Radio vs. the Mailbag: Rip Off!

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One of the harshest — and most common  — epithets in fandom is to label a work of media as a rip-off.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a rip-off of Babylon 5!” “The Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale!” “Captain Marvel is a rip-off of Superman!” “The Island is a rip-off of Parts: the Clonus Horror!”

(Okay, that last one is definitely true.)

But not all derivative works are intrinsically inferior. Some actually transcend the quality of their media muses as pieces of art that stand the test of time.

So, dear listener, this month, we’re asking you:
“What derivative works of art are superior to the works that inspired them?”

Our hosts had this to say:

Mike says:

When it comes to an inspired work outshining an original one, I’m looking to an unusual place for me. Music.

When one artist covers another’s song, the comparison seems inevitable. Usually, those comparisons aren’t kind to the remake. We know the original song, and when the cover plays, it’s the original playing under it in our heads.

Any change in tempo, tone or rhythm seems jarring, because it’s discordant with the older version in our subconsciousness. Regardless of merits of those changes, the cover song is almost always doomed to failure in most ears.

Which is why I was shocked at how much I loved a cover of “Common People” by Pulp.

I first encountered Pulp when the guys behind the always-brilliant ‘Venture Bros.’ used their song “Like a Friend” over their fourth season finale.

“Common People” is a song about what I’ve heard referred to as “class tourism.” This is where a naïve rich kid decides to “go native” with the lower classes. Sort of like ‘Roman Holiday’, but with sleazy dive bars and shit-hole apartments.

Because…life experience?

The problem is that the princess slumming with the peasants doesn’t understand how patronizing and insulting the whole exercise is. This way of life isn’t a choice for the rest of us. As the chorus says:

“But still you’ll never get it right

‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall

If you call your Dad he could stop it all.

You’ll never live like common people

You’ll never do what common people do

You’ll never fail like common people

You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw

Because there’s nothing else to do.”

Pulp’s original has a sly condescension to it. The narrator is talking over the subject’s head. Making fun of her while trying to prod her into getting it. It’s a damned good song.

And that’s why it blows my mind that the cover by William Shatner on his album, “Has Been,” is better on all fronts.

Rather than being a slow Brit pop song that makes fun of its subject, Shatner’s version is a spoken word piece over an angrier, almost punk-ish version of the chorus.

Because this really should be an angry punk song. And even weirder that the then-73 year old Shatner nails that anger with a total lack of his trademark modern irony. He has nothing in common with the song’s imagined 20-something narrator, but he delivers the lyrics with a real derision and rage that is infectious.

Because, seriously, fuck rich assholes who play at being poor because it’s fashionable. Give ’em hell, Bill.

Casey says:

It’s a truism in art that every work is a copy of something that came before. It’s true. No art is truly original… even the oldest cave paintings were imitations of nature. But when a new movie, or song, or TV show comes along and it is just TOO close to something that came before, or is clearly a cheap knock-off, us lovers of pop culture can get hostile. Not just hostile, but pissy, sanctimonious, and perhaps downright vitriolic. Strangely, in the medium of video games, derivative works seem to raise much less ire.

From the endless number of Pong clones, to the dozens of fighting games with characters whose moves are conspicuously similar to those from Street Fighter 2, to nearly every so-called first person shooter looking like Call of Duty, videos games are derivative works by design. And gamers don’t seem to care. They’ll buy the next slightly different Call of Duty game year after year. However, it’s an even rarer to find a game that is clearly derivative, but breaks the mold and succeeds in ways the original never could.

I submit that Rockstar’s ‘Red Dead Redemption’ is the pinnacle of what is known as the “sandbox” genre, from which it inherited from the Grand Theft Auto series. Upon first glance, RDR appears to be essentially Grand Theft Auto on horseback. It shares the same quest-based structure, open world exploration, branching stories from a main narrative, gun fights, factions, and RPG-lite elements (upgrading weapons, vehicle, accessories, etc…). The game also shares the same acerbic humor that GTA made famous. But where it truly diverges is the setting.

While Grand Theft Auto notorious recycled large, recognizable American cities for its fictional settings, they never truly feel as if they’re lived in. As you power your way through a GTA game, you familiarize yourself with the streets and landmarks, but the people and vehicles are but shadow puppets. You often see cars and people appearing out of thin air, or notice when an entire busy freeway is empty of cars in the on-coming lane. Many of these tricks are probably necessary for the game engine to push object in and out of your field of view to keep the memory optimized for rendering such a large world.

