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Friday Flix: Who Owns What

April 21, 2011

[I realized last night that Friday is Good Friday, which a lot of people (including me!) have off, so I’m going to post this early.]

Since I’d been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler recently, when I saw “The Long Goodbye” on my cable’s On Demand I decided to watch it.  I didn’t think I’d like it because Robert Altman directed it and he’s one of those critic’s darlings I haven’t had much use for.  Also, Elliott Gould seemed like a poor choice to play Philip Marlowe.

It didn’t take long to realize my instincts were right.  Instead of setting it in the ’40s like Chandler’s novel, Altman sets it in “modern day” which was 1973.  The idea as Ebert said in his review was to show the hardboiled PI Marlowe as an anachronism, a throwback from the ’40s-’50s who had no place in the modern world.  He drives an old car, he still wears suits with ties, and smokes regular cigarettes, unlike everyone else.

Gradually I got annoyed by what I saw as making Marlowe–and the story itself–into a joke.  I got thinking, “Where do you get off, Robert Altman?  What right do you have to turn Chandler’s story into a joke?”  Legally every right so long as they acquired the rights from Chandler’s estate–he had been dead for about 14 years–but morally it irked me.

The thing to me is that Philip Marlowe isn’t a corporate character like Batman, Superman, or James Bond that’s owned by a publisher/studio.  I don’t think he’s really become part of the public collective consciousness either like Dracula, Frankenstein, or Santa Claus.  Perhaps that type of character has entered the collective consciousness, but not Marlowe specifically.  Still, the point is that Marlowe was Raymond Chandler’s creation, so where do you get off 14 years after his death making that into a parody?

That’s what bugs me because it brings the Golden Rule into play:  how would I like it if someone did that to one of my characters?  I would be pretty pissed off about it.  In fact I’d be pissed if anyone did anything to any of my characters stories after my death:  sequels, prequels, spinoffs, or whatever.  I don’t have much to fear about that of course, but still, as writers I think we’re entitled to own our creations unless they do become so popular they transcend into that public collective consciousness.

BTW, the irony is that watching the movie in 2011 the “modern” parts are far more of an anachronism now than Marlowe’s character.  Also, Altman got a little taste of his own medicine with M*A*S*H the TV show altering characters from his movie.  Karma!

Monday I reveal Plan B (not From Outer Space)…(and Sunday is another stellar holiday entry!)


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  1. I see your point.

    I’m also jealous that you have Good Friday off. Phooey. Enjoy your weekend! 😉

  2. I think that is what every author takes a chance on in order to get their dream on the silver screen. I for one fantasize of seeing handsome men and women playing roles that I created simply because…well there’s no way in hell that I’d get any nod from beautiful people otherwise. Film is such a wonderful and diverse medium that allows for a group experience that every writer is just dying to get their work seen in this way. “Look…I wrote this!”

    Now that given, when you sell your soul like that to the devil (yes Hollywood can be the devil) you take your chances. So I think that’s part of the game. Anne Rice got a full frontal of that when they made Queen of the Damned (oy how terrible) and it sounds like your author mentioned here had a similar experience (albeith he was dead so he didn’t have to suffer through it). Think of how many bad H.P. Lovecraft knockoffs there have been and how many awful renditions of Edgar Allen Poe stories have been brought to the screen. Very few get the treatment that J.R.R. Tolkien got with “The Lord of the Rings”. Even J.K. Rowling is not immune…some of her Potter stuff is pretty terrible on the screen.

    • Except that in this case Chandler had been dead for 14 years and had a deep dislike of Hollywood after working in the industry for a number of years on movies like “Double Indemnity.” Seeing Altman’s movie he probably wouldn’t have even rolled in his grave; he probably would have just nodded and said, “Yup, that’s what I was talking about.”

  3. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle basically didn’t care what Hollywood did with Sherlock Holmes when he sold the rights. While we as writers want to keep some sort of control over our intellectual property, when we put it out into the world, those that encounter it will react to it in different ways. Ways that we couldn’t possibly imagine, sometimes.

    I’m not saying that Altman’s version was a good thing. I think what I’m getting at is at some point when you put out your work to the whole wide world, you lose it. It becomes the world’s, and those that encounter it will react to it and interact with it in ways that you might not anticipate.

    Just my two cents.

    • I don’t think just because an idea is out there means that anyone can do whatever they want to it. At some point it’d be nice if people had some respect for the source material. Again, the Golden Rule: would you want someone to do that to you? I doubt it.

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