The Nine Lives of Copycats

What is originality? Undetected plagiarism. - Dean William R. Inge

In Hollywood, copycats never seem to run out of lives. Want proof? Just look at this summer’s assembly line of remakes. We’ve been revisited by Herbie the Love Bug, Bewitched, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Dukes of Hazzard. The Pink Panther is stalking behind them. The vault of old movies and shows has been plundered so often, it’s surprising anything is left untouched. What’s next: Three’s Company: The Movie?

But it’s not just Hollywood. In my summer of reading children’s books (see The Choice Days of Summer), I’ve been depressed at the steady flow of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket knock-offs – and those two books in turn borrowed heavily from Raold Dahl’s dark children’s writing. Everywhere we turn, those cats keep coming back.

Why copy? Movie studios and book publishers are often just trying to cash in on popular trends. But on a broader level, imitation is an essential step in being creative.

In the generating of ideas it’s hard to avoid copying. One could argue that all creative work is built upon what others have already done. A few days ago, I found my five-year-old daughter Grace trying to draw a horse by copying from the plastic horse she had set in front of her. I was thrilled. Copying is an excellent way to learn what has, and can, been done. Art students throughout history have painstakingly reproduced the works of the masters in order to learn their craft.

The same goes for stories. One of the reasons for kids to read (and for parents to read-aloud) is to get acquainted with how stories work. Often, kids then incorporate those ideas in their own stories. That’s natural. That’s how creativity gets started.

But it doesn’t stop there. Copying is a great exercise, but it’s only a training ground for creativity. If my daughter draws only the one plastic pose of a horse, she’ll never make it come alive in her drawings. Kids need to be encouraged to add their own twists to ideas they imitate. So, let’s say your son makes a story about Sponge Bob Round Pants. It may not be much of a step away from the original, but it’s at least a step towards originality. Maybe his next step will make it even more his own creation.

I’m afraid that’s more than we can hope for Hollywood.

Bruce Van Patter

By the way, what story do you think has been made into a movie the most? And which historical figure has been the subject of the most movies? Any guesses? Let me know your answers and I'll tell you.

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter