The Curious Case of “The Curious Case”

I was sorting through old boxes the other day when I discovered that I’d written "Valkyrie." There it was, the short story I penned in 1986, about a British chap who, in the year 1895, has a premonition and decides to kill the then six-year-old future Fuhrer. OK, strictly speaking, it’s not “exactly” the same […]

Last Updated: February 11, 2009 @ 9:39 PM

I was sorting through old boxes the other day when I discovered that I’d written "Valkyrie." There it was, the short story I penned in 1986, about a British chap who, in the year 1895, has a premonition and decides to kill the then six-year-old future Fuhrer.

OK, strictly speaking, it’s not “exactly” the same as Bryan Singer’s movie, but, broadly, I think you’ll agree, the elements are in place.

We’ve got a) an assassination plot against; b) Adolf Hitler; that c) fails. That my teenage self was inspired by a) a quick dip into "World Book Encyclopedia”; and b) a desire to replicate Stephen King’s "The Dead Zone"; doesn’t c) diminish my adult self’s hope at securing some of "Valkyrie’s" anti-Nazi box-office gold.

That’s because of my new heroine, Italian office worker Adriana Pichini, who last week claimed that Eric Roth’s screenplay for "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" was ripped off – not from his own "Forrest Gump", as many wags have said, and not from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story – but from her 1994 story "Il Ritorno Di Arthur All’Innocenza", or “Arthur’s Return To Innocence”, as it would’ve been known in English, had it been published.

Where does Pichini get her moxie? Not from her lawyer Gianni Massaro, who previously failed to prove his Italian musical clients were ripped off by Madonna and Michael Jackson. And probably not from French writer Stephanie Vergniault, whose claim that Stephen Gaghan’s script for “Syriana” plagiarized her screenplay “Oversight” was tossed out of court last November. And not from any of the dozens of other curious cases rejected by the courts because copyright law doesn’t protect ideas or characters and proving plagiarism is nigh impossible – especially when faced by a studio’s well-funded legal team. Even Paul Blart might be above the law.

Of course, plagiarism does happen, but the best Pichini might expect is a settlement. Harlan Ellison apparently got bucks and screen credit lest he sue over two of his "The Outer Limits" episodes and one short story being reduxed into "The Terminator". But as Pichini’s story was written 70 years after F. Scott’s yarn, opening up the possibility that it was she did the copying, I’m saying she’s going to have to send a T-1000 back through time to kill Fitzgerald to have a hope in hell.

Unless, unless… she’s looking to the “Amistad” case for solace. That suit was brought by Barbara Chase-Riboud, who claimed Steven Spielberg’s slave drama pillaged her novel, “Echo of Lions”. What followed was the revelation that she herself had plagiarized bits of “Echo Of Lions” from William A. Owens’ 1953’s “Slave Rebellion”, the very novel that DreamWorks had optioned for “Amistad”! And still she got a settlement!

That’s no doubt heartening for Pichini. I know it gets me hot, because, in addition to "Valkyrie", in recent years, as a budding scriptwriter, I’ve found myself victim of such shenanigans.

In 2006 I came up with the high-concept title "Witless Protection" and from there a friend and I spit-balled a story about stoner cops looking after a high-value witness. Of course, it was a non-starter when Larry The Cable Guy’s movie of the same name was announced. The other time was more aggravating. In early 2005, I was commissioned to write a script about a zombie outbreak, as told via the cameras of a documentary film crew, which I did, over a period of three months. Then came several similar undead-POV projects hit – "The Zombie Diaries" in the UK, "[Rec]" in Spain and George A. Romero’s "Diary Of The Dead."

But what I foolishly thought was merely polter-zeitgeist acitivity now makes all sorts of sinister sense! Larry, as a Cable Guy, is clearly proficient with high-tech equipment, including devices to steal my thoughts! And as for my zombie epic, it wasn’t a bunch of writers simultaneously tapping the post 9/11 witnesses-to-history idea, but an international conspiracy of producers hacking my Final Draft software! Possibly with the assistance of that damned dirty Larry!

Now, following Pichini’s lead, I’ll no longer let myself be blinded to how my works are being pirated. And the fact that Spielberg and Co. settled over “Amistad” really puts dollar signs in my eyes. That’s because, digging deeper into my box of past literary glory, I also found dinosaur drawings executed when I was four. In them, T-Rex and his toothsome chums fight modern homo sapiens, one of whom is a dead-ringer for Jeff Goldblum, in that he’s a stick figure with a shock of dark hair. Some of the backgrounds are decidedly island-y. And I’m pretty sure handwriting experts will interpret my childish crayon signature as really reading "Jurassic Park."

Messrs Singer, Spielberg, Cable Guy and miscellaneous zombie producers, I await your checks.

Michael Adams is an editor with the international movie magazine Empire and his writing has also appeared in Rolling Stone, FHM, Interview, Men's Style, Top Gear and Jobson's Mining Year Book. His upcoming comic memoir Schlock Around The Clock (HarperCollins, 2010) follows his year-long quest to find and watch the worst movie ever made.