Last night I started reading a short story by Twain entitled “The One Million Pound Bank-note” in which two English gentlemen make a bet concerning giving one million pounds to a poor man to use for thirty days. What? Isn’t this Trading Places, the movie with Eddie Murphy? So, I googled it. Sure enough, the script combined two sources from Twain: “The Prince and the Pauper” and ” The One Million Pound Bank-note” (by the way, in the title one million pound is numerical, but I don’t have an icon for the pound sign). Anyway, how many times have you discovered a story that got its idea from an earlier source? Of course, everybody knows West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet, but how many people knew that Apocalypse Now is an updated Heart of Darkness? Or that Clueless is Austen’s Emma? The average viewer most likely wouldn’t know that. In fact, while reading Heart of Darkness in college I asked my professor, “Isn’t this Apocalypse Now?” It’s also funny, or maybe a coincidence, that Clueless came out in 1995 and then the film version of Emma starring Gwenyth Paltrow came out in 1996.
Now, the question arises: is this plagiarism? I have conducted extensive research on this subject because before my book came out I realized how many lines and titles in my writing either allude to other works or parody them. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t committing plagiarism. My research shows that there is a huge difference between academic plagiarism and artistic plagiarism. Having had been an English teacher I lectured my students constantly about plagiarism which has become rampant since the internet, but is seems as though in the literary world borrowing from others is perfectly alright as long as there are enough differences to make it your own. As T.S. Eliot stated “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” He went on to say (and I am paraphrasing here) that it is how a poet steals, that the poet welds the previous work into something better, or at least something different.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, and perhaps other examples of stories or films you have come across that are retellings of another story, or that used ideas from that previous story as a springboard for their own. Is the new story an homage, an allusion, a parody? Please share.