original copy


Summer’s here and I’ve been trying to hook back into pop culture.  I’m usually the last to pick up current controversies but last night, I finally watched Battle Royale, the film by Kinji Fukasaku.  (Fellow unhipsters will perhaps remember a few months ago when everyone was wondering if The Hunger Games (2012) was a rip-off of Battle Royale, a Japanese film released in 2000.)

Both films are worthwhile. They employ that heart-in-your-throat, ratcheting-up kind of suspense that is so prevalent in movies these days, both use that kind of grotesque violence that reminds me why I’m a pacifist (although Battle Royale is much more Tarantinoesque), and both convey broad themes that help me reflect on the human condition. 

But together, the films offer more, because the similarities cannot be ignored. The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale is the kind of drama I like to sink my teeth into, with a little international intrigue thrown in, some he-said, she-said, and the raising of deeper philosophical questions, like where do ideas come from and is there such a thing as an original thought?  I watched Battle Royale with my jaw literally hanging open in disbelief, agog at Suzanne Collins’s claim that she never heard of the Japanese novel or film before she wrote The Hunger Games (first published in 2008).  I guess the most salient difference between stealing a wallet and stealing an idea is that the latter is far more difficult to prove.  As a fan, as a writer, and as a trusting person, I want to believe Collins, but it’s not going to be easy.  

Many writers have done lengthy comparisons of the two films.  If you want specifics, I suggest Google, because instead of listing details I will cut straight to my shock that Koushun Takami, the man who wrote the novel originally published in Japanese in 1999 with an English translation released in 2003, was never thanked or mentioned by Collins.  And we accuse the East of playing low and loose with intellectual property? Here is exhibit A to show that the pilfering might go both ways.  As Steve Jobs once said,

“Japan’s very interesting. Some people think it copies things. I don’t think that anymore. I think what they do is reinvent things. They will get something that’s already been invented and study it until they thoroughly understand it. In some cases, they understand it better than the original inventor.”  

Perhaps this is what Suzanne Collins did: maybe she made the story her own. Maybe that’s the best one can hope for.  After all, even the idea that thoughts are never original lacks originality; it’s been said a million different ways.  As Abe Lincoln, the posterboy for honesty himself, once said,

“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new at all.” 

A century before him Voltaire said,

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.”

William S. Burroughs weighed in with,

“All writing is in fact cut-ups.  A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?”

I like how Twain said it, too:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

Fran Lebowitz sums it up with,

“Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met,”

and Carl Jung takes it a step further: 

“Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The ‘newness’ in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components.”

Maybe originality is a quaint, naive, and impossible hope.  Apparently, repeating an idea is okay as long as you make it your own;“original copy” is more than an oxymoron; and plagiarism is naughty but there’s no crime in paraphrasing.  T.S. Eliot famously said that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; [...] good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”  Collins said that she found inspiration for The Hunger Games while channel surfing: in reality shows, Survivor, and footage from the war in Iraq.  She also said she drew upon the Greek myths of Theseus and the Minotaur, and Roman gladiators.  She probably read The Lord of the Flies and “The Lottery” in high school.  To be fair, if we asked him, Takami would probably have a similarly long list of things that inspired his story. (His experience in WWII and Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” from The Invisible Man jump to mind). So if there is no original thought, then we can’t accuse anyone of stealing, right?  We can merely muse that it might be easier to borrow from people who are long dead because we can forget we ever read them and contemplate the relative safety of inspiration by dead people who can’t sue and don’t demand their share of royalties or spotlight. 

So maybe the question should be, is The Hunger Games original enough to pass for original?  I think that most readers and movie-goers would have to say that yes, Collins added and changed enough to make it her own.  Her version is more layered and complicated.  Her characters and story have a life of their own and the story is as original as most movies these days.  And it is a really great story.  

