If it seems like there is almost nothing original or even interesting on television these days, you’re probably right. Back in 1992, Bruce Springsteen released a song called 57 Channels and Nothin’ On. Personally, I think he was ahead of his time. Today we have over 1,000 cable channels, and it still seems like there’s rarely anything worth watching.
That’s because Hollywood writers have long ago discovered a story premise that’s so engaging, that they can keep recycling it year after year, and decade after decade. Even today, it hasn’t yet lost its appeal. That premise is: Stranger in a Strange Land.
This storytelling idea (also known as “A Fish out of Water”) is so powerful, that it has been repackaged and sold to us dozens (or even hundreds) of times. Not only will we never tire of it, we likely won’t even realize that we’re watching yet another variation of this theme.
Naturally, this idea didn’t originate with television. The earliest example of it that I could find is a book by Charles Dickens, called The Prince And The Pauper. As you know, it’s a story of a prince and a humble commoner, two boys of approximately the same age, who just happen to look identical. They meet by chance, and decide to switch places with each other. This switching places theme has been used in a number of movies:
Prince & The Pauper Adaptations
- Freaky Friday: A teenage girl suddenly finds herself occupying her mother’s body, and vice versa.
- Opposite Day: Kids and adults switch places after a little boy wishes that children ruled the world
- Star Trek TOS – Mirror, Mirror: The Star Trek crew switch places with their less-evolved counterparts from a parallel universe.
- Class Act: The school records of a straight-A student are inadvertently switched with a student with low grades.
The Prince & The Pauper can also be thought of as a simultaneous Rags To Riches / Riches To Rags story. In fact, The Prince & The Pauper was such a good story that television script writers can still create a successful movie or television series by using only half of its storyline.
One single-direction variation is George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), whose movie adaption is My Fair Lady (1964). While not a monetary rags to riches tale, it is one in a cultural sense. British linguist Henry Higgins makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering, that he can take a random Cockney girl, and within six months, pass her off as royalty in British society.
Rags To Riches
- The Beverly Hillbillies: A family from the Ozarks discovers oil on their property, and then sell the land and mineral rights for $47 million. Their friends tell them to move to Beverly Hills, with all the other millionaires, which they promptly do.
- Diff’rent Strokes: When a wealthy New York businessman’s Harlem housekeeper passes away, he welcomes her two children into his own family.
- Fresh Prince Of Bel Air: A teenager living in a rough Philadelphia neighbourhood is sent by his mother to live with his wealthy uncle in Bel Air.
- The Jeffersons: George Jefferson’s dry cleaning business is flourishing, and he now has enough money to move his family out of their Queen’s neighbourhood and into a luxury Manhattan apartment.
Riches To Rags
- Green Acres: a Manhattan lawyer with a passion for farming moves to a rural area with his high society wife, some one with no practical skills whatsoever.
- Gilligan’s Island: Seven people go on a charter cruise and end up shipwrecked on a deserted island.
- Survivor: Twenty people volunteer to live on an island for a month while participating in sadistic, soul-destroying games.
- The Simple Life: Two Beverly Hills socialites live on a farm and try to adapt to a rural existence.
Stranger In A Strange Body
Just like Freaky Friday, these movies feature children who suddenly become adults, or adults who become children.
- 13 Going On 30: A 13-year-old girl is transformed into an adult overnight.
- 18 Again!: After a car accident, an 81-year-old George Burns discovers that he has somehow switched bodies with his 18-year-old grandson.
- Big: A 12-year-old boy awakens one morning in the body of a 30-year-old man.
- The Hot Chick: The most popular girl in school switches bodies with a con man.
Stranger In A Strange Time
A strange land is often the same land at a different point in history.
- Back To The Future / II / III: Marty McFly travels backwards and forwards in time in a time machine that resembles a Delorean.
- Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Bill and Ted use a time machine to meet various historical figures.
- Black Knight: An amusement park employee suffers a concussion and wakes up in 14th century England.
- Encino Man: A California teen discovers a caveman frozen in a block of ice, and decides to revive him.
- Jurassic Park / The Lost World: Scientists use dinosaur DNA preserved in amber to reanimate the massive prehistoric creatures at an island theme park.
- Sleeper: A health food store owner dies during surgery, and his family decides to have him cryogenically frozen. he awakens 200 years later.
