by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Actor/rabble rouser/fledgling filmmaker Shia LaBeouf got himself into a bit of hot water last month, when the former Transformers star was accused of plagiarizing someone else's work for, his 12-minute short about the trials and tribulations of an Internet movie critic. Just to be clear: LaBeouf flat out stole the plot of Daniel Clowes's 2007 comic book Justin M. Damiano, including specific frames and entire lines of dialogue, and tried passing it off his own. (Clowes's name is conspicuously absent from the film itself, and never once during interviews did LaBeouf mention Justin M. Damiano as his source material.)

What's odd is that the short, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, had escaped this sort of mass-media attention until now. It took over a year and a half for anyone to notice, when HowardCantour, within hours of its December 16th debut on, came under attack from Buzzfeed and various media outlets for copying Clowes's comic. (The film has since been pulled from the site.) LaBeouf issued a burst of vague apologies via his Twitter account (some of them apparently plagiarized!), ranging everywhere from "I got lost in the creative process" to "I f---ed up," and even took to writing in the sky at one point - a desperate attempt, no doubt, to avoid the inevitable lawsuit for copyright infringement. (Representatives for Clowes, meanwhile, say the author is currently "exploring his legal options.")

Whatever comes of this, you can chalk it up to Hollywood egotism at its best - Shia's only crime, it seems, is actually getting caught. Yet he's hardly the first to pull this type of trick on his peers. Whether they absent-mindedly sidestepped their rights to ownership or purposely, fiendishly took all the credit, here follows the most notorious examples of Hollywood heavy-hitters caught with their plagiaristic pants down (SPOILERS ahead, naturally):


Title: Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

Plagiarized From: Dracula (1897), by Bram Stoker

How They're Similar: Germany's Prana Film studio hired writer Henrik Galeen to adapt Bram Stoker's Dracula for the screen, despite not having bought the rights to the novel. The plot for Nosferatu is basically the same, though several characters are eliminated from the script, the location is changed from 1890s England to 1830s Germany, and the remaining characters have been assigned different names (for example, Count Dracula becomes "Count Orlock," and Jonathan and Mina Harker become "Thomas and Ellen Hutter").

Legacy: Stoker's estate successfully sued the filmmakers for copyright infringement, and Prana Films founders Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau were forced to declare bankruptcy rather than pay the necessary dues. (Nosferatu is Prana's only film release.) All existing copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed, though several prints somehow survived and were screened in other countries, including the United States.

Lessons Learned: Yes, it's a rip-off (you can practically imagine the story meetings [in thick German accents]: "I got it - we'll change the names but keep everything else the same... and no one will even notice!"), but Nosferatu is now rightly regarded as the definitive version of Stoker's gothic novel. (Director Werner Herzog later remade the film in 1979, after the novel passed into public domain.)

Title: A Fistful Of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964)

Plagiarized From: Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

How They're Similar: The first of Leone's renowned Dollars Trilogy (followed by For A Few Dollars More in 1965 and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in 1966) is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the Japanese classic by Akira Kurosawa, about a wandering samurai/gun-for-hire who tricks an entire town of squabbling gangsters into killing each other. The setting is different, obviously, as is some of the dialogue. Also, the characters in Fistful wear ponchos and cowboy hats, while in Yojimbo they sport kimonos and carry swords. So, you know, they're totally different.

Legacy: Leone meant his film as an "homage" to Kurosawa's (which is ironic, since Yojimbo's visual style was inspired by American Westerns) and apparently didn't realize he needed to obtain legal rights to that film before remaking it. No stranger to remakes himself (Seven Samurai retooled as The Magnificent Seven, Rashomon retooled as The Outrage), Kurosawa nevertheless wrote a letter to Leone, stating, "[Yours] is a very fine film, but it is my film [and] you must pay me." Fistful producers Arrigo Colombo and Giorgio Papi were forced to settle, and signed away 15% of their box office receipts, earning Kurosawa and Toho Films more money than they'd made filming Yojimbo itself.

