll find that it’s the perfect postmodern fairy tale, as it is a pastiche of the whole genre, reinterpreting each story as one episode in a larger narrative that has more twists and turns than a daytime soap opera….well, maybe not quite.
The point here isn’t that we can’t just cobble together some disparate ideas and throw it out there. The genius of Star Wars isn’t the originality of the source material but the originality of its fusion. That’s not something that can be done on a whim, but it’s also not something reserved for these cultural paragons. Remember: George Lucas wasn’t George Lucas when he started writing his epic. You could do what he did, and I think you should do what he did. Like we just discussed, the world is craving new stories, new “fandoms.” It’s time you created one that presented God’s truth through a myriad of previously disconnected sources and influences.
This may sound silly, but I want to leave you with the same idea I started with: we cannot create out of the void.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9
“Under the sun,” that’s another way of saying, “within God’s created order.” We cannot do what He did, so why pretend that we do? Every artist steals, mostly from subconsciously, with your cultural context being slowly absorbed into your creative voice. But why not do it intentionally? Do some research. Find some pieces that you think could be fused into a new whole. Read, write, repeat, my friends. Build a new literary universe out of the fragments of a hundred others, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a silly holiday celebrating your work in thirty years.
Until then, may the force (of creative fusion) be with you.
*If you are into figuring out how the creative mind words, you have to read this.