A few readers expressed strong disapproval of my recent post Warning: Unpunishable Plagiarism. Not of the subject matter per se - they agree that gorging on other people's creativity, whether in business, science, or arts, is despicable and the law that doesn't protect it is fucked up; but they were upset with the examples I've chosen to illustrate the idea-snatching in pop-culture. Instead of picking on absorption of mythology, folklore, and literary inheritance in the beloved Harry Potter, they say, or making vague allegations about the possible origins of Hannah Horvath, why didn't you talk about the simultaneous releases of Pixar's A Bug's Life and DreamWorks' Antz (both in 1998), or of a superior Chris Nolan's The Prestige and subpar Neil Burger's The Illusionist (both 2006)?
The answer is simple: as peculiar and suspicious concurrent developments of very similar ideas by different production companies are, it is practically impossible to uncover the back stories behind these incidents, or make even vague attempts to point a finger at the alleged perpetrators. So, I wrote about the instances that seemed somewhat obvious and transparent to me. Otherwise, the post would consist of nothing more than just one anecdote from my own professional life and a non-descriptive list of dubious cultural references. Maybe it would be more sanitary, but also boring.
Let's take, for example, The Prestige/The Illusionist case. What can we dig up? Well, both screenplays were based on legitimate and independent literary sources.
The first one is an adaptation of a novel with the same title written by an English novelist and science fiction writer Christopher Priest and published by Gollancz in 1995. Priest is a well-known and highly respected writer: the themes of his A Dream of Wessex, for example, were used as a framework for David Cronenberg's fantastic eXistenZ. The year The Prestige hit the book stores, it was nominated for four sci-fi and fantasy awards and won two of them. While the movie differs from the book (the latter being darker and more complex) all the main ingredients and the plot turns were taken from the novel: the characters' names and descriptions, Priest's fictional practice of stage illusions (the setup, the performance, and the prestige), the nature of the competing teleportation uber-acts, and even the guest appearance of Nicola Tesla.
Various sources indicate that several Hollywood producers had approached Priest for an adaptation of the novel and it was Valerie Dean of Newmarket Films (they also produced Memento), who told Chris Nolan about the novel in 2000. After he read it, Newmarket Films purchased the option. I can see how adapting a novel constructed as shifts between entries of two diaries could be very difficult, especially considering that the work on Insomnia had already began. Yet, the Nolan brothers had it finished in 2003 and were ready to start filming, but it wasn't meant to be: Batman Begins production got escalated and The Prestige was postponed. The pre-production didn't start until October 2005 and the film was released by Touchstone exactly one year later.
The Illusionist is based on an even earlier short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser Eisenheim the Illusionist - it was a part of his 1990 collection The Barnum Museum. The Hollywood mythology has it that, even though Neil Burger's debut Interview with the Assassin was a terrible flop, its producers desperately wanted to work with the said writer/director again. In 2002 they asked Neil what would he like to do next and he said, "There is this short story I always wanted to adapt..." I'm guessing it took a couple of years before the idea could be sold and budgeted (unlike Chris Nolan, Neil Burger had no other projects on his hands), and the movie didn't go into production until early 2005. It was released 10 months ahead of The Prestige.
Thus, on the surface all facts point to the accidental concurrency of these two movies. However, who the fuck knows how the little impulses that churn the Hollywood machine work? You see, as soon as any creative property is optioned, the fact becomes a matter of public knowledge. Ok, let me amend that: I don't really think that the "general public" is following that kind of information. But if you are in the trade or have some sort of a vested interest in filmmaking, you can and must know all tinseltown's moves.
I mean, Variety, the oldest American entertainment-trade magazine, had been founded in 1905 (!). Since then, its been reporting on every single production and celebrity move imaginable. The Hollywood Reporter joined the action in 1930. Nowadays, you can have paid subscriptions to both publications online. However, the Internet access to filmmaking trade news is dominated by DoneDeal Pro ($24 a year), which delivers basically a live feed of every option, screenplay purchase, new project announcement, talent attachment, etc.; and IMdB Pro ($125 a year) with its remarkable search capabilities allowing you to see what every producer has "in-production" and "in-development." And I know for a fact that all production companies and studios have staffers and interns, whose job is to deliver the digests of all these daily news to their bosses.
So, it is easy to imagine that the knowledge of The Prestige waiting its turn since 2000 could've been a pressure point in The Illusionist pitch: "Look, we can beat their timing with our own movie about a magician..." Is this a qualified example of the unpunishable plagiarism? I really don't know. You decide for yourself.
Some readers also said that my post, by making a case that "everyone steals," might give unsavory elements a carte blanche for encroaching on others' creativity. Well, first of all, I hope I was explicit enough in stating my position on the issue. Secondly, I honestly don't think that my two cents have the power to change the situation in either direction. And finally, I am not Huffington fucking Post - I don't have that kind of exposure!
Of course, I cannot just end this post without letting the movie critic in me to use this opportunity to make the following comment. If somebody referred Christopher Nolan to Eisenheim the Illusionist, he wouldn't care for it. It's a story of the "and I will do anything for love" kind, and this writer/director is not interested in that. Think about his movies (including Man of Steel, which he only co-produced) - they are all about a Man and His Mission, a Hero and His Obsession. Love, even if it's present, is just a plot point; it is seated in the last row of the Nolan bus.