Red Dead Redemption is a setting that’s world is empty… by design. Empty, but for the wildlife, the wind and the elements. Empty of cars and skyscrapers and airplanes, but bursting forth with beautiful scenery. Of course, you’ll run into some random encounters with other humans needing rescue or itching for a shootout, but galloping through 20 minutes of terrain in RDR never feels empty or boring. The choice of the wild west as a setting, and placing the narrative in the very beginning of the 20th century, make for an elegant backdrop to tell a story about loneliness, survival and encroaching civilization.

The characters that populate this world are send-offs of western movie tropes (a roughneck rancher, a snake-oil salesman, a Mexican revolutionary), but somehow they feel more in place than the cardboard-cut-out mafioso-movie prototypes that inhabit the GTA series. They’re more than just window dressing on a city full of square boxes, they’re lonely souls inhabiting this by-gone world. They not only help to smooth out the grinding and disspiriting “fetch it” quests that seem to be obligatory in sandbox-style games, but allow for a satisfying reveal of the expansive frontier of “New Austin.”

For brevity’s sake, it will be obligatory to describe Red Dead Redemption to an outsider as “GTA on horses,” but I feel that it achieves so much more. It appropriated a well-established genre, exploded the formula, and stripped it down into an experience from which you come away actually feeling something about the setting. And the evoking of feeling is one of the hallmarks of good art.

10 thoughts on “Radio vs. the Mailbag: Rip Off!

  1. The Last of The Mohicans (film) greatly improves on the source material. Soaring soundtrack, fantastically attractive people, truly heartbreaking sacrifice, intrigue, betrayal, romance…Cooper’s book was written as tedious historical fiction, and managed to take an interesting section of American history and make it so spiritless that even the wikipedia entry on the novel is boring.

    Most Dylan songs are better sung by somebody else. Especially partial to Joan Baez.

    Doctor Who rebooted is better than its source material, even controlling for production funding (Fewer racist tropes used as plot devices; specific nods to diversity of many kinds).

    I’m pretty sure Avatar was better than Ferngully, but not better than Dances With Wolves.

    BTVS was better as a TV show than the ridiculous movie.

    Monsters, Inc. is way better than Little Monsters. Despite Fred Savage’s adorableness. Cars was likewise way cuter than Doc Hollywood, despite MJF’s adorableness.

    I think Cloverfield is the better of the “found footage” films.

    SG1 did the time loop better than both Groundhog Day and TNG.

    And Galaxy Quest wins at everything.

  2. ‘Rip-off’ is a term that gets slung about a LOT, by people who don’t get what it means. I think it stems from a need from certain people for everything to have an air of drama about it. It’s not enough that someone makes use of an outside idea or inspiration, it has to be an act of malice or thievery – a ‘rip-off’. Anything to precipitate a little “Let’s you and him fight”.
    Don’t get me wrong. I have a genuine hatred of plagiarism, but in a lot of cases, that results in me being less willing to just casually sling the idea of someone ‘ripping off’ someone else’s work.

    That said, I think the idea of ‘originality’ is vastly over-rated.
    Pretty much every creative person I know has said something to the extent of, “I wish I could come up with something completely original.” My response is usually, “Why? Wouldn’t you rather come up with something good?”
    I’m willing to believe that there may be some wholly original ideas out there, somewhere, but for the most part, creative people derive their inspiration from outside sources.
    Alan Moore likens it to tuning the settings on a radio. You find something you like and then start tweaking it in different directions and seeing what kind of interesting sounds you can come up with.

    The other reason why the ‘rip-off’ term gets bandied about so much is the fascination in some quarters with ‘ideas’ – the “Where do you get your ideas from?” phase – as though the ‘idea’ itself is the only thing of worth, and everything else is just window dressing.
    The simple fact is that anyone can have an idea. And most of the creative excellence comes in how that idea is executed. If an idea can be executed with verve, craft and, yeah, sure, a degree of originality, then you can end up with something excellent, even if, at its heart, it’s drawing inspiration from other sources.

    So when a young George Lucas gets the idea to film a movie based on the ‘Flash Gordon’ serials he saw as a kid and is refused permission, so decides to go ahead with it anyway, adding elements from the chambara films of Akira Kurosawa (notably ‘Hidden Fortress’) and films about wartime dogfights from WWI and WWII, you end up with something intriguing and compelling.
    Certainly a lot more intriguing than the ‘Star Wars-a-likes’ that came out in its wake.