Yet, still, none of this explains the similarity to Koushun Takami’s novel.  I still can’t find a decent, logical reason why he didn’t get a nod.  Don’t we owe it to ourselves as human beings and to our craft as writers to honor our muses?  She wouldn’t do that to a fellow writer, would she? 

So maybe, just maybe, two people can have the same idea simultaneously.  Maybe just living in this world and being exposed to the same current events, literature, art, etc. might inspire people on opposite sides of the world to think alike.  Maybe ideas are like dandelions that sprout organically and spread on the wind.  Maybe they spread telepathically, subterraneanly, electrically, through the collective unconscious.   

Like I said, believing Suzanne Collins never heard of Battle Royale is going to be difficult. But I’m going to try because after all, what if it happened to me? What if I’m not as original as I imagine? What if something I have written sounds exactly like someone else? What if somewhere out there, right now, some stranger is writing my story. What if they get it published before I do? And what if they do it more successfully?

So I’ll reserve judgment.  And urge you all to see Battle Royale so that you might see for yourself.

Where do your original ideas come from?  

*

(Note: To write this post, I brazenly ripped off several sources, including Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon and a long list of authors via Brainy Quotes. Thanks to all the people who said it already, so cleverly and well!)

 


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About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

21 comments

  1. I live in constant fear of accidentally stealing something. At least twice a week, I tell Aaron an idea I had for a story or a book, and then I ask, “do you think I stole that from somewhere?” (The better the idea, the more convinced I am that it belongs to someone else.) He thinks it’s the most ridiculous question, but I honestly worry about it.

  2. I hadn’t heard of this controversy. I also haven’t read or seen The Hunger Games. I seem to be the only person who doesn’t like the whole idea of the plot or anything I’ve heard about it, but when the movie gets to TV, I’ll watch it to see if my mind changes.

    I had what I thought was an original story idea, twelve or so years ago, about the nature of death and the nature of ‘ghosts’. Nothing new there but my spin on it. Now I’ve seen more than one story that people would point to if they ever heard mine (they could point to one new television series in particular, grrrrr) yet none of these has come near what I consider the most important part of my plot, which isn’t the ‘device’ but my character’s journey through it.

    Still, when I can sit down and write it (screenplay or book), no one will think the story popped into my head without the help of this TV series or some other piece I never saw or read before I thought it. I think it must be true that there are really no new ideas, just new ways to put them together.

    It’s hard to be a good writer without reading other people’s work, but the more of other people’s work we read, the more the stuff from other people that falls into our own work. Maybe the trick is all in the spin — finding the true originality in our voices and views into each subject. That’s the hardest part of writing for me.

    • My daughter and I read HG together so for us, it was a bonding experience.
      I know what you mean about timing. I feel that way about many of my ideas– like someone must have gone through my notebook behind my back and used up all my good ones before I could. It’s all in your timing.
      I hope you get your ghost device out quick before someone snatches it from your brain.

  3. An insightful post Anna – possibly original too!

    I’m a cliché, I’m a cliché
    I’m a cliché, I’m a cliché
    I’m a cliché, you’ve seen before
    I’m a cliché, live next door
    I’m a cliché, you know what I mean
    I’m a cliché, pink is obscene

    Huri yama yama, huri yama yama
    Boring boredom, boring boredom
    Huri yama yama, huri yama yama
    Boring boredom, boring boredom

    Just something I knocked up in 1977 and someone called Poly Styrene made off with!

    There’s the originality of the idea then the originality of its execution…

    Being original does not concern me so much as my own particular understanding and making of the world around me. We none of us exist in a vacuum – despite what libertarian types delude themselves of – we are all social animals with history and context – and as some other damned English punks didn’t quite say ‘Mash it up’!

  4. I don’t worry about originality the way I used to. Unless you have no creative cells in your brain, it’s impossible to truly steal an idea and have it be completely derivative. We all borrow from each other, spin someone else’s idea into our own thing–or, in my case, mash up several interesting concepts and reshape them into something new. Worrying too much about where the ideas come from is exhausting and makes me feel inhibited.

