Tweaking an established mythos is something of an inevitability when it comes to writing fiction, in particular works of fantasy and horror. As time wears on, so do sentiments and prejudices change, often manifesting themselves in fiction. But there are a few things we should be cautious of lest we go so far off the beaten path that the thing we write about is barely recognizable.
Vampires are one of literature’s most endearing legends, and they’ve gone through many iterations. A favorite of mine is the 1987 film Near Dark, about a clan of bloodsuckers in the modern day west. The word ‘vampire’ is interestingly never uttered once in the film, they don’t sprout fangs, change into bats, or carry themselves in the typical victorian era style. They simply drink blood, die by sunlight, and don’t age. The creators of Near Dark took an interesting approach and stripped away at the mythos, filling in their own ideas and making something uniquely there’s.
This approach has worked many times. In An American Werewolf In London, the vulnerability to silver bullets is discarded and even joked about by the characters. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the villains don’t arrive by spaceships, instead drifting across the universe on their own. Sometimes less is more, and shaving away at a mythos can help you make it yours required you still keep its core elements.
In case you haven’t figured out by now, I’m not the biggest fan of the Twilight series, and it’s not because of friendly vampires and werewolves. As we become a more global civilization, we see that reflected in art where things we once feared, like vampires and werewolves, are seen as unique characters to be embraced rather than rebuked. If anything, this is one of the series’ more favorable traits.
Among my many issues with Twilight is its lack of focus when it came to portraying vampirism. By the final entry, the vampires are shown to have ‘special gifts’ ranging from telling the future, creating force fields, even controlling elements such as water and earth, things the series never elaborates in in enough detail to make it credible, in my view at least. It seems like Meyer caught an episode of Avatar The Last Airbender midway through the series and just decided to put it in.
By this point, the characters are barely recognizable as vampires, their most noteworthy attributes long since forgotten. Whereas Near Dark stripped the mythos down, Twilight built it too high until it collapsed under its own weight. In my view, Meyer went too far off the beaten path. Though her success should be celebrated, Meyer’s writing is not high on my favorites list.
Sometimes changing a mythos can be as simple as changing a personality. The story that turned me onto the fantasy genre was DragonHeart, the tale of a dragonslayer partnering up with the very creature he’s hunting in hopes of overthrowing an evil king. I was fascinated at how dragons were portrayed in the film, not as greedy beasts collecting gold and feasting on young women, but as wise misunderstood recluses seeking their place in the world like so many of us do. They still fly, they still breath fire, and still fight knights with tooth and claw. Beneath it all however, they’re shown to be not unlike us.
Changing personality can do a lot. You can have stories of frightened werewolves on the run from poachers, evil oppressive elves and discriminated against orcs, alien explorers hiding on an unfriendly alien planet called Earth, but everything else abut them can remain the same. This type of mythos tweaking begins with recognition, and then allows you to know your myth on a more personal level.
Oh Johnny Depp, what happened to you since Nightmare on Elm Street? Adapting an existing source material from page to screen inevitably causes certain parts of its plot to be altered, but generally as long as the world remains consistent, IE in the Harry Potter films, the audience will accept the changes. If you change the mythos too much, you will leave your audience lost, much like the 2010 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Its box office success notwithstanding, this film gets almost everything wrong. Alice isn’t a little girl but a grown woman, this is not her first time in Wonderland, and the world isn’t even called Wonderland, but Underland.
In the case of this film, the mythos has been changed so much that the source material is all but lost. Though Kubrick’s The Shining deviated heavily from the book, the Overlook Hotel was still called the Overlook Hotel. Draco from DragonHeart may be a wise arbiter instead of a fire breathing villain, but he’s still a dragon. The world in Alice in Wonderland is not Wonderland, by spirit or name. In spite of Alice in Wonderland’s box office intake, it is not a very well loved film, partially due to it deviating too far from the mythos its title promises.
Tweaking a mythos to make it your own is a thin tight rope to walk. The thing about an established mythos is they belong to all of us, so if you take it all away, there’s always going to be a sense of loss. The key is figuring out just how much to change for yourself, and how much you need to keep sharing. There’s never an answer that will satisfy everyone, but satisfying as many people as possible, the artist included, is the goal of us all.