Turns out it’s because…humans. It’s how we’re wired. Day-am, kids. Day-am it to hell!
by Annalee Newitz
It’s the question that every movie [and TV] fan asks in 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 is not good.
Two network theorists in the Netherlands, Folgert Karsdorp and Antal van den Bosch, just published a study on story networks in Royal Society Open Science. Story networks, they write, are “streams of retellings in which retellers modify and adapt retellings in a gradual and accumulative way.” There is also a basic structure that seems to underly how these networks function. To explore retellings, the researchers looked at more than 200 versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story, which had been retold over the past two centuries. They measured the stories’ similarity to one another with the amusingly named “bag-of-words” technique, which reveals how many words two texts have in common. Then they created a network diagram showing relatedness between stories over time. Earlier stories became what the researchers called “pre-texts” that inspired later retellings.
Translated into movie terms, you can think of Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel from 1897 as a pre-text, and all of the subsequent movies and TV series as retellings. A story network grows out of Dracula as people retell the story, then retell the retellings, modifying it as they go. What the researchers found was that retellers rarely went back to the earliest pre-texts but instead preferred 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 commonly represented today as an ultra-hot guy with sexual magnetism who occasionally goes fangy. As the story got retold throughout the twentieth century, you can see Dracula getting more and more handsome with each retelling, until we expect that Dracula is a suave and charming man with a tragic past. As retellers gravitated toward the most recent retelling, certain aspects of the story were magnified (such as Dracula’s hotness) while others were forgotten (for example, we have yet to see a single Dracula retelling that deals with a forgotten aspect of the novel, which is that Dracula’s love interest, Mina, is a geek who uses all the latest Victorian recording technology to do research on vampires).
That said, the researchers also found that a very small percentage of pre-texts spawned most of the retellings….