For the past few years, I have been a regular attendee at Naked Angels’ Tuesdays at Nine cold reading series. I’ve had a few things read over the years; more frequently I’m a performer. One of the more notable things about the reading series – apart from how long it’s been running (26 years and counting) – is that longer works are developed over time. Pieces of scripts and screenplays are brought in over the course of months, sometimes years, and we can participate in their process in real time. And it’s not just that scripts move on to complete staged readings and full productions, although that’s certainly happened. When it comes to screenplays, over the course of a year an entire movie is often spooled out in ten minute installments, a cold reading version of the old chapter serials.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been participating in the reading of one such screenplay. And indeed, it’s a fun – and so far, quite popular – throwback to those serials of old, though with an oh-so-contemporary gritty vibe to it. It’s a rollicking tale of historical adventure, set in Canada in the early 19th century and featuring French-Canadian freedom fighters, Native American scouts, eeeeevil British soldiers, and a heroic young lumberjack coming of age. His name? Paul Bunyan.
Yes, THAT Paul Bunyan.
For a time, the gritty origin story was the de rigueur way of starting a proper superhero franchise. Every character had to have a traumatic childhood and a series of catastrophic events which created them, shot through grimy filters in a slate-gray color palatte. It didn’t matter how colorful goofy we might have thought they were beforehand, how appropriate a creative choice it might have been – if you were a comic book character, you got a gritty origin story. Within the superhero world, it seems that such an idea has run its course – Zach Snyder probably pushed the idea to ludicrous extremes with his morose and murder-friendly Man of Steel, and the Marvel Universe is now so sprawling that we’d all like to skip the origin story and get straight to the good stuff.
But clearly, the impulse to explore the tragic backstory of literally every character we loved in our childhoods is still as strong as ever. And so, every couple of weeks, I read a few lines from a disapproving lumberjack elder, or a sneering British colonel, in the bloody, muddy, and soon to be very gritty origin story of Paul Bunyan.
And it seems to be going very well with our audience. So much so that I can’t help but wonder – how many more gritty origin stories are out there? And is my path to fame and financial security ultimately going to depend on finding a gritty origin story to claim for myself? If so, what on earth could it be?
A brutal, Sergio Leone-style epic of violent revenge during the Mexican-American war, that tells the story of Pecos Bill?
A horror tale of murder, possession, and vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave that ultimately creates the Boo Berry cereal mascot?
A sequel to Watership Down, even more horrifically violent than the first, which contains a mystical religious sect that ultimately gives rise to the Easter Bunny?
If anybody has any suggestions, please let me know. It would clearly be a sure-fire hit, and I could use the income.