The year is 1994 and DIC Entertainment is looking to recreate the magic of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Their brilliant “new” idea: four teenage brothers are transformed by a mad scientist into half-human, half-shark hybrids. Each of the four brothers has a different personality, but all are radical in their own way. So is born: Street Sharks!
Wow… so original.
Okay, so I think we can all admit (once the nostalgia glasses are off) that Street Sharks was a pretty shameless knockoff of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A series bereft of creative merit and created solely to sell toys. For the record, those were pretty cool toys:
So it existed, it ended – and now it’s a thing that people who grew up in the 90’s might remember as part of their childhood. That’s all it is – right?
Doesn’t have to be.
Artists throughout the years have not been shy about taking previous work and turning it into their own. People can read the duality of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the Incredible Hulk, spot the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes‘ mind in Batman, and see how Superman may just be the modern day Hercules. Ideas can be taken and re-imagined into new stories. Shakespeare, arguably the most gifted storyteller in history, was not shy about taking ideas from history and mythology to shape his plays.
Sometimes the idea origin is a classic, retelling a story that needs to be retold. Source material, however, does not have to be good quality. Some adaptations, like Dreamworks’ Shrek, used their source material to create an intriguing and successful new vision of the same basic story. If you’ve never read the children’s book that Shrek is based on, it is exceedingly simple – a very basic turning of “happily ever after” on its end. For those who have seen the film – it’s still that reversal but so much more as well.
So how does one turn something like Street Sharks into a good idea?
Step one involves identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the original series. I’ve already listed the largest weakness, that the character traits of the Street Sharks made them 90’s Ninja Turtles clones. I’ve actually also listed the strength – not toys but character design. Beyond the Street Sharks themselves, the series featured some really terrific mutant monster designs that really appealed to young viewers.
So a basic guideline for revamping Street Sharks would involve keeping the look of the world while altering character motivations/traits. A basic place to start would be with a simple question: what would it be like if four teenage brothers living in 1990’s America were suddenly transformed into mutant sharks through a “scientific” experiment? How would their lives change? Would society accept them? Was anything happening at the time that might add a layer to the story?
With just those three questions, one could create a story very different from the direction the show took. Now the reader may ask: “why do this? Street Sharks was pretty dumb – why retell it?”
My answer would be simple: for as bombastic as Street Sharks is, the basic story is about being different. Being different (or feeling like one is different) is one of the most common experiences of humanity. There are times when we all feel apart from the crowd. For many of us, the struggle to “be normal” is a very real part of life.
The idea of using sharks compliments this idea quite nicely. Throughout history, sharks have been vilified as one of nature’s bad guys. They’re right up there with wolves and spiders in terms of the terror they bring to modern man. The results? Many sharks are killed, simply for the fact that they are sharks (in addition to being killed for food).
So creating a story about something being unfairly judged on first appearance, using the image of sharks, makes a lot of sense. The imagery compliments the message, the two working together to strengthen the theme of the piece.
With that in mind, I’m going to do a quick brainstorm. Four brothers are suckered in by a bio-weapon contractor posing as a scientist, Luther Paradigm. Paradigm intends to use these shark-human hybrids in naval warfare. He dupes the brothers into agreeing to scientific testing – saying he’ll pay them and they can use the money to help their family (their father is a single parent struggling to send four kids in high school to college).
The brothers agree and are transformed, but break out. Paradigm is furious and scared, since his benefactors threaten to cut his funding. Knowing that the formula works, he tests it on himself – turning himself into Piranoid in the process. Piranoid is then tasked with eliminating the Sharks before the public becomes aware of their existence.
Meanwhile the brothers, enraged and disgusted by their appearance, have gone into hiding. They take turns checking in on their father, never letting him see them. As they hide in the bay waters of their town, they struggle to determine their future. One wants to swim away – find a remote island and never be seen by normal people again, while another wants to try and figure out a new role in society. Another is in shock, refusing to accept their new reality – believing the experiment to simply have been a powerful hallucination. The last doesn’t know what to do, but doesn’t want to be left alone.
The story unfolds from there – again, that was a quick brainstorm. I did it only to prove a point that – even from a derivative idea like Street Sharks – a unique story can unfold with some imagination. What failed in the past does not have to fail in the present if the mistakes have been learned from.
And for those Street Sharks diehards out there – hope I didn’t offend you by critiquing a show you love. Here is a link to the complete series for $7 – enjoy!
Inspiration is everywhere, it only takes the right questions to fully unlock an undercooked story’s potential.