The 10 Levels of Unoriginality in Hollywood Movies

By  · Published on October 14th, 2014


There was a while where I defended the majority of comic book movies as being fairly original works. Aside from the borrowed characters and origin stories and basic themes, it was still up to the production team to come up with a story and plot, cinematic characterization and dialogue. There was a lot of creativity required there. Far more than a lot of faithful adaptations of novels. But now more and more, perhaps because there are so many of these movies being made and not a lot of fresh ideas to go around, producers are mining from preexisting stories from the comics. Few of them have been too complete in their translation, but each time there’s a title directly lifted from a publication we have to wonder how much will be the same. The announcement that Marvel is tapping its 2006 “Civil War” crossover for Captain America 3 makes the studio seem like it’s getting lazier.

Obviously name recognition goes a long way, and fans love to see movie versions of material they’ve already seen in one form – to watch the panels come alive, as it were. But this is Marvel. They’ve gotten away with so many risks that they can’t be thinking they need more familiarity in their adaptations. Even as far as fan service goes, it’s not like the comic geeks and the brand loyal aren’t going to show up anyway. Maybe Fox needs that with their X-Men franchise, especially after proving it could boost box office with such ideas in this summer’s Days of Future Past. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, though, ought to be devising its own unique storylines and titles. If the comic writers have to regularly originate crossover and storyline ideas, then why can’t screenwriters be expected to do the same?

Given this saddening downturn in what I have considered to be a genre of great creative opportunity and potential, I’ve decided to share my 10-point guide to unoriginality in Hollywood movies. Depending on how close Captain America 3 aligns with the “Civil War” source material, the sequel could very well fall to the bottom of the list.

The following is in order from most original kinds of movies to least original. They are primarily put to Hollywood, though they certainly also can apply to independent and foreign cinema. Also, this is specific to fictional works, with dramatic nonfiction – biopics, based on a true story, etc. – having some different levels outside of partly falling under level number three. One more thing I should note is that this regards script conception and doesn’t take into consideration execution, such as in directorial imagination and other creative arts elements that can often make up for an unoriginal story.


1. Entirely Made Up

It should be obvious that the top end of the originality chart is pure originality, which include only ideas entirely devised from a screenwriter’s mind. Best examples are anything written by Charlie Kaufman, most of Christopher Nolan’s original features, the best of Pixar and on the marginally lower end of this level is stuff by filmmaker such as Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino who sample a lot but do original things with and around all the allusions.

2. Branded But Inventive

One of the most populous levels these days, here is where you find anything based on something mainly just in name and maybe some minor details. Original plots can be constructed around anything from comic book characters to theme park rides to toys and games to true events and real people. Examples therefore would be X2: X-Men United, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The LEGO Movie, Battleship, Pain & Gain and The Conjuring.

3. Sequel With Fresh Direction

Sequels are often derided for being unoriginal, but a good many of them are done well when effort is put into them. They get to borrow from preexisting materials, mainly characters, but sequels that don’t just try to replicate there predecessor(s) can be some of the most creatively winning features out of Hollywood. Examples include Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Before Midnight, Aliens, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Halloween III, Dawn of the Dead, Back to the Future Part II and Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

4. Loose Remake

Remakes are another type of movie that people just lump altogether unfairly. But there are tons of great remakes, a lot of them film classics (many also just re-adaptations) like The Maltese Falcon, A Star is Born and The Ten Commandments. And there have been exceptional recent examples such as The Departed, Ocean’s Eleven and True Grit. Not all those are necessarily as original as a very loose remake, however. The best examples of remakes that work with fresh and updated relevance or just expand on different elements include 12 Monkeys, The Fly, The Thing, Scarface, Throw Mama From the Train, Forbidden Planet, Airplane! and The Magnificent Seven. Also plenty of others that are uncredited or unofficial (or “unintentional”) remakes, like Twister, Disturbia, Cars and Avatar.

5. Unsourced But Genre Faithful

In the middle of the spectrum we have the most complicated of the levels. These are movies that are technically original, enough to fit the Oscar category as much as only level one is the other qualifier. But unless they feature clever dialogue and some fresh filler, they probably won’t be recognized by the Academy because they’re so conventional. Examples include most rom-coms and horror flicks, as well as the sorts of standard mysteries we rarely see anymore because they’re so formulaic.

6. Formulaic Sequel

A lot of sequels are rightly criticized for existing. They’re exploitations of a popular idea and do little to divert from what audiences loved about the original. There are varying ranges within this level, so something like Toy Story 2 may fall down here. Most examples, though, are pretty weak in terms of satisfying entertainment, such as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, The Hangover: Part II, Ghostbusters 2, Die Hard 2 and Teen Wolf Too.

7. Loose Adaptation

Most books are just fine being books, no need for a visualized take on the same story. But then there are the creative adaptations that rework material and maybe sometimes come out unrecognizable from their source. It’s not just books for this level, either. This applies to adaptations of plays, TV shows and any other preexisting plot found in a different medium, including some of the brands you’d otherwise find at level 2 except that they originally have more of a strict backstory. Still, why not just make it all up, including the title? Examples include Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The Shining, The Equalizer, About a Boy, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Blade Runner, The Wizard of Oz, Masters of the Universe, I Robot, World War Z, There Will Be Blood and The Brady Bunch Movie. Oh and a billion credited and uncredited movies based on Shakespeare and the stories his plays are based upon.

8. Faithful Adaptation of Novels

Adaptations of literature and plays have been around since cinema began, so it doesn’t seem as awful to a lot of movie geeks as some of the other kinds of unoriginality out there. But the most faithful and literal adaptations are so unoriginal they’re just plain unnecessary, no matter how much we want to see Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen and their respective worlds acted out on the big screen. Again, this level doesn’t necessarily output bad movies. Far from it, in fact. Examples can include such great works as To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone Girl, Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, No Country for Old Men and The Age of Innocence.

9. Faithful Remake

One of the lamest things that Hollywood can do is remake a movie beat for beat, scene for scene. Not everything on this level is Gus van Sant’s Psycho, but there are a lot of remakes that are deemed totally unnecessary on account of they add nothing to something that is already a perfectly good and still watchable movie (so long as it’s not a foreign film never released in the US). There are rarely good movies in this bunch, though some thought to be exact like Let Me In do have enough new in translation even if not quite loosely redone. Worst offenders of late include most modern horror remakes, Footloose, Red Dawn, RoboCop, Funny Games and The Delivery Man.

10. Faithful Adaptation of Comic Books

Comic books are a visual medium. They are slightly like storyboards. I stress slightly, because I don’t want to diminish the art of the comics for what they are, as opposed to storyboards, a finished product. Still, more than novels and even some children’s books there is a real redundancy to the most faithfully adapted graphic novels and comic book storylines. The big bad examples here include Sin City and its sequel, Watchmen and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Just because being faithful to what we see in the comic panels is unoriginal, though, doesn’t make the movies necessarily bad here, either. American Splendor is pretty faithful, but it has a very clever style to make up for it. Same perhaps goes for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Persepolis, the latter an animated work that has a different style of drawing but is still fairly faithful.


Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.