You probably have heard that Disney is making a live-action remake of Aladdin. This follows their live-action remake of Cinderella, but in more general terms, I’m sure you have noticed that there is a trend towards unoriginality in Hollywood. It is not just Disney; we also have seen revivals of Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Hawaii Five-0, Magnum PI, Fuller House, Mary Poppins and so many others. Whether on the big screen or on network television, you have to wonder why we don’t get new ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the attraction towards nostalgia. I first wrote about this tendency of Hollywood in 2016 when I wrote about Fuller House and The Karate Kid remake. I then wrote about MTV Classic, also in 2016, and I suggested that we need to be aware of how we are communicating today because nostalgia for methods that worked in the past may not work today. Finally, I wrote about that YouTube Red series Cobra Kai, and I asked a very important question that I think will inform our discussion today. If we are so focused on the past, are we missing out on great things that could happen in the present? Sure, I love The Karate Kid, and it is awesome to be able to go down memory lane. That being said, is it possible that there are plenty of brilliant storytellers out there today who have their own stories that they want to tell, and could resources be more effectively brought towards those people? In that situation, we could still watch Ralph Macchio from 30 years ago, but we could still see more great stories develop today. That seems like a better proposal.
However, I’m not sure that is a realistic proposal. I wasn’t thinking in this context when I wrote that article in 2017, but as I have been thinking more about the idea of story and narrative, I think that I have a better idea as to why we continually come back to the old stories and remake them (with a few politically correct adaptations, of course, since this is 2018).
In short, I am going to propose the existence of a metanarrative, the great story of humanity. That story has certain themes in it, and themes that are consistent with the metanarrative are the ones that stick with us. Those are the stories we like because, as humans, we are designed to like certain things and recognize that which is truly good. However, as we have gotten further out of touch with this metanarrative and virtue, our modern stories therefore are less consistent with that narrative. Because they are less consistent with that narrative and what is consistent with our nature, they do not do well in the box office, so Hollywood has reverted to the old stories. They are more consistent with that narrative and therefore are successful because people like them. It goes beyond nostalgia and is deeper than that even though nostalgia may be part of it.
First, we need to consider this concept of metanarrative. As Christians, we understand that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We also understand that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Of course, this is talking about Jesus Christ in context, but we would be remiss if we did not recognize the significance of describing Jesus Christ as the Word. Words tell stories. Words communicate meaning. Jesus Christ is indeed the story in the world. He is the great story, and He is the metanarrative. He is the overarching Word that provides the lens for interpreting everything else. If we want to know why anything in this world has meaning or significance, it derives that significance through the person of Jesus Christ. Our meaning and our stories are significant because we are created in the image of God. He gave our stories meaning through His, and we are a part of His metanarrative.
Because we are part of this larger story orchestrated by God and are created in the image of God, there are certain things that are going to be consistent with our God-given desires. There are things that are going to remind us of God’s story. As a pretty easy example, most of us resonate with the theme of justice. To use one of my examples above, think about Cinderella. We feel that it is unfair that Cinderella is mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters. Therefore, when, through the intervention of her fairy godmother, she is able to go to the ball and ultimately marries the prince, our sense of justice is satisfied. We feel like everything worked out the way it should. After all, Cinderella is a pretty decent person, and her evil relatives should not be able to walk all over her. They should be punished for mistreating Cinderella, and Cinderella should triumph. We want her to have a happy ending, and we love this story because she does. Nobody would like Cinderella if her wicked stepsister ended up getting married to the prince. That would not satisfy our innate sense of justice.
Storytelling in and of itself is nothing new, and you can see these kinds of things echoed all over our world across time and culture. It could be a giant coincidence that these kinds of themes of justice, mercy, love or joy seem to come up again and again. Or, it could be, as I suggest, that because we are created in the image of God, we have some idea of this metanarrative. It is almost Platonic if you will. We realize that there are these ideals, and we tell stories about these ideals. We try to line up with the metanarrative in our stories. We try to line up with God’s story. Even in those cultures that would not recognize the God that we believe in or have never heard the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by virtue of being created in the image of God, they are part of the metanarrative. They are part of the story that God has established, so they resonate with the parts of it that are consistent with God’s story.
