However creative we want to believe we are, almost everything we create comes from somewhere else. It may be that we copy directly and intentionally, or lift ideas from our subconscious without recalling where it came from. In either event, ‘originality’ is just a case of whether the audience recognizes the source or not. Whoever produced the most famous version is usually credited with the most originality, even if in their time it was an obvious copy. Take for example the story of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers from feuding families who die in consecutive suicides due to one thinking the other dead. We think it came from the great creative mind of Shakespeare, but in fact he lifted the whole story almost intact from someone else.
If we trace the story back several versions through Tristan and Isolde and Aeneas and Dido, we can get to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, in Ovid’s Metamorphasis. Two lovers in the city of Babylon who's respective parents, driven by rivalry, forbid them to wed. Pyramus commits suicide thinking Thisbe is dead, who in turn commits suicide on learning Pyramus is dead. Before 8 AD we lose track of the story but it was likely adapted from an earlier myth. Presumably at some point in history it was based on a true story… but then does that make it any more original? Does the real credit belong to some ancient Babylonian Romeo, or whoever first spoke the tale?
Once you know what memes to look for – ill-fated lovers, feuding families, consecutive suicides – you can trace the ancestry of the story forwards as well as backwards. Productions as diverse as Godfather (1991), West Side Story (1961), Warm Bodies (2013), The Lion King (1994), and Bring It On: In It to Win It (2007) all fit this successful template. Of course none of these movies are a direct retelling, but they owe part of their success to borrowing their plot from a classic they already knew worked. You can think of these movies as a remix, taking something old that already resonates, and bringing it to a new audience. Sometimes these new elements take on a new life, and become an inseperable part of the memeplex. For example the original Shakespeare play never had a balcony scene. The word balcony didn’t even appear in the English language until 2 years after his death.
The story continues to get told because everyone can relate to tribal rivalry, forbidden love, loss and tragedy. The story is useful, in that it serves as a warning against the dangers of unintended consequences. It also gives its audience a cathartic release: at least our family isn’t that screwed up! The format just works. Even if the world ended, and all records of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were lost, eventually someone would write something similar independently: it’s re-emergence is inevitable. Perhaps in time the origins will be lost, and we’ll be hailing the creative genius of Kelly Asbury, Director of Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), as the originator of the meme that launched a thousand tragic love stories.