Last month, prolific television producer Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl) secured a pilot commitment from NBC for a dramatic series about the brides of Dracula.
Intrigued yet? I sure am! You can already picture it: Without knowing thing one about Berlanti’s take—based strictly on that eight-word rundown at the end of the previous paragraph—visions of something sexy, Gothic, atmospheric swirl like mist through the imagination. Bedsheets and bloodshed. Seduction and the supernatural. It’s the kind of pitch in which the creative possibilities are so self-evident, a network exec—and, ultimately, an audience—is sold on the project without a further word of elaboration.
Because we all know the brides of Dracula—from Stoker to Lugosi to Coppola—but what do we know about them, really? The pitch hooks us because it capitalizes on something about which we’re already aware… only to make us consider how much of it we’re probably (and inexcusably) unaware, and how curious we’d be—now that you point it out!—to get some of those blanks filled in. (And that Dracula is in the public domain is all the more appealing, because no one has to shell out big bucks to secure the rights to the property; in that sense, it is almost like a natural resource waiting to be exploited by those with the wherewithal to dig it out of the ground.)
Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, workhorse screenwriters behind The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, have a term for such a thing: “mental real estate”—i.e., if an intellectual property or brand is already on your radar, half the sales pitch is in the bag before it’s even commenced. If I were to produce an original thriller, no matter how meritorious it may be, I’ve still got to sell you on the premise—what’s cool about, what’s different about it, why it’s worth your time and hard-earned dollars—before you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt; if, however, you were to see an advertisement for, say, a new James Bond film, you don’t really need to know what that particular installment’s about or even who’s playing 007—you already know you’re going to get an extra helping of something you’ve enjoyed many, many times in the past. Bond’s got mental real estate. That’s the reason why risk-averse Hollywood is producing—almost exclusively at this point—endless sequels to and reboots of preexisting IPs. And, to be fair, it works: Consider that there are no fewer than four unrelated iterations of Sherlock Holmes flourishing at present, each taking advantage of our familiarity with the Victorian detective yet tweaking the formula just enough to hit that coveted “same-but-different” sweet spot: Holmes as a bohemian brawler; Holmes as an aging sleuth; Holmes in contemporary London; Holmes in contemporary New York.
You don’t even have to have seen a particular movie or have read a given book in order for its premise or content to take up mental real estate. For instance: Ever read Paradise Lost? Probably not. (I’m not shaming you, by the way—I’ve yet to read past Book I myself, despite having adorned my bookshelf with an excellent annotated edition for some years now.) But, regardless, the mere mention of it likely conjures images of winged angels and horned demons engaged in stratospheric civil war.
How about this, though? What if I were to reframe Paradise Lost (also, like Dracula, in the public domain) not as some dusty Biblical epic expressed through inaccessible blank verse, but rather as an interstellar outer-space opera about cosmic warfare and power jockeying set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—a sort of Masters of the Universe–meets–Games of Thrones mash-up? Render an ancient tale new again for a correspondingly new millennium?
I came across a book by Gustav Davidson called A Dictionary of Angels. I’m not religious, but I couldn’t deny the mysterious allure of angels and their mythology. In my mind, they weren’t bare-assed babies playing harps in the clouds—the angels were warriors.
The original badasses of Creation.
Flipping through Gustav’s A-Z compendium, I found a factoid about how one cardinal estimated the amount of angels that “fell” after the war in Heaven totaled well over one hundred million. One hundred million—world war on a scale I had never seen before. I needed to know more. But the war hadn’t been explored in any great detail in the Bible or other religious texts. I found an angel name here and there, little pieces, but nothing concrete. What would cause so many enlightened beings to doom their bodies and souls? Rebellion, civil war, Michael versus Satan—I had to tell this story. Their story.