We look at the story of Jesus Christ, and we recognize justice. A perfectly innocent victim died for the sins of all humanity, but we see what J. R. R. Tolkien classified as eucatastrophe. At the last minute, when everything seemed dark, we see justice triumph. Jesus Christ conquered the grave. He didn’t have to come, and He did not have to endure the cross, but His mercy and love shown through because He did. However, conquering death was not the only thing that Jesus did; He made a way for you and me to experience unmerited yet complete, eternal joy.
I think you can theoretically see some of the connections I’m trying to show you here. The themes that we love about classic stories are also present in God’s metanarrative. Therefore, it becomes a question of whether or not these are random coincidences, or could it be that, as a Christian would contend, we are drawn to stories that celebrate the themes that we see in God’s story because we are created in the image of God? We are undoubtedly marred by sin, but we have some concept of what good looks like, and we love that which is good. We love justice because justice is good. We love joy because joy is good. We love mercy because mercy is good. Love in and of itself is good. It is not a matter of whether or not we happen to feel they are good; they are objectively good.
Modern Metanarrative Integration
We can go down the list of classic movies and television shows and find these themes everywhere. It is not that every one of these movies or shows happens to display all of the hallmarks of Christian virtue. Far from it; we are talking about Hollywood after all. However, think about a movie like Saving Private Ryan. That picture of sacrifice is beautiful. Think about the friendship and love in The Wizard of Oz (not to mention justice). Inception tells a powerful story of reconciliation. Even very dark movies like Fight Club can show us important truths about our dissatisfaction with the status quo. The Breakfast Club illuminates our desire to belong and make something of our lives. My list could go on for very long time, but I don’t think it is hard to see how these themes come right out of God’s story. Of course, I’m obviously not saying that these movies are speaking the voice of God (far from it for each and every one of these), but I am saying that because the writers and directors are created in the image of God, it is not surprising that the themes that they put into their stories and, unsurprisingly, the themes that made their movies wildly popular with their audience are the exact same ones that spawned from within the metanarrative of God.
This is amazing when you start to think about it. What we, Christians and non-Christians alike, love about our favorite movies comes directly out of God’s story. We might not recognize it, but it is there. There is no doubt that if you ask people why they love Saving Private Ryan, they are not going to say because of all the violence. There are probably going to say because of the sacrifice or brotherhood of soldiers. If you ask people why they love Fight Club, they will first refuse to talk about fight club, but if you press them, they will say that they can resonate with its rejection of consumerism and a life of insignificance. This is like God’s ultimate guerrilla tactic. We may not even realize it, but it is too much of a consistent trend to be merely a coincidence. Look at every top movie and find out why people love it. You will find a theme that comes right out of God’s story.
With this groundwork set, we can then advance to the question as to why Hollywood can’t seem to find a new story and why they continually want to make updates of old stories.
Before we get into the deeper theory, let me first suggest that there is a great deal of financial incentive. This is when nostalgia comes into play. If there was a new version of The Sound of Music, I would watch it (and I did when NBC did its TV version a few years ago). I love The Sound of Music, and I associate it with good memories. Therefore, there is a degree of nostalgia without a doubt. Knowing that nostalgia is powerful, it is a rather safe decision to produce that movie. It will make money almost all the time. I understand that money talks.
That being said though, I don’t know that nostalgia is necessary or even the only reason. After all, if my theory is correct, if we create a movie based on a theme that is consistent with God’s metanarrative, it is going to resonate with the audience assuming, of course, it is a well-made movie. There is a reason that most Christian films don’t do well; most of them are not overly great movies (although I am happy to say that this trend does seem to be changing with movies like The Case for Christ and I Can Only Imagine). It is not just enough to have the right themes; it has to be a well-made movie as well. Nevertheless, the themes are absolutely necessary.
Also, film has been around as a genre approximately 100 years. You didn’t really see tons of nostalgia until recently. If the theory about nostalgia being the chief driver was true, then I feel like in the 1970s, you would have seen a rash of movies that hearkened back to the early days of film. Just like people my age grew up with Aladdin and now are going to go see a remake, that kind of parallel have easily existed prior to now. We don’t see it though as far as I know.
Consequently, I don’t think that nostalgia is a sufficient reason for explaining why we see them all popping up right now.
