Is original writing always better?
Tonight is the Oscars*, and one interesting thing for me is that they split the screenwriting awards into two categories: original and adapted.
Why the difference?
Is it inherently easier to write an adapted screenplay…or perhaps inherently harder? Is one form of writing more “valuable” than the other?
That question pulls together a few threads I’ve been pondering recently.
One was when of my readers and commenters, JJ Hitt, expressed a concern about author John Scalzi having “reworked” earlier books.
Another is that there is a legal action, as reported in this
to establish the legality of authors writing new Sherlock Holmes works without the approval of the Conan Doyle estate.
Then there is the prejudice that some people have about tie-in novels, the art of which is eloquently addressed in this book
edited by Lee Goldberg.
All of that brings me to a question: do you think authors should write original things, and if they do, does that make them better than authors who aren’t as original?
I think the knee-jerk reaction from a lot of people will be, “Of course!”
After all, isn’t The Lord of the Rings better than a knock-off?
Most likely…but The Lord of the Rings drew on a lot of other sources (you can get some of them for free at http://www.sacred-texts.com/ring/index.htm). Would LOTR have been better if it wasn’t inspired by the Kalevala and Wagner?
Shakespeare, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark…they all had resonances to other works, and wouldn’t have been the same without that sense.
Now, note that I’m not talking about either plagiarism or copyright infringement here. I’m talking about using other works, often with permission, as a basis for a new work.
We should probably get the definitions of plagiarism and infringement out of the way, so we know what were discussing. I find those two terms commonly confused, although they are quite different.
Copyright infringement is a legal thing. Someone has registered a copyright which gives them certain authorities, and you are infringing on those authorities. In the USA, you can not commit a copyright infringement of Shakespeare’s plays, since they are not under copyright protection any more (they are in what is called “the public domain”…they are owned by the public).
If you were to publish a new book starring Katniss Everdeen of
Review: The Hunger Games without the permission of the rightsholder, you would be infringing on the copyright. Copyright law includes protection for derivative works, which would include movie and TV adaptations…and new novels. That’s how I understand it, although I’m not a lawyer.
That brings up the idea of fan fiction (fanfic)…people who publish it without permission do so at the risk of legal action of the rightsholder. Lots of it is made available (see, for example, http://www.fanfiction.net/ but with certain notable exceptions, there is a risk in doing so.
J.K. Rowling has famously allowed fanfic about Harry Potter
within certain guidelines (nothing sexually explicit, for example).
There is a Fair Use doctrine under US copyright law that protects certain uses of copyrighted material without permission (including parodies), but I think people think it allows much more than it does. Just because you aren’t charging for something doesn’t make it exempt from copyright protection, for one thing.
So, copyright infringement falls under legal definitions.
Plagiarism, on the other hand, means that you are claiming that someone else’s work is your own.
That is not, de facto, illegal.
Let’s say that someone sends a Shakespeare sonnet to someone, claiming to have written it as an original love poem. That is plagiarism, but not copyright infringement.
If someone copyrights and illegally distributes copies of, say,
without permission, but with Gillian Flynn’s name still showing as the author, that is infringement, but not plagiarism.
Something can, of course, be both. When someone else’s work contained my material (beyond Fair Use) without my permission and without crediting me (see Infringement, plagiarism, and Amazon to the rescue), that was both infringement and plagiarism.
With those two out of the way, to you think that writing something original is more creatively valuable than adapting something else?
For example, there will be a
written by William Boyd, authorized by the Fleming estate, published in October of this year.
Do you automatically “downgrade” it, because it is based on someone else’s work? Do you think it is easier to do?
I’ve written parodies, and I love to try to write in other people’s styles.
One reason I like that is because it challenges me.
It adds a level of difficulty, as opposed to just writing my own material from scratch.
When I’ve captured the feel of it, and readers think I have, that makes me feel good.
It’s a bit like the rules in a boardgame…they are what make it interesting.
When we were kids, my family often made up new and more complicated rules. We liked that better. It’s like…if you watched the show Chopped. Chefs open baskets with these really bizarre ingredients, and have to make something good out of them n a very short amount of time. Would it be as fun or as hard if they could use any ingredients they wanted in any way?
I think writing a tie-in novel is both easier in some ways and harder in others.
If you were to write an authorized Star Trek novel, you don’t have to create main characters…if you use Spock, Kirk, and McCoy, it’s already established how they think and interact with each other.
However, if you get that wrong, or some other tiny bit of Star Trek lore wrong, or write something that fans see as “out of character”, you are in big trouble.
Do I like the idea of true originality? Yes. If you can really do something someone has never done before (good luck with that, by the way), that’s wonderful.
However, I also admire someone who can do something new with an existing work. I think the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie is much better than the original book (and I’m a big Oz book fan). Some of my favorite Oz books were written by Ruth Plumly Thompson who (with permission) carried on after L. Frank Baum.
is a great movie, and is enhanced by being inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
What do you think? Is originality always better and harder? Is a bad original more of an achievement than a good derivative work? Does only originality show true artistry? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.
* If you want to see my predictions for the Oscars, and the aggregate predictions of those participating in my annual Bufo’s Oscar Prediction Madness (BOPMadness) competition, see The Measured Circle’s BOPMadness category
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.