“A thief who steals from a thief is pardoned for one hundred years”—Eli Wallach as Calvera (Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai remake soon in theaters near you)
As a grad student taking creative writing classes, I did a lot of workshopping, but received little practical advice. Most everything learned is earned, not given. However, the best counsel I got was as an undergraduate toiling away in my Intro to Fiction course: “If you see something you like, steal it” (the professor/novelist who uttered these words will obviously not mind my failing to attribute to him here.)
There’s not much stealing of money by novelists, short-fictioneers, playwrights, and poets going on (we leave that to the publishing houses). On the other hand, the best and worst of us do steal material pretty liberally from each other. Some of this is unconscionable laziness, but I think those who take their craft seriously do hold themselves to a few self-imposed rules, which I’d like to codify here by supplementing my old professor’s advice with what I call the “Rule of Three O’s”: “By all means, steal: but try not to steal too often; nor too obnoxiously; nor too obviously. Penalties exist for each.
- Too often. No one likes to be labeled an unoriginal hack. I mean, if you do this daily, you might as well become a television journalist and get paid well. None of them seems to have recognized that Donald Trump has lifted most of his campaign platform from Adolf Hitler (“Make _______ Great Again,”) but you know that if one did, they’d all be parroting it. Because there is no honor among thieves: they turn on each other. Genre writers are in greatest danger of returning to the well too often, killing the golden goose, choose your cliché (a word-level version of this crime).
- Too obnoxiously. You wouldn’t carjack a Corvette and then drive it around the same county without at least a re-paint, would you? That’s just not right. A plot, for example, needs to be sufficiently re-dressed to make it palatable. Some recognize that the story of Jason Bourne is a retelling of Frankenstein, just as Blade Runner was (and to some extent the Wolverine and Deadpool tales): Scientist manipulates human limitations; scientist gets re-visited over and over by the subject of his experiment (“Why would he come back now?”) It’s a good story with much psychological depth and breadth, as well as moral/ethical implications, which is why it gets told every five years. Another version of obnoxious theft is a too-clever playing with familiar phrases. Some writers get so good at this, they’re dangerous: “Code of Dishonor,” “Twice Bitten,” “Can’t Stand In Heat.” Seriously, why would you even crack the cover of a book entitled “For a Few Zombies More?” Do you expect the writing to improve after that?
- Too obviously. If last week’s marquee title is The Terminator, and you rush-premiere a B-movie called The Decimator, The De-resonator, or The Decaffeinater, even the trolls on the forums will crucify you (now there’s a story worth retelling,) without even watching it. And you deserve it.
Which leaves us with the question of how to do stealing right. There are perhaps a hundred ways, so let’s “borrow” a few from the greats:
Allusions. Usually at the word level, these nuggets are on full display for those in your audience who may have read more than three or four books. When John Steinbeck cribbed his novel’s title, In Dubious Battle, from the proem of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, it was more than a pretty phrase he admired. He wanted to signal, perhaps, that workers in contemporary America (the many and weak) were being warred upon by Satanic forces (the few and powerful). Steinbeck, in fact, grifted several of his titles from Biblical or semi-biblical sources: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and other writers (Of Mice and Men).
Homages/parodies. In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks wasn’t trying to get away with piracy, but instead to rely on the audience’s familiarity with both the story and previous remakes from Hollywood. The result is wonderful: How I did It is the title of the Baron’s journal. The great danger I see, today, is that in a semi-literate culture, exposure to 2nd, 3rd, and farther-removed parodies takes the place of reading the originals, rather than supplementing it. Children, of course, will claim they can survive on candy; and so it’s no surprise to hear twenty-somethings argue they can distill the important news from The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.
Shakespeare, yes even he of the cranium enormous, raided the Plot and trappings of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and probably Othello and Romeo and Juliet from earlier sources. Now, given what he accomplished with them, and the relative scarcity of masterplots, this is forgivable. How many people recognize that The Terminator is a thematic retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (by attempting to avoid predestined events, one can actually bring them to pass)? Cameron simply converted prophecy to time-travel (two sides of the same coin).
Update/Remake for a modern audience. Emerson said that every generation had to reinvent its stories (here I’m paraphrasing—at least I’m giving the guy credit!) Especially the out-of-copyright ones (wink to the publishers and movie studios there.) I suspect 2016’s Birth of a Nation will not much resemble the original. You did know that was first made by D.W. Griffiths in 1915, adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen (1905,) didn’t you? Film and literary critics fascinate themselves with analyzing how remakes tell us much about the culture that produced them, by emphasizing and deemphasizing certain elements of the ur-story.
Recasting from a different perspective. Euripides is perhaps the most prolific of western writers here. He recast much of Greek mythology from the point-of-view of “the other,” the marginalized characters: Medea, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae. A very neat and risky trick. How many Americans do you know that would enjoy a film about how the Russians sacrificed twenty million souls to defeat the Nazis in World War II? And yeah, that did happen.
Which brings us to pseudo-history. Spielberg’s Amistad, Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Stone’s JFK, anything by Michael Moore in a more documentary mode, are all masterful narratives. They are not history, by any serious definition. BUT, they weren’t meant to be: they ARE meant to raise the spirit of inquiry in the audience, to challenge them to learn more and seek the truth themselves. Poe did this with his unreliable narrators, but the solutions lay within his stories themselves. Here, the facts lie outside the story, in other accounts one would have to research. Sadly, this is all too infrequently done, and the pseudo-history stands as the somewhat-removed Truth.
So writers, don’t worry so much about books getting stolen, in either analog or digital form. One way or another, it’s all in the public domain, there for the taking–isn’t it? Put it this way–no one ever promised to pay you, anyway. Given the choice, you’d rather give it away than keep it to yourself.