- Quantum Leap: A scientist’s experiment goes horribly wrong, and each week he finds himself in a different time period, inhabiting a different person’s body.
Stranger In A Strange Gender
There are quite a few movies that rely on men impersonating women or vice versa.
- Some Like It Hot: After witnessing a mob hit, two men try to escape from Chicago by disguising themselves as women.
- Yentl: A Jewish girl disguises herself as a boy so that she can continue to study the Talmud.
- Just One Of The Guys: A high school girl poses as a boy in order to win a writing contest.
- She’s The Man: A girl poses as her twin brother and takes his place at a boarding school.
- Mrs. Doubtfire: A divorced man dresses as an elderly woman in order to gain more access to his children.
- Tootsie: An actor dresses as a woman in order to secure a role on a soap opera.
- Victor Victoria: An out-of-work singer launches a new career as a male/female impersonator.
- Big Momma’s House: A male FBI agent goes undercover as an authoritarian grandmother.
- He’s A Woman, She’s A Man: A woman disguises herself as a man and enters a talent contest in order to meet her idol.
- Nuns On The Run: Two small-time crooks try to escape with the spoils of their crime by dressing up as nuns.
- Norbit: Eddie Murphy plays both a man and a woman in this film.
Stranger On A Strange Planet
There are two variations here: aliens visiting Earth, and humans visiting other worlds.
- E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial: An alien lands on Earth and is befriended by a young boy.
- Mork and Mindy: An alien lands on earth and tries to live among the people.
- Third Rock From The Sun: An alien family lands on earth and tries to live among the people.
- Alf: An alien stuffed animal lands on earth and tries to lie among the people.
- Superman: An alien lands on earth and tries to live among the people.
- Alien Nation: Aliens crash-land on Earth and try to co-exist among the humans in Los Angeles.
- Smallville: A adaptation of Superman – an alien from the planet Krypton lands on Earth and lives among the people.
- My Favorite Martian: A Martian whose spaceship crashes near Los Angeles California. He is stuck and stranded here on Earth.
- The Neighbours (2012-2014): An entire suburban neighbourhood is inhabited by aliens.
Then, of course, we travel to other worlds…
- Star Trek: The Original Series
- Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
- Star Trek: Voyager
- Star Trek: Enterprise
- Star Wars
- Battlestar Galactica
- Space 1999
- Doctor Who
Eddie Murphy Has Discovered the Secret Formula
You’ve got to hand it to Eddie Murphy – he discovered this storytelling secret early in his career and has been using it over and over in his movies.
- Trading Places: Two commodities brokers orchestrate a role reversal of a young executive and a street hustler.
- Coming to America: A spoiled and pampered prince from a wealthy African kingdom arrives in America and tries to pass himself off as a regular guy.
- Beverly Hills Cop / II / III: Detroit police detective Axel Foley visits Beverly Hills to try and solve a murder.
- Meet Dave: Dave is an alien who has just landed in New York and is trying to adapt to his new environment.
- The Distinguished Gentleman: A con-man with no political experience, relies on voter ignorance to get elected as a congressman.
- The Nutty Professor: A good-natured professor drinks a potion that radically changes his physical appearance and personality.
- Norbit: Mentioned above.
Stranger In A Strange Profession
The Distinguished Gentleman crosses over into the next variation: people with no political (or leadership) experience suddenly finding themselves wandering the corridors of power. Common men (and women) are suddenly thrust into powerful positions, for which they are not even remotely qualified.
- Politics – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: An inexperienced young man is appointed to the United States senate.
- Politics – Dave: A body double for the American president must actually take on the role when the real president suffers an incapacitating stroke.
- Politics – The Brady Bunch in the White House: After the president resigns in a scandal, Mike Brady is elected as the new president of the United States.
- Royalty – King Ralph: After the entire British royal family is killed in a bizarre flash photography accident, the next person in line to the throne is a boorish Las Vegas lounge singer.
- Royalty – The Princess Diaries: A San Francisco teenager discovers that she is a member of the ruling family of a small European principality and must be groomed to ascend the throne.
- Technology – The Internship: Two technologically inept watch salesmen talk their way into a Google internship.
This is just a smattering of movies and television shows that are using variations of this theme; I’m sure that there are many more I haven’t mentioned. If nothing else, you have to admire Hollywood’s continuing and committed effort at implementing a robust recycling program…