Why Plagiarism is Good

It's yours if the new version is better...

January 19, 2011

Have you ever read the sequel to Macbeth? No? It’s really cool. The witches resurrect everyone at Hecate’s order in order to have them work out their differences at a lavish, magical banquet.

What about the stunning trilogy set after the events of “The Call of Cthulhu” wherein the narrator tracks down remnants of the Cthulhu cult and tries to close the cosmic seals keeping the Great Old One asleep?

No? Yeah, me neither.

There’s something massively appealing, though, about continuing a classic work. It’s not unheard of. There’s an unofficial sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. The Hitchhiker’s Guide has a volume Adams never wrote. Even the archetypical vampire, Dracula, got a sequel long after Stoker himself was dust. These books enjoy a measure of success, but they do beg the question of how you can go about making an adaptation of a famous work.

The internet is full of fan fiction, sure, but that’s not quite the same. It’s the same fanboy impulse to make things “cool” or appeal to the most superficial aspects of a work that gave us Star Trek Nemesis, a movie so full of itself it’s like a Star Trek matryoshka doll. No. Sequels, or even prequels, based on well-loved works have to do a few things.

First of all, though, they are sequels.

Think of the great sequels in film (Terminator 2, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Dark Knight) and now think of how they compare next to the originals. They build on the premise of the first and do something new with it. They balance the nostalgia for that first hit of McClane with that new rush of Joker.

So why can’t we take old, public-domain works and just make them our own? Why isn’t everyone looking for that new spin on the old classics?

Probably for the same reason horror movies almost always get a sequel.

Sequels can very easily fall into the trap of just rehashing the old story. Sometimes, though, it’s the story itself that’s intriguing. The first and third Die Hard movies have a very similar plot: bad guy fakes one crime to cover up a more profitable one.

Sometimes the characters are what drive the story. No one would want to read a story about Alice where she wasn’t somehow involved in Wonderland, but take Ellen Ripley and put her on a new planet crawling with xenomorphs and a scared little girl and you have one the greatest 80’s films.

Ripley by *ertacaltinoz on deviantART

One of the best ways to learn anything is imitation. We learn to talk by imitating sounds. We learn a sport by watching others play it, then trying to imitate their movements.

And we learn good writing by imitating the greats. It’s not a bad exercise. Fan fiction is, at worst, an attempt at literary wanking. At its best, it’s an homage and a way to develop your own style by seeing how the classics were built.

Try and write that final chapter to your favorite book. Take a short story and ask yourself, “What made it so good? And what happened afterwards?”

Mark Twain once said that stealing from many people is not plagiarism. It’s research. Why not borrow from the best?

Art is nothing if not the synthesis of the world around us into new forms and shapes.

Homage by ~insomalia on deviantART

Well, time for the links and randomness.

  • Some of you may have already heard about this, but a dog belonging to a flood victim in Brazil is so loyal that it remains with its owner… even though the owner is dead.
  • If you think you’ve got mad acrobatic skills like Spiderman… you’re about one bad decision away from a broken neck. Like this guy.
  • And finally, proving that digging into the past is never a bad way to make something great, here’s the Nostalgia Critic with a review of Neverending Story III. See you Friday, and make sure you vote on this week’s poll in the upper right!

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  1. January 19, 2011    

    personally, as a writer, literature major, and librarian, I say to your title “Duh”. hence the quote, “There is nothing new under the sun.” ;P

    • Entropy Echo Entropy Echo
      January 20, 2011    

      I still believe there’s plenty under the sun… but the original, new stuff is underground and we have to dig through all that stuff between the sun and the ground to get to it. We need to grab our mining hats and search the depths! And I think I took that metaphor a little too far…

  2. October 14, 2014    

    Wilson Mizner actually said “Stealing from one is plagiarism, stealing from many is research”, not Mark Twain

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