Lessons Learned: Both films have their place in cinema history. Yojimbo is an undisputable classic of the samurai genre, celebrated for its deep focus camera shots and macabre humor. A Fistful Of Dollars, meanwhile, cemented the Spaghetti Western as a viable box office draw, and gave us the debut of Clint Eastwood's seminal Man with No Name.

Title: The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)

Plagiarized From: "Soldier" (1964), an episode of The Outer Limits written by Harlan Ellison

How They're Similar: "Soldier" and The Terminator share the same skeleton of a plot, in which two warriors from a distant future are hurtled back to the present day, with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. Even the opening shots are basically the same - laser light beams screeching across the sky, men in metallic battle gear duking it out in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. From there, though, the stories splinter off in different directions. "Soldier" becomes the story of a man who learns the value of human life by connecting with others, while The Terminator becomes the story of a killer cyborg. (The story of the killer cyborg who learns the value of human life by connecting with others? That comes later, in Terminator 2.)

Legacy: An avid science-fiction fan since childhood, James Cameron was no doubt inspired by the work of authors Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Harlan Ellison when writing The Terminator. Ellison's ego couldn't handle the strain, however, so he threatened legal action unless he was given a proper credit. (His smoking gun? An interview Cameron gave to Starlog magazine, saying he "ripped off a couple Outer Limits segments.") Hemdale Pictures, Cameron's distributor, settled out of court, paying the author an undisclosed sum, and adding the credit "Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison" to subsequent prints of the film.

Lessons Learned: Unlike Ellison's sticky morality play, which befits the format of many Outer Limits episodes of its day, Terminator firmly announced Cameron's visionary genius as a director, showcased Stan Winston's legendary special effects, and solidified Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bona fide Hollywood icon.

Title: The Lion King (Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff, 1994)

Plagiarized From: Kimba The White Lion (1965-66)

How They're Similar: One is a timeless children's classic about an irascible lion cub, exiled from his home after the death of his father, who returns as an adult to take his rightful place as ruler. The other one is The Lion King, currently third on the list of Disney's most successful animated films, and a virtual phenomenon at the time of its release - until people noticed striking similarities to a certain Japanese cartoon series from the 60s (based on a 1950s manga by by Osamu Tezuka). Some details may differ (in Kimba, our hero is exiled to America, and is helped/hindered by humans along the way), but others are simply too coincidental to ignore, including similar characters (a wizened old baboon, goofball animal sidekicks, an archenemy lion with a scar over one eye and a pack of hyenas as minions) and imagery (in one issue of the original manga, Kimba speaks with the ghost of his father, who appears as a shape in the clouds). Also, the hero of The Lion King is named Simba, for crying out loud!

Legacy: Disney emphatically denies any and all connections to Kimba The White Lion, despite reports that animators (and even voice actor Matthew Broderick) were well aware of its existence beforehand. (Here, an early presentation reel for The Lion King clearly shows Simba, as a cub, colored white.) Tezuka Productions president Takayuki Matsutani admits to the similarities but says "our company's general opinion is The Lion King is a totally different piece from [Kimba] and is an original work completed by [Disney's] long- standing excellent production technique."

Lessons Learned: As you've no doubt read on the blog before, I still think TLK is one of Disney's strongest Animated Classics from their 1990s Renaissance. Admitting to its anime-inspired influence would do nothing to diminish its emotional power (but would definitely eat into the movie's profits), so it's a little disheartening to see Mouse House executives taking such a dismissive stance on the matter.

Title: The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)

Plagiarized From: Running Out Of Time (1996), by Margaret Peterson Haddix

How They're Similar: Running Out Of Time tells the story of 13-year-old Jessie Keyser, who discovers that her 19th century village is actually a tourist attraction, and that the year is actually 1996. The Village is the story of 19-year-old Ivy Elizabeth Walker, who discovers that her 19th century village is actually a wildlife reserve shut off from the present day. Both characters make their respective discoveries when they venture out to find medicine for their loved ones. In ROOT, however, the twist comes at the beginning, while in The Village it comes at the end. Oh, and Shyamalan tosses imaginary monsters into the mix, just so you can tell the two stories apart.

