I recently re-watched Black Swan, my favorite film by Darren Aronofsky, and I was struck by the elegance of the screenplay's construction. The script manages to do a number of impressive things; among them, it synthesizes the distinct influences of three extremely strong works without getting sucked under their weight. It also uses these influences to tell a story that feels familiar in many respects, but original in others, insofar as it's set in a world one would not typically find the story in. I'll explain.
Successful films can be a sort of laboratory testing ground for narrative constructions that you want to engage in your own story.
Aronofsky has stated that when he first read the film's script, he detected notes of All About Eve, The Tenant, and Dostoyevsky's novel The Double. I would agree. All About Eve - an all-time Hollywood classic - is the story of a young woman who becomes the assistant to a famous theater actress, only to slowly usurp the actress's role in the industry's hierarchy. The Tenant is Polanski's incredible (and incredibly bizarre) mid-70s effort in which he stars as a man living in a new apartment who slowly starts turning into the woman who lived there before him. (Like I said, it's an odd bird, that film - but incredibly eerie and effective.) The Double concerns a young bureaucrat who is menaced by a new doppelganger at work who begins taking credit for the first bureaucrat's work, and slowly driving him insane. I'd also add to the list of influences films about persona-swapping friendships between women (a topic Miriam Bale has written eloquently about), such as Single White Female or Persona.
These are a lot of distinct and disparate narrative influences for one story to absorb, but watching Black Swan, I was struck by how cleanly and simply the film culls them together into one taut, clear storyline: Nina wants the role of the Swan Queen, and gets it. Thomas pushes her to engage her dark side so she can perform the Black Swan as well as the White Swan. Nina becomes afraid that Lily is going to steal her role. And - in the film's most gripping sequence - Nina develops a friendship with Lily and begins to adopt her behaviors, which aids her pursuit of perfection with respect to mastering the Black Swan role. Everything fits together perfectly.
Putting a slight twist on the face of something familiar can be an excellent way to make the familiar unfamiliar, or to examine something once known in a different light.
I have no clue to what degree (if at all) the writers of Black Swan were aware of these influences - perhaps they hadn't even seen the aforementioned films - but regardless, I think filmmakers would do well to heed the advice that combining a few different influences in a neat and simple fashion, as Black Swan did, can be an excellent move for cementing a foundation for an interesting script. (It's hardly all the work that needs to be done, but that goes without saying - a good storyline does not a good screenplay make.) Successful films can be a sort of laboratory testing ground for narrative constructions that you want to engage in your own story, and cherry-picking the most successful elements of previous stories and then combining them to construct something new can be an effective way to begin the creative process. As T.S. Eliot wrote, everything original bears with itself a degree of the traditional.
Putting a slight twist on the face of something familiar can be an excellent way to make the familiar unfamiliar, or to examine something once known in a different light. None of the Black Swan influences, of course, take place in the world of ballet, and it's here that the blending of the original and the familiar must be executed properly. Yes, Black Swan has some familiar narrative elements in it, but viewing the film, one is struck by how much the film is about the minutiae of the ballet world - the physicality of it, the stress and training, the specifics of how a ballet comes to life. These details provide much of what makes Black Swan a stimulating viewing experience on the second-by-second level, while the larger narrative construction merely provides a structural framework for the story to unfold. Having that blend of familiar and new means that the narrative can be something proven to work while still exposing the viewer to a stimulating and fresh world.