And just as Star Wars, for all of its cosmic dogfights and political machinations, was ultimately a cross-generational father-and-son story, Mr. Ritchie’s retelling of the rebellion in Heaven is predicated on a fraternal melodrama between angels Michael and Satan. This is an Institutionalized tale—a “Family Institution,” in particular—in which the sons of the disembodied “Creator” (or “God,” if you like, who plays no direct role in the story, but is rather wisely kept a celestial abstraction), Michael, His prophet, and Satanail, His heavenly administrator (“pope and president” as Mr. Ritchie characterized their roles via e-mail), find themselves at ideological odds when it is discovered that their Father has been nursing a pet project on the other side of the cosmos—Earth—and has populated the planet with a species inferior to angels: “Mankind.” The revelation inspires the better inclinations of Michael’s protective nature and the baser instincts of Satanail’s. As Mr. Ritchie explained in an e-mail:
One of my main goals with FFG was to make it part of our universe, a part of our history. The story isn’t taking place on some fictional realm (Middle Earth, Westeros, etc.), but something that very well could have/does exist within our reality. It is very much science fiction in that I include scientific concepts like evolution, the Big Bang, wormholes, etc., instead of it being the creationist or diehard religious version of the tale.
The design of Heaven is built around the concept of “as it is in Heaven, so it is on Earth.” If you think about people’s perception of angels, divine beings, how do you craft a story that is in any way relatable?! How could a story about angels in paradise possibly correlate to the human condition? Humanizing angels and Heaven was a big issue I had to tackle. I had to find a balance of humanity and divinity. That’s why the act-one setup (the first nine chapters) is so important: Who cares about the destruction of paradise if you don’t properly establish it?
THE DETAILS IN THE DEVIL
Indeed, the novel’s entire first half is devoted to establishing the “society” of Heaven, the pantheon of angels, the complex dynamic between Michael and Satanail, and the fallout from the discovery that, to borrow a sci-fi trope (more mental real estate!), they are not alone in the universe. Of all the characters, Satan probably holds the biggest piece of psychic realty for most readers; he becomes the “one to watch” throughout the story, because while his fate is predetermined, his path is largely paved by the author’s particular choices. I asked Mr. Ritchie how he went about reinterpreting the fiend of all fiends for his take on the mythology:
SPC: Probably my favorite depiction of Satan is Al Pacino’s John Milton from The Devil’s Advocate (1997). He’s got all the de rigueur traits you’d expect—he’s omniscient/omnipotent, charming and seductive, vengeful—but then they added this totally unexpected facet to his characterization: He’s a genuine man of the people. He describes himself as “the last humanist,” and admonishes God for being an “absentee landlord”—and a sadistic one, at that, being that he gifted mankind with freewill only to then set the rules in opposition. “I’m here on the ground with my nose in it since the whole thing began,” he says. “I’ve nurtured every sensation man has been inspired to have. I cared about what he wanted, and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him—in spite of all his imperfections. I’m a fan of man!”
You went a very different route, necessarily, with respect to Satan’s motivation in Fall From Grace: He feels threatened by the existence of mankind, and seeks to destroy it as the ultimate act of insurrection against his Father. How much of that comes from Satanic tradition, and how much was your own imagination/interpretation? Tell me a little bit about how you came to arrive at this precise characterization.
JER: When developing Satanail, I wanted to adhere to certain preconceptions about him from the very beginning, such as his innate pride, but I also needed to establish him as one of the most respected, beloved angels in Heaven. The same characteristics that become twisted and define him as evil were also what once made him great. Everyone has an idea in their heads of the “Devil,” but who was Satanail the angel? The best villains are the ones whose virtues are twisted into sin through conflict and tragedy, often stemming from family. Anakin Skywalker wasn’t born Darth Vader…
When the story begins, Satanail is damn near physical and mental perfection. He is a sociological and academic genius. A true “angel of the people” whereas Michael is more reserved and distant. Family is the core of the narrative in Fall From Grace. It’s a story about sons—brothers—and their absent Father. One day, Satanail is told that his Father has created new sons—Mankind—and that Satanail and his people’s lives will now revolve around serving Mankind. That incites a maelstrom of new feelings within Satanail that he’s never experienced and heightens other character flaws hiding beneath the surface. Jealously. Anger. Fears of inadequacy. What’s so wrong with the Host [a.k.a. all of angelkind—Ed.], with Satanail, that their Father had to create new children? Defiance is both a logical and emotional response for Satanail. He wants to hurt his Father as grievously as possible. What better way than to destroy what Father apparently now holds most precious? Mankind.
