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!)