Whose Idea Is It Anyway?
A few years ago I wrote a story called ‘Emotional Response’ for my collection ‘Demonized’. It broke ranks with the other stories, which were mostly dark tales of vengeance, and instead presented a rom-com about a woman who was dating the wrong man, so in order to prove the point, her friends hired a girl to break his heart. Except that she ended up falling in love with him. Hilarity ensued.
Now, along comes ‘Heartbreaker’, about a girl who’s about to marry the wrong man, so her father hires a man to break her heart. Except that she ends up falling in love with him. Hilarity ensues. Should I be bugged about this?
It seems that the appearance of ideas exactly like my own have dogged my career. I presented a ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ treatment to Hollywood, who then made a ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ movie, except that it was nothing to do with me. I wrote the split personality novel ‘Spanky’ a short while before the split personality novel ‘Fight Club’ appeared. Titles like ‘Psychoville’ and ‘Disturbia’, which I carefully construed to be made up and therefore inimitable, have been ripped off.
But I can’t, in all honesty, believe this is anything more than coincidence. There’s no monopoly on ideas. Besides, every prolific writer has had this happen at some point. After all, this is the way ideas form – they build on the backs of other, earlier imaginings. Some writers circumvent the problem by producing different versions. When Lee Hall wrote ‘Billy Elliot’, he also wrote a similar coming of age script called ‘Jimmy Spud’. Both were made into movies. The difference is that ‘Jimmy Spud’ was poorly directed, and ‘Billy Elliot’ was beautifully directed. So when there are two versions of one idea, whoever gets the better production off the ground is the winner. One day, I hope I’ll get there first.
Malcolm Gladwell has written an interesting article about this phenomenon in ‘What The Dog Saw’, his recent collection of essays. His text was lifted verbatim and used in a play, but he argues that the play was a new form which he could never have imagined – and even if he could have imagined it, he didn’t. My next book will pay a great debt to my hero JG Ballard, but it will be in a form he never considered. To be influenced by someone is good. To merely regurgitate – as so many horror films do – is not.