    Having said that, I don’t read within my genre(s). I do try to at least look for ideas from other sources than contemporary writers with whom I might compete.

    • I don’t worry about being original but I do have anxiety about being stolen from. YOur description of your method sounds a bit like mine– although you seem much more aware of the process while mine is probably more subconscious.

  5. Battle Royale, you say.

  6. I know the controversy well, we did the PR for the DVD/blu-ray release of BR. I never watched BR – I’m such a delicate flower – but the clips I saw of it were rather outrageous/hilarious, the ‘no whispering in class’ bit in particular.

    • Wow– Really, Aubrey? Expert in the house! You’re absolutely right, it’s blood you’re supposed to laugh at. Did your PR play up or ignore the idea that HG was a rip-off, I wonder?

  7. I am so annoyed if I see so much as a phrase of mine show up in someone else’s blog a few days later. But I check the reins and say I must have been someone’s inspiration. 50 Shades of Gray is the same deal, or so I’ve heard, not having read it (yet). Supposed to be extremely derivative of Twilight, but in that case she offers no apologies because it started as fan fic, something I know nothing of and can’t find. When I do, I’m gonna write me some, for sure.

    My “original” ideas, unfortunately or not, most often come from something I lived through. Reviewers have commented I tend to sound a little autobiographical. I just call it revisionist history.

    • That’s what someone said about my first novel– that it was too autobiographical. They tell you to write what you know and then complain if you do. It’s so freaking frustrating!

      • Wait … what … ? How can something be too autobiographical? That’s not a legitimate criticism of a written work! How would a writer fix that? Put in flying saucers so everyone knows it didn’t really happen? Why does it matter that it happened? What matters is how it reads and whether or not it fits together and works. Right? That kind of statement would have frustrated me, too.

  8. I’m itching to watch Battle Royale now! (I’ve seen The Hunger Games).
    It’s true that it’s seems impossible to have an original thought artistically. I find this with images, and you’re not always aware, I think, of what sits in your subconscious. But if you are aware, credit should be given…

    My ideas usually come from nature, but it seems it’s all been done before…
    http://drawandshoot.me/2012/06/26/recurrence/

  9. Very interesting. i’m so unhip that I hadn’t even heard of this controversy. I got dragged rather reluctantly to the Hunger Games and did not like it much. Too violent. Okay, yes, there are important messages in the movie. But I just don’t care for it. Not sure I’d be up for another film of similar subject matter. Original thought. Nearly as mysterious as original sin.

    • Yes, violence is def. not for everyone. I let my daughter see HG because we’d read it together, but I would not let her watch BR. I remembered seeing scary movies as a kid and being completely traumatized. I worried about the violence in HG for her, but she just laughed at me. I think people are becoming much more inured to this stuff.

  10. You know, I’m even more unhip than you are because though I now remember hearing something about this back-and-forth, I only discovered Battle Royale last night while trying to get my wife to watch something that wasn’t Law & Orer SVU. I read the description of this movie in Netflix and thought it sounded a lot like The Hunger Games.

    I think it’s a sign of the times that I didn’t give that similarity a whole lot of thought. This is the age of sampling, of repackaging. I hear a lot of writers get all crazy about ideas being stolen. I’m not so young that I think everything should be free, but the currency of the internet is ideas and if you only have one idea as a writer, you’re pretty much screwed.

    As I write this, however, I’m also reminded of a line from the Hebrew Bible–something about there being nothing new under the sun. It’s about execution, I think. I wanted to see Battle Royale last night but was vetoed for a supposedly less sad movie, Sarah’s Key–you know a happy tale about a little girl losing her family in the Holocaust. Well, maybe tonight I’ll have my way. I imagine the Japanese execution of this story will be quite a bit different. I hope so, at least, because truth is, I thought The Hunger Games kind of sucked.

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