    My thoughts about originality are best summed up by a routine by comedian (and voice of Spongebob Squarepants, Plastic Man and the Ice King) Tom Kenny, who was talking about taking a tour of Elvis’ Mansion:

    “This,” said the tour guide, “Is the Jungle Room. Pay close attention to the shag pile carpeting on the ceiling. Before Elvis, nobody had thought of putting shag pile carpeting on a ceiling. Moving right along…”
    “No, no. Not moving right along. Nobody had thought of it? No, plenty of people had thought of it. Elvis was the first one not to go… mmm, nah, that’s a retarded idea.”

  3. As far as cover versions of songs go, I like it when a cover version sounds like you’ve just traveled to an alternate universe where this IS the original version.

    A good example of this is Devo’s version of the Rolling Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ – it’s pure Devo, but with another band’s song.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jadvt7CbH1o

    A bad example is the No Doubt cover of Talk Talk’s ‘It’s My Life’. Despite having a cute video, the instrumentation is pretty much the same 80’s synth sound as the original, just with a female vocalist. The whole effect just ends up sounding like karaoke to me.

  4. And I just realized I didn’t answer the damn question.

    I’ll start with John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982) which is a superior film to ‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951).

    I think that Steve Gerber’s ‘Man-Thing’, and both Len Wein and Alan Moore’s take on ‘Swamp Thing’ transcend the original Golden Age ‘Heap’ comics from Hillman Periodicals.

    While I love The Shadow, I think that Batman, which appropriated a long of its ideas from The Shadow, is a more potent, iconic and versatile character.

    When Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. adapted the story ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ by Johnston McCulley into silent film ‘The Mark of Zorro’, he added a number of features to the character including the all-black costume, the ‘Z’ signature, and a number of supporting characters, all of whom were later added into other ‘Zorro’ adventures by McCulley.
    The main change of course, is that McCulley originally ended ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ by having Don Diego give up his double identity, while the Fairbanks film allows for an ongoing series of adventures.

  5. Fun question! And I really enjoyed reading everybody’s comments.
    In music, I have to say I agree with Becky: pretty much everybody does Dylan songs better than Dylan.
    And on the topic of music, I think the most perfect example of a cover far transcending the original is when Santana took Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman” and basically turned it into his signature song, so that most people aren’t even aware that it’s a cover.

    My own example is from the world of television: I think the Flintstones in so many ways surpassed the show on which it was based, the Honeymooners (and to be quite honest, I’ve never really understood the appeal of the latter).

  6. Well, you baited your hook with ‘rip-off’ but it sounds to me like you’re asking about two other, different things, neither of which is a genuine act of theft. One is a pastiche– which is to say, an effort to honor and continue an original creator’s work in the way that the CONAN comics from Roy Thomas and John Buscema honored the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, or Nicholas Meyer’s THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION honored the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

    The other is what you’d call an ‘inspired by’ or derivative piece, and again, the original creator is usually acknowledged and often thanked. James Bond inspires THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. which in its turn leads Stan Lee to create NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. with Jack Kirby. And so on. The ‘inspiration’ thing can get a little slippery; Ian Fleming was himself hugely influenced by writers such as John Buchan and Eric Ambler, and Robert E. Howard owes a lot to guys like Clark Ashton Smith. But there are derivative works that are pretty obvious. I think it’s fair to say that you wouldn’t have Batman without the Shadow, and you wouldn’t have the Punisher without Mack Bolan, and you wouldn’t have the Flintstones without the Honeymooners.

    For out-and-out theft, well, I think the ‘mockbuster’ movies put out by The Asylum are pretty blatant rip-offs– hard to get more obvious than movies like SNAKES ON A TRAIN or TRANSMORPHERS. And the Mack Bolan EXECUTIONER series launched a whole wave of crappy imitators like THE LIQUIDATOR, THE DEATH MERCHANT, and THE PENETRATOR. I have an unholy affection for those books– probably in the same way Mike loves movies that are ‘so bad they’re good’ — but honestly, they’re hack work ground out on the cheap in the hope of cashing in on people’s love of the more popular original. Sometimes you get lucky with the hack stuff– there was Ki-Gor, a jungle lord that was a sort of B-list Tarzan of the pulp magazines that even Burroughs fans admit is as good or better than what Burroughs was giving them in the Tarzan books… I like him because the writers weren’t just doing Burroughs-imitation adventures, and Ki-Gor’s girlfriend Helene was more interesting, and certainly more capable, than Jane. But most of the time hack stuff like that is pretty much just hackery.

    SUPERIOR derivative works is the question before the floor, though. I can think of lots of them but most of them involve a jump from one medium to another. SHERLOCK from the BBC is vastly superior to the Sherlock Holmes stories that Conan Doyle originally wrote. The film version of CASINO ROYALE with Daniel Craig is at least twice as good as Fleming’s original novel. But really those are more adaptations than out-and-out derivative work.

