Saturday, 28 February 2009

Déjà view

The Growlery currently has a very interesting post, Déjà vu, all over again, on the fictional theme of "trial and improvement", where characters must revisit the same scenario over and over (as in Groundhog Day) as a kind of Purgatory to learn from their mistakes. Go and read it; it's good.

Of related interest, I just dug out of the archives a blog piece I wrote in 2001 (but somehow managed to delete in blog housekeeping) that focused on a literary dispute hinged on the ubiquity of this theme.

June 28th 2001: I just read an article in The Author (Society of Authors house mag) Summer 2001 edition: Rights in Ideas: how not to sell a novel to Hollywood, by Leon Arden. Arden describes in some detail how he sued - and lost - in a case based on his claim that Columbia Pictures plagiarised his 1981 novel, The Devil's Trill (retitled One Fine Day) which they had read and rejected as a movie script. Arden's hero finds himself stuck in a time loop, he alone realising that he's repeating a single day over and over. He tries and fails to seduce the heroine, collects personal information about her to help him succeed, etc etc. You get the picture: sounds not a million miles from Groundhog Day.

Arden's $15m lawsuit failed because, basically, you can't copyright an idea. You do have a case if the precise treatment of that idea matches closely, point for point. But the court, though sympathising with Arden to some extent, decided that the style and treatment of Groundhog Day and One Fine Day were sufficiently different. Arden disagrees with the view of Judge Denny Chin that the book was "dark and introspective": but whatever may be similar, the Detroit News, December 12 1995 account mentions details of One Fine Day that differ radically in style from the light comedy of Groundhog Day. For instance, it features "witchcraft, an encounter with God ... an aeroplane explosion that kills 192 people, a rape, and a woman's suicide".

But hang on a moment! If you look at SF Recollections by Richard Lupoff at the Timebinders SF fan website, you'll find veteran science fiction author Richard Lupoff making exactly the same claim. He suggests that "a major theatrical film" (identifiable as Groundhog Day) plagiarised his work. He and filmmaker Jonathan Heap "were outraged and tried very hard to go after the rascals who had robbed us, but alas, the Hollywood establishment closed ranks ... After half a year of lawyers' conferences and emotional stress, we agreed to put the matter behind us and get on with our lives."

What's going on? Surely both Arden and Lupoff can't be right? SF movie buffs will recall the Lupoff work in question, a 1993 TV movie called 12:01, which had a very similar plot to Groundhog Day, though with a hard-SF rationale. It was widely assumed that this was derivative of Groundhog Day, but in fact it was a scheduled remake (according to Lupoff, a "very loose" adaptation) of a 1990 Oscar-nominated short film, 12:01 PM, based on a short story by Lupoff published in Fantasy And Science Fiction magazine in 1973.

So who, if anyone, has been plagiarised? Clearly, one shouldn't dismiss the claim that producers recycle ideas, and quite closely. Since Groundhog Day, any number of programmes have reused the time-loop theme: for instance, a Xena episode, Been There, Done That; a 1992 Star Trek:TNG episode, Cause and Effect; an X-Files episode, Monday; and an early episode, Come Again, of the Seven Days time travel series. But Arden's One Fine Day and Lupoff's 12:01 PM appear to have been thought up independently.

Coincidences can happen. I was surprised recently at remarkable similarities between one of my published stories and one I encountered self-published on the Web; yet an e-mail chat confirmed that there was no connection. The other author and I had started from the same premise, and thought through the consequences nearly identically. This sort of coincidence applies especially to SF, where just about anything you can think of has been done before. As the Turkey City Lexicon comments, the worst offenders for reinventing SF wheels tend to be mainstream writers who "try to write an SF novel without actually reading any of the existing stuff". Such writers tend, in my view, to vastly overestimate the uniqueness of their ideas.

Discussion at Fiction-L Archives - 'Replay': Second Chance or Infinite Recurrence Novels shows that the idea of time-loop is quite common in SF. It seems well possible that the writers of One Fine Day and 12:01 PM, like many others before them, came up with the same scenario and developed it logically along the same lines.

Nevertheless, given the many other reworkings of the time-loop theme since Groundhog Day, I wouldn't be surprised if Columbia had, in turn, got the idea from elsewhere. But if they did, it's really anyone's guess what the exact contributions were from the work of Arden, Lupoff, and the many other previous explorers of the same theme.

Since writing this, I ran into yet another possible precursor: the blog post at Gutbrain Records for 2nd February 2005 mentions

On January 1, 1939, The Shadow's radio audience heard "The Man Who Murdered Time", about a mad scientist who uses a time machine to loop New Year's Eve. In anticipation of perpetually reliving these 24 hours, he's borrowed tons of money (which he won't have to pay back) and invited his hated cousin over so he can enjoy the pleasure of murdering him again and again and again. Lamont Cranston is aware of the time loop, thanks to the same mental powers that make him The Shadow, but his resistance is weakening. If he doesn't stop the madman soon, he will also succumb and the whole world will be stuck in the loop forever.

You can even find it on YouTube: Part 1 / 2 / 3. I'd also be interested to read the BFI imprint of the Groundhog Day screenplay (Groundhog Day, Ryan Gilbey, Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis, BFI, 2004, ISBN 1844570320) which contains an account by Danny Rubin of the its gestation...

Originally I'd thought about this guy repeating the same day over and over again. But it didn't have a heart; I didn't know who the character was, or what to do with it. A couple of years later, I bought one of the Anne Rice Vampire novels ... I started thinking about what it would be like to like for a really long time. Would you change, or are you stuck as yourself no matter what? The idea of repeating one day is just a two-dimensional comedy idea. But when you think of it in terms of immortality, then all of a sudden it's about something. After that, the ideas came together very quickly.

...which very much fits my view of the script arising from logical development of a basic idea not in itself unique.
- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Not only can JSBlog do it better, as I suggested, but (now, reading your post I belatedly remember...) already did :-)