Secondly, stories have been told for a very long time, but it is not that we have run out of stories. I don’t know that we have reached the end of human creativity; the mind is a pretty wild thing that has pretty wide boundaries. I absolutely reject the assertion that there are no stories still to be told. The evidence against that is that there are every now and then great movies that are made and resonate with people even today. The well is not dry.
However, what could possibly be the reason then for these types of movies if it is not straight nostalgia or simply an exhaustion of possible story options?
I would suggest that we have forgotten the themes or outright rejected them. This trend is nothing new, but for much of human history, so many things have been simply understood as true and self-evident. Being heroic was seen as a good thing (check out this article by Carla Alvarez in An Unexpected Journal about the development of heroes that lends some support to this idea). Today, we make movies about the antihero. We are interested in the story of the villain, and we want to put that center stage. For most of human history, it was seen as a good thing to have a stable family. Now we make comedies based on all of the potential twists and turns that tear apart the nuclear family. We laugh about what we formerly valued.
Rather unsurprisingly, we see a lot of movies fall apart if they do not embrace any of the themes out of God’s story. Like I suggested previously, any movie is far from perfect. None of them are even close to pure. However, the movies that you see flop are the ones that do not have any strong thematic ties to that which is consistent with human nature and the metanarrative. In fact, when you look at most of the worst-rated movies of all times, they almost always fail to have any type of definite theme. They fall apart because they fail to connect to that which is innately human but more importantly part of God’s story.
Therefore, I think my conclusion that we either have forgotten or rejected the themes makes a great deal more sense than the alternatives. Film directors don’t know what makes a successful film because they have gotten away from the things of God. Not that Hollywood has ever been the American bastion of morality, but culturally, Americans seemed to at least understand these themes a little bit more through the general Judeo-Christian culture that defined our country. I am not saying that we were a Christian nation, but I am saying that there was a greater awareness of Christian truth in the past because Christianity undoubtedly played a more significant role in the cultural conversation in that time. Therefore, it would not be surprising if a filmmaker thought that it would be a great idea to embed the theme of mercy within his or her film. They would recognize that it was a good thing because it was culturally understood to be objectively good.
These objective truths are becoming cloudier and cloudier. We turn away from them more and more as a culture, so when we are creating films or any other cultural project, we simply might not see the importance of fitting these themes into our work. Without the awareness of the metanarrative and its distinct features, we are going to miss these themes that resonate with people and make movies classic. The best movies had them. They find their ways into movies nowadays, but it is less likely to find these ideas because they are not as prevalent in the culture that undoubtedly influences the art that filmmakers make.
It briefly comes back to money again here at the end of the story. If you are a major film studio and can only make so many movies within your budget, you need to get a return on those films to stay in business. You may not recognize why Aladdin was so beloved, but you know that it was. Therefore, you know that you can rekindle that magic again. You don’t have to know about the themes present in Aladdin that are consistent with God’s metanarrative, but if you are a businessman or woman of any merit, you will want to go back to that again as long as you can.
If you have followed me this long, then I think that you can see how this story ends. You want the magic, but you don’t know where to get it. Therefore, you have to return to the same old stories. If our film studios understood how to generate this magic again, I don’t think we would see nearly as many remakes as we do. However, they don’t know how to predict a successful movie. They don’t realize where the magic comes from, and they have forgotten God’s metanarrative altogether or outright rejected it as irrelevant.
The problem they face is that the movies that people love are the ones that are consistent with that metanarrative. The answer is to return to God’s story. I’m not saying every movie has to be an allegory. Every story does not need to be The Pilgrim’s Progress. That would get boring after a while. Rather, what I’m saying is if you want to make a movie that people want to watch and love, you need to make a movie that resonates with them on a human level. Because, at our deepest level, we are created in the image of God, we have some idea of that which is good. Our perspective is undoubtedly marred by sin, but we know what justice is when we see it. We know what mercy is. We understand what is valuable about heroism. Believe it or not, God understands that as well and showed it to us in its purest form, and He created us to desire these things. Therefore, we also desire portrayals of those good things. If Hollywood wants to be able to tell new stories that are successful, they need to get back in touch with the metanarrative and embrace those themes.