    Let’s see. There’s a lot of cases of better-than-the-original in the old pulps, certainly. There would be no Green Ghost and no Spider and no Black Bat without the Shadow, but on the whole all three of those imitators had better stories, the Spider in particular. I think it’s fair to say that you wouldn’t have Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe without Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams, but Marlowe overshadows them so hugely that many people think Chandler’s the original, and certainly Chandler spawned more imitators than all his pulp contemporaries combined. So Marlowe would be an obvious contender. Robert E. Howard inspired a lot of folks to try their hand at sword-and-sorcery fiction and many of them did better-crafted work; Fritz Leiber and his tales of Lankhmar come to mind. Almost everyone who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs was a better writer than he was, Philip Jose Farmer and Richard Lupoff in particular.

    And sometimes you get a derivative work that BECOMES an original. Star Trek was initially conceived as “Horatio Hornblower in space” and sold as “Wagon Train to the stars,” and it literally became a genre all its own, separate even from other SF.

    I could go on like this all day, really. Tracing pop culture linkages and lineage is something I’ve been doing since I was a teenager. You can draw a pretty direct line from blind detective Duncan Maclain to blind detective Mike Longstreet to blind superhero Daredevil.

    The thing is, when the derivative work outshines the original, it usually means the people involved with the derivative work have talent AND the benefit of hindsight. Most people that came after did better ‘planetary romance’ than Edgar Rice Burroughs– but he was the guy that broke the ground.

  7. I’m glad that you mentioned the Asylum’s “mockbusters,” Greg. I think what separates them from being homages or pastiches is that there’s a bald-faced attempt in deception and coat-tail riding motivating them.

    They exist to trick grandmas into buying them, thinking that they’re another more successful movie.

    One I would add to your list of adaptations outshining the original: the Planet of the Apes. The 1968 movie is FAR better than the Pierre Boulle novel.

    Really all the two have in common is a BASIC plot of an astronaut finding a planet with intelligent apes and being captured by them before his intelligence is discovered. Well, that and a couple of the Ape character names.

    The Rod Serling script and its later drafts are just a better story with better characters and a better twist ending. The character of Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, is far more memorable and interesting and the social commentary is more biting and focused.

  8. I think Greg’s point about the Casino Royale movie can be applied across the board: pretty much any of the James Bond movies are better than the original books – which is a strange thing for me to say, because normally my default position is to ALWAYS like the original book or other prose piece better than the adaptation to other media. However – and I know this is blasphemy in some quarters – I think Fleming was a pretty bad writer. I found all four of the Bond books I managed to get through pretty (and in the case of “Casino Royale,” excruciatingly) boring.

    Also, getting back to the post’s title, I suppose it can be said, even though Jack Kirby had a hand in creating both, that the Fantastic Four are a rip-off of Challengers of the Unknown, but that’s definitely a case where the derivative work outdid the source material.

    • Thought of a really obvious one… we keep talking about Batman coming from the Shadow but it’s been documented dozens of times that the single biggest influence on Siegel and Shuster when they created Superman was Philip Wylie’s novel GLADIATOR. They added three things– they made their rogue superhuman a good guy and not a doomed outcast criminal, they put him in a colorful costume, and they gave him a secret identity. That turned a serious, tragic figure into a piece of wish fulfillment so powerful and identifiable that Superman is now a piece of fiction with PLANETARY success. You can go anywhere– Botswana, the Andes, Albania– and show someone a picture of Superman and they’ll know who he is.

      Meanwhile, Wylie’s novel, though still in print, remains largely unknown. Anyone who’s not a comic-book fan associates Philip Wylie with his much better-known WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, if they know the name at all. So clearly Superman outshines GLADIATOR.

      And there are times that the original gets revamped BECAUSE of a derivative work. I think most of us who’ve been reading comics for longer than a decade are just about done with the Nolan DARK KNIGHT-ification of every superhero DC publishes, and I think stabby Aquaman in the revamped JLA comics wouldn’t exist, in particular, without that The 1990s FLASH TV show is probably the worst example of this but after Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie it was absolutely required that all live-action superhero films use a “dark” visual interpretation and a rubber muscle suit. (This was an INSANE design decision for the Flash, in particular…. and I see hints of it happening again in the new show from the CW, although Grant Gustin’s outfil– though still way too leathery and heavy– at least looks like something a person can run in.) Those are all Batman derivations and I think it actually does totter on the edge of being a rip-off, even if the properties are owned by the same company.

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