Much of this story is how Satanail becomes Satan. Once he commits to that persona, shedding all of his grace and morals as an angel, he is on the path to becoming the classic embodiment of evil. My Satan could very well end up becoming like Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. Who knows how Satan will feel about Mankind after thousands of years? Remember, this is only Book One in a trilogy. Michael and Satan have far more to go through before they truly become the iconic hero and villain of lore.
Unlike Paradise Lost, which dealt with both Satan’s banishment from Heaven as well as the more intimate “domestic drama” of the Garden of Eden, Fall From Grace doesn’t much explore the fall of man, perhaps leaving that particular plot of intellectual acreage to be cultivated in the aforementioned subsequent installments. Wise move. In a “postnarrative” era in which audiences are placing an ever-greater premium on expansive world-building (consider, for example, the colossal success of Game of Thrones and the Marvel Cinematic Universe), drawing upon Christian mythology for story material is tapping into a deep wellspring indeed.
FEEDING FROM THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE
For anyone looking to lay claim to their own piece of mental real estate, inspiration is everywhere: Peter Pan is getting the prequel treatment in an origin story set for release next week; the son of Rocky’s Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) will be featured in his own film this fall, thirty years after Apollo himself died on the canvas in Rocky IV (a brilliant way to capitalize on a beloved brand without straining credibility by putting an aging Stallone back in the ring yet again); and Victor Frankenstein (opening the same weekend as Creed in a battle—or boxing match?—of brand recognition) tells of the titular mad scientist’s formative years as a med student, as seen through the eyes of Igor. Don’t you wish you’d come up with any of those? The creative possibilities aside, it doesn’t take a marketing maverick to sell an audience on new takes on Peter Pan, Rocky, and Frankenstein.
It is, of course, not enough to find your own parcel of mental real estate—one does need to make the property one’s own. Brand recognition didn’t do this past summer’s Fantastic Four any favors, nor The Lone Ranger two years before that; both of those efforts traded on known assets without making their interpretations seem sufficiently different, culturally pertinent, or remotely necessary. Additionally, it was recently announced that Elizabeth Banks will be “rebooting” (oh, how I deplore that ego-protective—and habitually misused—term) Charlie’s Angels, but she’d be wise to consider this first: Drew Barrymore has made no fewer than three attempts to revive that passé franchise (in 2000, 2003, and 2011), and the public response was “No, thanks.” Sometimes a creative enterprise is just of its time; it spoke to the concerns and preoccupations of its day (as good art and entertainment should), and can’t—or needn’t—be made relevant anew. Choose your subjects carefully, and, most importantly, find new, worthwhile takes on them. Highlight a subordinate character (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), focus on parts of a popular story that perhaps happened “off-screen” (Maleficent), or try juxtaposing mismatched genres (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Choosing an entity with pedigree only means you’ll have an easier time publicizing your work, not an easier time realizing it on the page; it isn’t a license to get lazy, merely an opportunity, under the best circumstances, to put one’s own spin—one’s own stamp—on folklore.
Take a cue from Mr. Ritchie: An accomplished screenwriter specializing in world creation, he has brought a cinematic, visionary approach to a subject with a literary tradition dating back to the Old Testament that’s been reinterpreted and re-envisioned across three millennia; far from a mere exercise in recapitulation, that’s an act of awe-inspiring creation unto itself.
Fall From Grace by J. Edward Ritchie is available on Amazon.