Russell Crowe leaped onscreen Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival with the latest version of “Robin hood,” but will not sport green tights, a jaunty cap, nor joust with Friar Tuck or compete in an archery competition.
That’s because this Ridley Scott extravaganza is set in the days before the hero became known as the champion of the poor.
This taste for prequels hews closely to the current Hollywood mania for peeking into the origins of well-loved heroes. Everyone from Batman to Darth Vader, King Arthur, and Superman – even Gollum – has had back stories thoroughly deconstructed and put onscreen.
Some, like “Batman Begins” with Christian Bale, are great hits. But Clive Owen and Keira Knightly flopped in a deep history of King Arthur, and some would argue that the only good thing about the three Star Wars prequels were the final 20 minutes that gave birth to Darth Vader. So when should a prologue remain mercifully hidden, and when does unearthing mythmaking clay become movie gold?
“When characters are created,” says Stephen Fishler of Metropolis Entertainment Inc., there are attributes in terms of initial storytelling that remain hidden, indicating that there are events or emotions in the hero’s past that are important, but secret. They are often the very qualities that make that character compelling.
“But,” he says, “when other people want to extend that character and keep it going, the background becomes too tempting.” So often, he adds, the things that should be kept hidden and left to the imagination, get splashed all over the screen.
But what does “an origin story” even mean with a figure that is arguably nearly a millennium old, and the first reference appears to be a 1262 English countryside ledger entry dubbing a captured outlaw as simply another “Robbenhode,” and the tale has been retold countless times through oral ballads and more than a hundred film and television versions?
The story has something for everyone. “Robin Hood continues to be a story that everyone can relate to – conservatives, liberals, adults, children,” says University of Rochester’s Tom Hahn, a Robin Hood scholar, “because the story and the outlaw hero is constantly re-shaped by popular culture, media, and the movies.”
That capacity to appeal to completely different fantasies and encompass those values and the various projections an audience brings in is what makes people willing to pay money, he says, adding that whether or not Robin Hood actually existed matters little. “It is his meaning to people that matters,” says Mr. Hahn.
Updating a well-worn icon such as Robin Hood works when you rely on the origins of its mythic power, rather than on the veracity of its historical details or character backstory, says Villanova University film and culture professor Susan Mackey.
She points out that the mythic structures of classic tales – the fight between good and evil or the struggle to come of age – underpin timeless figures such as Robin Hood. Referring to the author of “The Hero’s Journey,” a tome that has become a Hollywood handbook, she says “that Joseph Campbell believed that mythic stories, if they are truly mythic, are the only stories worth telling. Walt Disney knew this instinctively and built an entire global empire on that knowledge."
Hollywood, when it hits it big at the box office with films like, “E.T.," or “Close Encounters of The Third Kind,” or “Star Wars,” or “The Natural,” or “Titanic,” or the “Batman” and “Spiderman” series, is also cashing in on this mythic awareness.
Can a mythic story be stripped so completely that it is unrecognizable and meaningless? asks Mackey. Absolutely. Must it constantly be remade to be kept fresh and relevant? Absolutely.
“Some of the most powerful mythic films actually push the boundaries of more traditional stories,” says Mackey, “but this simply speaks to the idea that myths are alive and evolving, soft clay to be brought to life in the hands of an insightful artist – not static, inscribed in some dusty book to be preserved or endlessly intoned.”
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