Jeff Nichols’ MUD & Idea Recycling

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If it just so happens that you’re to see just one film this year about a homeless man trying to reunite himself with his one true love, aided by two curious children; make sure it’s ‘Mud’. The film looks like a love letter to Arkansas, all sprawling swamplands and rural American townhouses. There’s a wistful confidence in all the performances, even from the two young boys (14 & 15 respectively).  There was a real possibility that the film could have been over-the-top, but everything’s measured and well considered. It’s charming, captivating and most of all, thoughtful. But as I watched the film, I got a sinking feeling of familiarity.

‘Great Expectations’ is perhaps one of Charles Dickens’ most famous works. Following Phillip Pirrip (or more commonly known as, ‘Pip’), the novel tells of how on Christmas Eve, Pip bumps into an escaped convict whilst visiting the graves of his deceased parents. It’s such an intricate idea, for a young boy and a convict to form an unlikely relationship, that surely ‘Mud’ must have taken a little influence from Dickens’ masterpiece & that concept got me thinking.

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As my colleague wrote quite recently, it seems to be getting harder and harder for studios to take any sort of risk. As a result I’ve noticed something that I like to call ‘Idea Recycling’. The gist of it is simple – throughout the history of fiction there have been hundreds of good ideas, many of which have become massively popular. Why not, in order to emulate that same popularity, take those ideas and change them for a new audience? It is very much a case of – ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

There are hundreds of examples of this trend taking hold of the box office and perhaps the most famous case is James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’, coincidentally, the highest-grossing film of all time. However, the story of a strong male lead going rogue and joining the opposing team is not a tale that has gone unheard. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s dalliance into Native American culture ‘Pocahontas’, you’ll notice some marked similarities. Flawed white guy goes native, ends up falling in love with one of the girls he’s meant to hate. All the while, his colleagues are still trying to get rid of the rest of the indigenous people in classic imperialistic fashion so that they can take advantage of their land and resources. Ever seen above average, 90’s favourite ‘Dances With Wolves’? Same story. Kevin Costner’s meant to destroy natives, ends up liking natives, joins natives. Simple.

It seems there are a bunch of template ideas that movies keep going back to, purely because they’re reliable. Another good example is a trend I like to call ‘I tried to get out, but they keep pulling me back in’. Again the premise is simple, but the variants are easily changed. The retired hard man wants to make peace and live out his life, but then something terrible happens (a death, a family member getting taken hostage, some random threat from the mafia etc). Thus, our muscly hero is thrown back into the fray and must kick ass once more. Examples include ‘Die Hard’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Braveheart’ and any film Liam Neeson has ever been in.

The question I guess all this is leading to, is how much is too much? With the span of how long cinema’s been around, it was always inevitable that films were going to take influence from those that came before them. But at what point do we cross the line between taking influence and straight up stealing? It’s not like there’s a lack of originality in modern cinema. Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper’ (2012) was a triumph; an accomplished mixture of sci-fi, horror and drama, unlike anything seen in the box-office for a long while. Even ‘Mud’, once beyond that initial comparison to ‘Great Expectations’, stands out as a well conceived, original idea. But when there are films like ‘Riddick’ (handsome bad-ass fights aliens), ‘World War Z’ (handsome genius fights zombies) and ‘White House Down’ (handsome tough-guys fight terrorists), all of which are dominating at the box-office, it’s tricky to see why filmmakers should have the motivation to break free from the mold. Maybe it’s time to stop idea recycling and come up with some material of our own.