Monday, October 20, 2008

Writers, inspiration, and recycled ideas

I was asked a few days ago, "Do writers recycle their ideas?" And the answer is yes, they do. Do they do it at the professional level? Yup. Do they recycle the ideas of other writers? Yup! And why in the world do we do it?

Well, partly because there's no such thing as a unique idea, and when you've typed your byline on upwards of fifty or sixty novels, novellas, and short stories -- well, you're going to be very hard pressed to find a topic or treatment that's absolutely new.

And partly because some writer, somewhere, has absolutely, positively, written the same story you're about to write ... but you, your publisher and your readers just don't know it.

Take THE LION KING. Everyone's favorite family movie, right? You think it was an original idea or story? Wrong. It was lifted wholesale from a 1960s Japanimation TV series produced for young kids, KIMBA THE WHITE LION.

Obviously, Disney did it better (duh), but the question was not about who executed the idea better, it was about who got the idea first! I'd hope some money changed hands, and the original Japanese studio that produced Kimba was paid a fair price for having their idea redeveloped -- because THE LION KING is a clone of KIMBA in every important respect.

The same writer can also recycle an idea. For example, British TV writer Brian Clemens wrote two scripts, about 17 years apart, one for The Secret Agent, one for The Professionals ... based on the same idea -- but developed very differently, with a completely different resolution.

The reader might also suspect recycled ideas when s/he can spot various elements in a new book which reflect elements from one or twenty old books. Take STAR TREK as an example. You think it was absolutely original, in every way shape and form? You haven't seen FORBIDDEN PLANET, which was the leading SF movie about ten years before ST made its debut. Don't believe me? You'll have to watch it yourself and see the uncanny similarities!

(Incidentally, the rights to FP changed hands a year or so ago ... a remake could be in the offing.

Old ideas can be recycled to great effect. George Lucas was heavily criticized, when STAR WARS came out, for lifting imagery from all parts of the spectrum. Luke Sywalker was recognized as D'Artagnon, Han Solo was recognized as the Clint Eastwood archetype ... sexual symbolism was spied in the attack on the Death Star by the X-wing fighters (think sperms and ovum, and you have it), Tatooine was instantly recognized as Dune, Darth Vader was a skull in a German "coal scuttle" helmet from World War II ... the Imperial officers are all wearing "nasty" uniforms reminiscent of Maoist China ... and as the ultimate slap on the wrist, in 1977 someone was old enough to recall having seen a Nazi propaganda flick called Triumph of the will, which was clearly the inspiration for the film's closing sequence:

Screenshots from Triumph of the Will ... don't have a copy, but have been hearing about it since SW came out!

So, writers' ideas can be recycled over and over ... the same is true in music, too, where composers of current film scores routinely borrow theme, cadence and orchestration from the classics ... but who's going to know, since classical music is almost a taboo in today's world. Admit that you listen to Beethoven or Richard Strauss or Vaughan Williams, and you might as well wear a tattoo on your forehead saying, "Look at me, I'm a nerd."

And recycling ideas is no actually a bad thing, so long as writers don't do it ad nauseam, in place of genuine creativity.

Now, pulp fiction has grooves it gets into ... you can tell from a mile out when someone is rewriting Lord of the Rings with minor changes (heroines instead of heroes, witches instead of wizards, come right out and call the fell beasts dragons, fight goblins and 'svart alfa' instead of orks and urukhai). You can tell from a mile out when someone is "doing" TREK ... it's the United States Navy In Space, with "yessir," "nossir," and a command hierarchy that'd drive a non-military mind bonkers in one afternoon...

But when recycling is done right, it has much to recommend it. Take for instance the classic Italian cinema. For decades they made, and probably still make, more movies than Hollywood. They have their own incredible national history to drawn on, and generations of writers and directors fed swashbucklers through the cameras. A lot of them are twaddle ... some of them aren't. Some of them are little gems, founded on fantastic ideas.

Now, a fantastic idea from a classic Italian historical, made in 1962 and lost in time. Where's the harm in recycling its idea? The movie has been lost in antiquity. Few people these days even want to watch the massive Hollywood blockbusters from the 1950s, let alone overdubbed Italian movies of the same era! (And it's a great loss, because there are some outstanding movies from the time. Try Stewart Granger in Scaramouche, which boats the longest motion picture swordfight in the history of film ... not to mention that in 1952 Granger was only 39 and tasty ... very tasty ... six foot three, dark as a gysy and, uh, stacked. Or try The World in his Arms, with Gregory Peck at age 37, a schooner race to the Aleutian islands, and punch-ups galore.)

Some of the best ideas are buried in 50-year-old "foreign" cinema (I use quotation marks there because they're not foreign if you happen to be a native to Rome or Beijing, Mumbai or Tokyo!) and I see nothing wrong with resurrecting an idea.

Like ... do you know that Indiana Jones was lifted right out of a 1954 Charlton Heston movie? Heston was Jones, fedora, revolver and all. I've seen it a couple of times: Secret of the Incas. I wish I had a copy, but it hasn't been aired down here in Aus since before the age of video recorders, never mind DVD recorders!

Don't believe me? Got 90 seconds to spare? Watch the clip on YouTube ... when "Jones" enters the shot, walking away from the camera, you might just not believe your eyes!

So, yes, all writers borrow ideas. Good writers redevelop the material so thoroughly, however, that it's barely recognizable, and only people (like Keegan) who have looooong memories, will know what's been done. Like, the way Clive Cussler took a 1941 B&W British comedy called The Ghost Train ... and turned it into a bestselling Dirk Pitt novel, Night Probe.

And before anybody says anything smart -- no, I'm not that bloody old!! Well, not yet, anyway. My mother was a movie buff. I was weaned on classic movies that were already ancient before I was born ... and I have a very, very long memory, almost a "trick" memory, but not quite ... which is to say, I'm supposed to get four things from the store this afternoon, and ... darned if I can remember more than three of them...

Ciao for now,

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