John Rogers (who is kicking much ass with his show, Leverage, currently in its 3rd season on TNT) brings up a good point while recommending the 2005 version of Bleak House:
I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth revisiting as the TV industry is in flux. This amazing adaptation of Dickins’ Bleak House is split into a one-hour pilot and then 14 more half-hour episodes. Half-hour single camera, highly serialized. This matches the structure and pace of the original text, which was, as our friends at Wikipedia let us know,”published in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853.” This transforms what could easily be another leisurely historical into a pulp machine.
I love the format and think it’s perfect for adapting novels to live action. It’s patently ridiculous to try and squeeze a full length novel into 2 hours and change for a movie. A short story, yes. Novella, perhaps. But a novel id way too complex a beast to cage up in so tight a space. That’s where the monsters that make up Adaptation Decay come from.
Over at AMC’s filmcritic blog, John Scalzi makes a very good and needed distinction:
I’ve been pretty consistent in my opinion that Hollywood goes a little too often to the well of sequels and remakes, but, philosophically, I don’t really have any problem with filmmakers dipping out of the same well of inspiration or playing with the same basic ideas and running variations of those themes, especially when the filmmakers themselves have wildly divergent perspectives. As an example of this, I give you Michael Herr’s Vietnam War memoir, Dispatches, which served as a partial inspiration for at least two films. In the hands of Francis Ford Coppola, it was transmuted into Apocalypse Now. In the hands of Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket. That’s not a bad spread there.
Inception doesn’t have similarities just to Dreamscape, of course. You could spend a merry day name checking influences from a number of cinematic predecessors, including the aforementioned Matrix and Dark City and, of course, director Christopher Nolan’s own Batman movies. But for me, as a viewer, the question isn’t whether a filmmaker uses the same basic ideas as one film or borrows other ideas from another film and outright steals them from a third. The question for me is what the filmmakers do once they start putting those ideas together as a film. Do it poorly as a filmmaker, and you’ll be told you’ve created a cheap knockoff. Do it well, and you’ll be told you’ve breathtakingly reinvented the concept.
Just replace movie titles with book titles and the same could be said for all of literature, going back to the Epic of Gilgimesh. We all know that there’s nothing new under the sun* but the point isn’t to just photocopy the works that came before, but to reinvent them and do so with the full awareness that the act of telling a story puts you squarely in that weird space where you are confluent with history, art and human imagination. How you choose to fit yourself into that continuity is up to you and the choices you make as a story teller.
* Like all the best cliches, this one comes form the Bible. If it was true 3000 years ago, you can understand better why today we live in a world with 11 Doctors, 6 James Bonds and 5 Batmen.