Legacy: Friends of Margaret Peterson Haddix started emailing the author when they noticed similarities between her 1996 young adult novel and Shyamalan's box office hit, in August of 2004. Haddix and her publisher, Simon & Schuster, immediately reached out to Disney (who released the movie), but were told their claims were "meritless." (Shyamalan's previous movie, Signs, also faced litigation from screenwriter Robert McElhenney, who claimed the director stole his script ideas for a film called Lord Of The Barrens: The Jersey Devil.) As of this date, Simon & Schuster has yet to file a suit.

Lessons Learned: A director made famous for his jaw-dropping plot twists now becomes infamous for ripping off someone else's jaw-dropping plot twist? Say it isn't so! For me, though, The Village began Shyamalan's steep descent into nothingness - the first in which his central conceit (ghosts in The Sixth Sense, comic books and superheroes in Unbreakable, aliens in Signs, and now... what, men who revert to age-old vernacular and 19th-century garb just to hide from the pains of the world?) is harder to pin down in terms of actual metaphor.

Title: The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

Plagiarized From: Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)

How They're Similar: Actually, this is more a case of literary plagiarism (since both films are based on novels published nearly ten years apart), but in lieu of The Hunger Games' recent success at the box office, I bring it up here. Both stories center around dystopian societies where kids are plucked from their families and forced to murder each other for public sport, characters who manipulate the system (and each other) to "win" at any cost, and teenage protagonists (Katniss Everdeen in Hunger, Shuya Nanahara in Royale) with a personal stake in the games. Battle Royale, however, is filled to the brim with blood-spurting violence of the Kill Bill sort, while the blood and guts in The Hunger Games are decidedly PG-13. And Royale is meant as a satire on media violence, which is probably why so many people are uncomfortable with it. The Hunger movies, on the other hand, satirize absolutely nothing and have (so far) grossed over $2.1 billion worldwide.

Legacy: Author Suzanne Collins says she'd never heard of Koushun Takami's bestselling 1999 novel while writing her Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010), claiming instead that she based her ideas on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. To be fair, the plot for The Hunger Games also shares similarities with The Most Dangerous Game (Richard Connell, 1924), Stephen King's The Running Man (1985) and also the 2007 film The Condemned, so it's possible Collins could have been influenced by any number of sources. As of this writing, neither Takami nor his publishing house, Ohta Shuppan, plan on taking legal action.

Lessons Learned: Takami, for his part, says that "every novel has something to offer... If readers find value in either book, that's all an author can ask for." Plans for a big-screen Battle reboot, though, have subsequently been scrapped, because audiences would undoubtedly see it as a rehash of The Hunger Games. Aironikku!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that was a fun and informative blog! I tend to believe Suzanne Collins innocent when it comes to her novel “The Hunger Games” and I'll tell you why. As you know, Darin, but your readers may not, I am a writer myself and recently published a book "The Forsaken" (Children of Cain Series - book one). When I was writing the first book I was telling my sister about it and she said it reminded her of a book she read called "City of Bones" (Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare). I had not heard or read the book at the time and ironically didn't read it until I was half way through writing my second book. After reading it I saw what my sister meant when she said it was similar, but it is in no way identical to my original novel. If you read the two you might see the similarities, too. Recently, I met an author who had a trilogy of books that is called “The Children of Lilith Trilogy”. I about died because of the similarities of the series titled to my own. I'm lucky I didn't name it the same thing seeing as Lilith plays such a big part in the overall history of my story's mythology. My point is that sometimes people are just sneaky and steal from better, more creative artists, writers, and filmmakers. However, sometimes several people (complete strangers even) have the same great idea without ever knowing about the others. Really, when it comes to telling a story, it's almost impossible to not be influenced by another person’s work seeing as all the great stories have similar basic themes, and there isn’t a story that hasn't been told already. The job of the artist, writer, or filmmaker is to tell it in their own way, to make it their own expression of the world as they see it. That’s what true artists do. The lazy ones, like Shia La-Buttface, just change the names and dates and call it art.