How about we take a break from robots and future alien empires for a day to talk about something a lot closer to home for most of us? Is it just me or is every time a new book/movie combination gets really popular, there are constant cries of it ripping off a previous novel/short story/comic book, and so on and so forth? Today, the most popular creative franchise is the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy, the premise of which I’m not going to recap because I’m assuming you don’t live under an alien rock. Considering that the first book and film spend a great deal of their time detailing how teenagers hunt and kill each other on TV for the entertainment of their callous rulers, the story could’ve easily veered off into grotesquely disturbing darkness, so the fact that it didn’t and makes for an interesting read and movie-going experience, is already a big accomplishment. But ah, you hear the fanboys cry, the Hunger Games is merely warmed over Battle Royale, the Japanese tale of students kidnapped by the military, shipped to an abandoned island, and forced to hunt each other until only one is left alive for the deranged officer running the experiment to collect. But is it really? And does it really matter?
Besides having teenagers forced to hunt and kill each other, the premises and details of each story are wildly, wildly different. The students in Battle Royale find themselves unwittingly selected to fight in secret and using everything short of machine guns with winners of past contests periodically finding themselves being thrown back in the mix. The tributes of the Hunger Games are randomly selected in a ritual "reaping" and the event is treated as a pageant, with sponsors and the media gambling on their tributes of choice and trying to affect the outcome for the best ratings, using past winners as mentors who now live in wealth and luxury after escaping a bloody demise. Yes, the basic idea is the same but the context and narrative are executed very differently for different audiences and for different resolutions. And if you search all the stories that have ever been written in the last few decades, you’ll find The Running Man which introduces the concept of televised murder for ratings and cover-ups for sinister political aims. Because we found a plot point in common, the Hunger Games must have been a ripoff of both Battle Royale and The Running Man, right? Well no, it’s still its own story and there’s only so many generic story templates one can even use to create a work of fiction. By the criteria by which the fans of Battle Royale call plagiarism, all but the first handful of stories written in ancient times are ripoffs.
Any sufficiently advanced English class dealing with narrative fiction will teach you that writing a story is not an exercise in trying to find what’s never been done before, but using a combination of elements already there to put together a basic flow and mix them up to create conflicts to resolve or secrets to discover. H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories are often cited as being both very disturbing and very original but he was actually following fairly classic New England, Puritan tales of forbidden, evil, nebulous things lurking in dark forests and unexplored, hidden caves since time immemorial just waiting to kill or haunt whoever discovers them, the same folk tales that gave us the myth of the Jersey Devil. Lovecraft’s contribution to this 200 year old style of storytelling was a dash of aliens. Demons of yore and supposedly nefarious pagan cults became alien monstrosities using the humans who worshipped them like tools and which cared little about their followers’ fates. Suddenly, there is a new toolkit for telling horror stories, new shapes the monsters can take, more bizarre back stories they can be given, new situations set up and explored. Linking them back to popular legends of the day about the fates of lost continents like Mu and Atlantis, and mysteriously vanishing civilizations like the Hyperboreans, opened up even more ways the story could go. Had Lovecraft poured over Puritan myths, found that they shared a few elements with his prose and threw away his drafts, we wouldn’t have the sci-fi horror genre we do today.
Now, if you’re really interested in the literary theory behind this, Campbell’s monomyth is an interesting place to start, though it very heavily relies on classical sources and fantasy scenarios, primarily because Campbell’s specialty was mythology. It perfectly captures the narrative structure of Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit and Frodo from Lord of the Rings, as well as that of Harry Potter, Rincewind of the Discworld series, and even Neo of the Matrix with the roles of gods and magic played by machines and neuron-machine interfaces. And it’s not really difficult to imagine a streamlined modern version for today’s sci-fi and dystopian futurism. Again, we also see how existing structures are refined to create new types of stories. The Hobbit was written when computers as we know them were just mathematical equations and uses magic to ferry Bilbo to defeat the dragon and find the one ring to rule them all, returning to The Shire victorious. Neo’s success in getting the machines to stay a planned culling of Zion is framed entirely through the use of technology Tolkien would never see. In both tales a clueless antihero becomes a champion but how this happens and their goals are radically different. So just because two stories share the same basic elements, don’t rush to cry plagiarism. They’re simply an evolution of an archetypical narrative and if you find these stories interesting and fun to read, that’s all that matters.