Sat. Feb 4th, 2023

It’s the question every movie fan asks themselves over the summer: Why are there so many remakes and sequels and reboots? It turns out that science may have an answer. Unfortunately, if you’re hoping for more original stories, the prognosis isn’t good.

Two network theorists in the Netherlands, Folgert Karsdorp and Antal van den Bosch, have just published a study on story networks in Royal Society of Open Science. Story networks, they write, are “streams of retellings in which narrators modify and adapt retellings in a gradual and cumulative manner.” There is also a basic structure that seems to underlie how these networks function. To investigate retellings, the researchers looked at more than 200 versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story, which had been retold for the past two centuries. They measured the similarity of the stories with the amusingly dubbed “bag-of-words” technique, which shows how many words two texts have in common. They then created a network diagram that shows the coherence between stories over time. Earlier stories became what the researchers called “pre-texts” that inspired later retellings.

A network diagram showing the relationship of two sets of
Enlarge / A network diagram showing the relationship of two sets of “retold” texts. On the left a set of chain letters and on the right the Little Red Riding Hood retellings. Note that some pre-texts (earlier stories) spawn huge numbers of retellings.

Royal Society of Open Science

Translated into film terms, you can think of the original by Bram Stoker Dracula 1897 novel as front text, and all subsequent films and TV series as retellings. A network of stories grows out of Dracula as people retell the story, then retell the retellings and modify it along the way. What the researchers found was that retellers rarely went back to the earliest pre-texts, preferring instead to retell more recent versions. In the case of the Dracula story, that would explain why a terrifying, barely human monster in the late nineteenth century is today commonly envisioned as an ultra-hot dude with sexual magnetism who occasionally gets fangy. As the story was retold throughout the twentieth century, you see Dracula getting more and more handsome with each retelling, until we expect Dracula to be a kind and charming man with a tragic past. As retellers gravitated towards the most recent retelling, certain aspects of the story were magnified (such as Dracula’s horniness) while others were forgotten (for example, we haven’t seen a single story yet). Dracula retelling that addresses a forgotten aspect of the novel, which is that Dracula’s love interest, Mina, is a geek who uses the latest Victorian recording technology to research vampires).

That said, the researchers also found that a very small percentage of pre-texts spawned the most retellings, which explains the large nodes you see in the network diagram. To go back to Dracula, that means that some retellings, like the Bela Lugosi films of the 1930s, are much more influential than others. There will always be the really odd interpretations or attempts to go back to the source material, but generally speaking these aren’t going to become highly connected nodes in a story network. As the researchers explain, “Some story versions are used only once to produce a retelling, while others serve as pre-textual context for many other stories and could be termed ‘story hubs’.” Yet the influence of each pretext diminishes exponentially over time. That means that over time, new retellings will go back to earlier source material less and less often.

The question is whether we can use this analysis to understand the explosion of sequels at the box office. Obviously a sequel is not the same as a retelling, but it would be hard to argue that the Star Trek franchise is not some kind of story network. The researchers suggest that this could be an area for further research if we were to study stories as “small world networks.” In that scenario, they write, “stories would be connected to only a few other stories, while at the same time all the stories in the network would be connected through only a few intermediate steps.” Each Star Trek series can be a small world network, interconnected. Or you could go bigger and the Star Trek franchise as a small world network linked to the networks of other space operas such as Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica.

However we analyze the networks of sequels, the important thing is that we have evidence that story networks grow when people retell one or two recent stories over and over again. And that might help explain why summer movies are often a lot of sequels in addition to a few original movies. You can think Star Trek, Avengersor (gulp) Warcraft like those big nodes in the story network, while standalone original movies are fun Gravity or Wall-E are the exceptions that prove the rule. Some stories are destined to be told again and again, whether in reboots or sequels. Others stand alone.

Royal Society of Open Science2016. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160071

By akfire1

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