It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a new idea. In Hollywood, this sentiment manifests itself as a yearly barrage of sequels, prequels and remakes.
While adapting old ideas for new audiences is, by itself, an admirable endeavor, occasionally individuals find themselves teetering on the wrong side of the thin line between tactful homage and blatant rip off. Earlier this year, actor Shia LaBeouf found himself in a bit of a quagmire over his personal project, Daniel Boring.
The problem, it seemed, was that LaBeouf’s work was highly derivative of the work of Daniel Clowes, author of David Boring. Astute readers will already notice a striking similarity. Aside from the name, however, Clowes argued a laundry list of instances where LaBeouf allegedly plagiarized his work.
Naturally, what could have ended amicably went horribly awry, with LaBeouf publicly mocking Clowes via Twitter and, in an almost surreal move, hiring a skywriter to etch a false apology across the Los Angeles sky. Ultimately, Clowes was forced to send a cease and desist letter to LaBeouf, via his lawyers, while a handful of movers and shakers in Hollywood offered their support to Clowes.
LaBeouf’s delusions aside, there are plenty of instances of a common ideas, independently developed and brought to fruition within the Hollywood system. In most cases, the versions stand on their own as two valid expressions of a similar concept. Take, for example, the case of Critters, a film regularly accused of riding the coattails of Gremlins. Vague similarities aside, the truth is that Critters was in development for many years before Gremlins hit the screen.
Here, we celebrate these conversions of thought. We take a look at popular films that elevated a common idea, films that tread upon familiar ground but did so in a way that lifted them above their predecessors. Here, we look at six movie concepts before they were huge.
World On A Wire / The Matrix
Twenty-six years before the Wachowski brothers envisioned a simulation so convincing that participants mistook it for reality, Rainer Werner Fassbinder created World on a Wire, a film featuring a supercomputer running a simulated world containing 9,000 unaware “identity units” who believe themselves to be human beings.
Beyond this initial, primarily conceptual similarity, World on a Wire featured a character inside the simulation called Einstein. Einstein was the only identity unit who was aware that the world they were inhabiting was a simulation. Necessary to keep the program running smoothly, astute readers may notice similarities between Einstein and a certain Agent Smith from The Matrix. Further solidifying the parallel, near the climax of World on a Wire, Einstein discovers a way to invade the mind of Fritz Walfang — one of the simulation’s stewards — effectively transferring his consciousness into the real world.
Cannibal Holocaust / The Blair Witch Project
In the 1999 horror film The Blair Witch Project, three documentary filmmakers venture into the woods and are never seen again. Though dissimilar in some of its specifics, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust also tells the tale of a documentary film crew who met an unfortunate end while trekking through the depths of a forest they have greatly underestimated.
Both films employ the found footage style to lend realism to their narratives. While the aesthetic has become a horror staple, in 1980 it was a novel technique. In fact, so convincing were the deaths in Cannibal Holocaust that the film’s director, Ruggero Deodato, was initially charged with the murder of his film’s actors.
Speculation was rampant until it was revealed that — seeking to market the film as a true documentary — Deodato had required his stars to sign contracts stating they would not appear in any form of media for a full year after the film’s release. Years later, advertisements for The Blair Witch Project would court scrutiny — and massive public interest — by mimicking Deodato’s insistence upon the factual content of the film.
Battle Royale / The Hunger Games
A group of teenagers, randomly selected by a government enforced lottery, are thrown into an isolated arena and forced to engage in a televised battle to the death. If this summary reminds you of the 2012 blockbuster The Hunger Games, you wouldn’t be the first person to make such a connection. The summary, however, is of the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale.
Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, has been fending off accusations of copying Battle Royale since her book’s release. According to Susan Dominus of the New York Times, “the parallels are striking enough that Collins’s work has been savaged on the blogosphere as a baldfaced ripoff.”
While the concept of children becoming adults by doing battle on a deserted landscape isn’t entirely new — William Golding’s Lord of the Flies comes to mind — critics cite a host of secondary parallels including the lottery system used to populate the competition, the presence of “volunteers” in both works, and the involvement of both works’ protagonists in a love triangle.
Kimba The White Lion / The Lion King
One of Disney’s most iconic animated films, The Lion King, has endured allegations of copying the television series Kimba the White Lion since its release in 1994. Beyond the similarities in name alone, detractors cite the main storyline, wherein a fatherless cub, accompanied by his bird and baboon companions, is destined to become king.
Parallels abound not only on the major plot elements but in the way that each plot progresses. Identical symbolism — including the image of a proud lion perched atop a jagged outcropping — appears in both works. Adding credence to these “coincidences,” as Disney called them, is the fact that Disney trained the crew of Kimba the White Lion on the use of color and, at one point, it was reported that a full-length Disney movie featuring Kimba was in the works.
Perfect Blue / The Black Swan
In Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan, ballerina Nina Sayers experiences a sort of psychological disconnect as she auditions for a major role in Swan Lake. While the plot of Perfect Blue does not exactly mirror that of Black Swan, the reliance of both works on heavy amounts of symbolism and distortion of reality lends credence to theories that with Black Swan, Aronofsky effectively “remade Perfect Blue.”
With the protagonists of both films undergoing a sexual awakening, viewers are constantly uncertain about the reliability of the main characters’ accounts. Pivotal events can never quite be fully placed in the world of the real or the realm of each character’s imagination. As an added layer of mystery, Aronofsky purchased the filming rights to Perfect Blue several years earlier so — like both films — it is impossible for viewers to know whether or not Black Swan is a remake of Perfect Blue.
Repo! The Genetic Opera / Repo Men
Before Jude Law repossessed artificial organs from overdue clients in 2010’s Repo Men, a smaller, lesser-known film with an almost identical plot slowly gathered a cult following. That film, Repo! The Genetic Opera, developed out of a stage play and told the story of GeneCo, a futuristic corporation that provides organ transplants with payment plans.
In this instance, the concept alone is where the similarities end. Repo!, unlike its box-office cousin, is decidedly less serious in tone and told as a rock opera. In a rare case of Hollywood acceptance, Darren Lynn Bousman, director of Repo! The Genetic Opera embraced the similarities, expressing a hope that his fans would “support REPO MEN, as it helps bring awareness to our movie as well.”
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