The Great Stories

The science fiction writer A. E. Van Vogt used to say there were only three storylines: Boy Meets Girl, Local Boy Makes Good, and The Man Who Learned Better. However many basic storylines there are the basic lines have been crafted into a number of Great Stories and those stories are used, modified, adapted, and re-worked, over and over again, some of them over thousands of years. Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, about one of which’s adaptions I posted yesterday, is one of those Great Stories. It’s been adapted, re-worked, and parodied thousands of times. One of the most recent of these adaptations is the movie Dave, which starred Kevin Kline (how Kevin Kline’s and my paths haven’t crossed I’ll never know—we moved in much the same circles in St. Louis). That plot itself has antecedents which go back a couple of thousand years in legends of St. Philemon the Actor.

The story of the birth of Moses is the story of Sargon the Great, the first Semitic king of Mesopotamia, who must have predated any conceivable birthdate for Moses by a thousand years. Of course the story was used. It’s a Great Story.

The story of Jesus is another Great Story. Two of its more recent derivatives are The Lord of the Rings and the movie Pay It Forward.

The Julia Roberts-Richard Gere picture, Pretty Woman, is sometimes characterized as a “Cinderella story”. Wrong story. It’s Pygmalian, the same story re-told by Ovid more than two thousand years ago. It was adapted into a play of the same name by G. B. Shaw, re-worked as the Broadway musical My Fair Lady, and made into a movie of the same name. Pygmalian is also the source material of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and I can see echoes of it in the Book of Genesis. A Great Story.

There are lots of Great Stories: Robin Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Hercules (a wicked queen assigns Our Hero impossible tasks), and so on. They’re reused over and over again. I don’t know enough about the Confucian societies to know their Great Stories but I’ll bet they have their own. Or maybe they have same stories and the stories go back and back to the very dawn of our species.

Do you have any favorite Great Stories that I’ve missed? Any favorite adaptations? Oddball adaptations?

2 comments… add one
  • sam Link

    Oddball adaptations–Well, there’s Zardoz, which I’m told is based (loosely!) on the Wizard of Oz. I’ve seen it two or three times, and it seems to me that it’s more an adaptaion of Brave New World by someone on controlled substances. Lots of controlled substances. Speaking of the Wizard of Oz. I dare say that many who see the movie do not realize the Baum’s novel is considered by some scholars to be a political treatise (though the politics are decidely low-key). And then there’s the film adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels…

    Probably the greatest modern adaptation (appropriation) of a great story is Joyce’s
    Ulysses. As someone said, good artists borrow, great artists steal. (BTW, who did say that? I’ve always thought is was Joyce himself, but I’m not sure.)

    Finally, I guess we have to point out that Joseph Campbell tried to trace at least one great story, that of the “hero’, through the “great stories” of many different cultures and civilizations.

  • sam Link

    And one more thing of a more contemporary nature. I was watching Lost, the espisode that was a flash-forward in which Jack, completely strung out, is taking trans-Pacific flights hoping to get back to the island (via a crash, I guess…). Now the island has a menacing aspect, the smoke monsters, etc. But this aspect is a kind of facade. It occurred to me that what we have here, at least as far as Jack’s story goes, is some kind of adaptation of Hilton’s Lost Horizon and Bradbury’s Here There Be Tygers, with the island as Shangri-La. (Note that it’s the Dharma Initiative…Buddhism. Hilton probably based Shangri-La on Shambala, a wonderous city in the Tibetan Buddhist tradtion.)

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