Deja Vu All Over Again

Apr 28, 2014

It may be simply my age, but it seems to me that the springs of literary creativity are running dry. Searching the library, the TV schedule, and the latest movie offerings gives me an overwhelming feeling of what Yogi Berra famously called Déja Vu All Over Again. Nobody seems to have a new idea.

In the world of novels we have seemingly endless pastiches and iterations of the literature of the past. Everyone has tried Jane Austen, including P.D.James. Sebastian Faulkes has re-done P.G.Wodehouse  (very well) as well as James Bond. Joanna Trollope has updated Anthony Trollope, Jean Rhys has had a shot at Charlotte Brontë, and so it goes on.

On television Sherlock Holmes has apparently been reincarnated as a teenager, Miss Marple gets younger and younger, and country house soap operas, each one apparently the same as the last, have become virtually a plague. We are supposed to be excited by the “new stars” but they are never as good as the old ones, and in any case a fine performance fixes a character in the mind – Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes for example or David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.

At the movies the list of remakes runs into hundreds, including many that should never have been made once, let alone twice. Everything from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the Wizard of Oz has been re-packaged and re-sold. It might be better to issue the remake on the same day as the original so we could see them both together and save time.

The problem is that in fiction there is only one basic plot – conflict, struggle, resolution – and a limited number of stories to tell. We have the drama of love of course, the coming of age saga, the quest, the flight and pursuit story, crime and punishment, family feud and inheritance – they are all variations on the same basic plot. Some writers introduce space aliens or magic, or elaborate symbolic games with words, but it always comes out remarkably like the universal soap opera that hasn’t changed much in the three thousand years since Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. Why mess with a good story line?

And perhaps that’s the answer, we love a familiar story.  Old tales and old characters, even old TV series and movies, produce a definite feeling of nostalgia. From the point of view of writers and producers a copy or near-copy of a popular story is a sure thing with a guaranteed audience. I should admit that I am part of that audience: I enjoy these pastiches as much as anybody if they’re well done.

But surely we can create something fresh, something never before seen or imagined? I’ve spent at least ten minutes trying to think up an absolutely original story line, with absolutely no result. My most promising inspiration, as I soon realized, was nothing but a pale shadow of Jonathan Swift’s four hundred year old satire The Battle of the Books, which in turn was copied from an even older French source.

If even I can’t come up with a new idea, it must be because there are no new ideas. We’ve used up all the dramatic possibilities offered by human life and human nature, and must just keep recycling them until doomsday. Fortunately, if we can believe the stream of more or less identical apocalyptic movies coming out of Hollywood, doomsday is not too far away.

Copyright: David Bouchier