Thanks to Hulu, my very bestest friend, I saw the premiere episode of Legend of the Seeker, based on the Sword of Truth series, written by Terry Goodkind. I never read the books, so I couldn’t tell you anything about the adaptation, but I noticed something right away about the show.
It’s about this very special young man who is hidden away as a baby by an eccentric old man, because he’s jsut about the most important person ever. Eventually someone goes looking for him, which brings him to the attention of bad guys. He winds up at the old man’s home, who reveals himself to be a wizard. The wizard tells him the truth about his family, gives him a cool sword, and the 411 on his destiny. The young man freaks out in denial, runs home to find it burned down and the only family he’s ever known is dead, after which he steels himself to bring justice to the world.
Yes, I was watching a sword & sorcery Star Wars.
Now, you may think I’m trashing the show or even the story (assuming it’s the same) for unoriginality, but I’m not. The story is an archetype. In the same way that you watch sitcoms that all seem to repeat the same stories, archetypes are here to stay. That’s the whole point, actually.
That’s not a bad thing. That’s not a good thing. It’s just the way it is.
I used to get a bit depressed, actually, that there are no new stories to tell. I thought it was a sad lack of imagination in humanity that they could never tell a story that wasn’t, at its core, already told ages ago. But really, I’m not doing the storytellers of the world justice when I say that. The archetypes we have, be it in character or plot or whatever, are there because they’re the best kinds of stories. They’re natural. In a sense, they’re the only ones our minds will accept. We may eventually get new ones, but our culture and our minds will have to change.
It reminds me of the Albert Brooks movie, Defending your Life. Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks), who uses three percent of his brain, is asking Bob Diamond (Rip Torn),who uses 48%, about why he’s late.
Daniel Miller: Where were you? I’m just curious.
Bob Diamond: I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t understand.
Daniel Miller: Don’t treat me like a moron. Try me.
Bob Diamond: I was trapped near the inner circle of thought.
Daniel Miller: I don’t understand.
Bob Diamond: I told you…
Sometimes you just haven’t got to the point where you’ll get it.
So you can’t avoid archetypes. Be cool with it.
The only real question is: Do you emphasize the archetype or do you hide it? Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Legend of the Seeker emphasizes it. They hold fast to the hero arc and don’t let go. It makes it painfully predictable, but it’s also reassuring. Sometimes the audience likes predictable. They get into the mood to see their favorite stories, and don’t like curve balls. They don’t want to see the bad guy win just for the sake of kitsch.
There are other shows, more and more lately, that take chances with the archetype. They speed it along, or they kill off characters unexpectedly, or they throw people curve ball after curve ball. But the successful shows stick to the archetype. It’s there, buried under all the fluff and kitsch. The shows that actually do deviate from the archetype end up in the same place as all the smart-ass student films. The trashcan of relevance.