Sunday 6 August 2017

RETROSPECTIVE: The Truman Show - Tour de Force or Plagiarism?

"They've gone to a great deal of trouble to construct a sham world around me to keep me pacified.  Buildings, cars and entire town.  Natural looking, but completely unreal......Sixteen hundred people, standing in the centre of a stage.  Surrounded by props, by furniture to sit in, kitchens to cook in, cars to drive, food to fix.  And then, behind the props, the flat, painted scenery.  Painted houses set farther back.  Painted people.  Painted streets."

            Some may recognise the above scenario from the 1998 film, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey as the unfortunate Truman Burbank, a man whose every move is captured by thousands of hidden television cameras and broadcast all around the world for the viewing pleasure of an adoring populace.  Truman is the star of the show, unaware of his celebrity, and perhaps even more disturbingly, unaware that his wife, his friends, his neighbours, everyone he knows in fact, are nothing more than actors, and that his home, his street, his town is nothing more than a gigantic film set in which he unwittingly lives his life. 
            They would undoubtedly be surprised therefore, when one tells them that it isn't a quotation from the film, but from a little-known 1958 science-fiction novel, by Philip.K. Dick, the author of Blade Runner and the story that later became Total Recall.
            While it is to be applauded that in The Truman Show Hollywood eschewed millions of dollars of computer-generated special effects, and the lure of marauding alien invasions/200 feet tall monsters/rubber-clad superheroes (delete as applicable), one can't help but deplore the fact that a film that was hailed at the time as a zeitgeist-capturing comment on the power of the mass media was in fact little more than a re-tread of a novel written some forty years before. 
            Of course there was a convincing argument for the film's contemporaneity.  Writing in The Daily Express at the time of its release, Peter Sheridan argued that The Truman Show wasn't too far removed from the likes of the Jerry Springer Show where guests laid bare their personal lives for the delectation of the braying audience, or even the Internet phenomenon of the JenniCAM, where, via a video camera link to her computer, Jennifer Ringley's web-site offered a 24 hour view of her as she ate, slept, read and (as most of her then 500,000 daily on-line visitors undoubtedly hoped for) had sex.  And as the much maligned proliferation of fly on the wall documentaries, CCTV clip shows, supposed “reality” shows like Big Brother and Love Island, and even semi-scripted so-called “reality drama” like TOWIE or Geordie Shore show, the general public has an insatiable appetite for watching others at work, rest and play.
            And there is also undoubtedly some truth in the arguments of Gary Ross (the director of Pleasantville, a contemporaneous film that explored similar themes), who believed that there is a "blurring between entertainment and news", that results in a "cultural entropy that takes place when you take what's important and turn it into a carnival and trivialise it.  Television has robbed us all of an innocent sense of wonder."
            But while all this may be true, there is the feeling that Hollywood was again being cynical, and that the makers of the film were in some way hoping that we are all the vacant TV-vidiots that they apparently think we are, as there is a strong case that the Truman Show, far from being a ground-breaking analysis of the late 90s was in fact plagiarizing a number of Science Fiction stories from four decade earlier.  Is this just an innocent case of synchronicity, yet another example of predictive writing, like Arthur Clarke's stories about information satellites, or H.G. Wells' tales about armoured warfare, or is The Truman Show an example of out-and-out plagiarism?
            It must of course be remembered that science fiction has had a long history of paranoia about the media and the new technologies that it employs (one only has to think of Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984, who lives in fear of Big Brother watching him through the large TV screen in his room), and there are many examples of stories that have fortuitously predicted future media trends.  For example, in his story "Panel Game", Brian Aldiss described a couple living in a television-obsessed world who help an anti-television subversive who knocks on their door.  They give him food to last his journey to a less media obsessed country like Bali or India.  After the husband throws him out they decide to watch the TV and see a programme where they see the man, a kind of future Jeremy Beadle, duping them out of their food, before discussing his escapades in the studio, the couple's own TV screens being used to record the incident.  (There are certainly shades of everything from Candid Camera to Beadle’s About to YouTube pranking shows like Prank vs Prank or NQTV/Remi Gaillard here).
            But there are a number of short stories and novels which have so much in common with The Truman Show that it is surprising that there was never any legal action.  In another story in his Space, time and Nathaniel collection, Aldiss tells the tale of a twentieth century lecturer who has to live the same day of his life again and again, all for the edification of a half-seen future audience.  Unlike Truman he is aware of the people viewing his activities but he can do little about it.
"Guiltily Rodney rose and performed several timid exercises to flex his backbone.  The audience had its first laugh there........Under the notion that Valerie disliked seeing him in spectacles, he refrained from reading at breakfast.  How the audience roared when he slipped them on in his study!  How he hated that audience!......  Sometimes he caught snatches of talk from the onlookers.  "If he knew what he looked like!" they would exclaim.  Or: "Do you see her hair-do?"  Or - how often he heard that one: "I just wish he knew we were watching him!""
            A few years ago Aldiss told me that he had considered taking legal action against the producers of Groundhog Day (1993) for stealing this story's basic premise of having to knowingly live the same day again and again and again, but had decided against it.  Perhaps he should have contacted his lawyers again.
            But it is Philip.K. Dick's 1958 novel Time Out of Joint where the real similarities with The Truman Show lie, and this novel that raises the questions of plagiarism, or at the very least, some familiarity.  It is from this novel that the quotation at the opening of this post was taken, and in this novel that Dick tells the story of a man named Ragle Gumm, an unassuming man who lives with his sister and her family, in a small American town in 1959.  However, after a series of strange events, Gumm eventually finds out that it is really 1998 and that the military have built a fake 1959 small town (based on his own childhood memories) so that he can help them tactically without his knowing it.  However, there is more in common between the two works than this.
            In The Truman Show, all of Truman's family, friends and neighbours are actors playing out their respective roles.  In one scene Truman confides in his best friend about how he has felt since his father died, not knowing that his father isn't his father, or that his friend's advice is actually being fed to him from a director via an ear-piece.  The same is true in Time Out of Joint.  Near the end of the novel Ragle's "sister" (who is also unaware of the deception) confronts Major William Black, who up until that point she thought was simply Bill Black, their nosy neighbour.
            " "Is he really my brother?" she said.
            Black hesitated.  "No," he said.
            "Is he any relation to me?"
            "No," Black said, with reluctance.
            "Is Vic my husband?"
            "Is anybody any relation to anybody?" she demanded.
            Scowling, Black said, "I -"  Then he bit his lip and said, "It so happens that you and I are married.  But your personality-type fitted in better as a member of Ragle's household.  It had to be arranged on a practical basis." "

            And indeed, as well as the idea of a false home and a false family, Gumm is also observed day and night by hidden cameras, and workmen who never quite seem to repair the road outside his house.  After he first leaves the town (despite being denied by a taxi driver because of "permit restrictions", and by the local coach company because of a queue that never seems to move), Gumm finds an isolated house where he finds a television and a video recorder.  On working out how to use it, he is shocked to find what is on the tape.
"On the television screen appeared Ragle Gumm, first a front view then a side view.  Ragle Gumm strolled along a tree-lined residential street, past parked cars, lawns.  Then a close-up of him, full-face.
            From the speaker of the TV set a voice said, "This is Ragle Gumm."
On the screen Ragle Gumm now sat in a deck-chair in the back yard of a house, wearing a Hawaiian sports shirt and shorts.
"You will now hear an excerpt of his conversational manner," the voice from the speaker said.  And then Ragle heard his own voice.  ".......get home ahead of you I'll do it......"
            They have me down in black and white, Ragle thought.  In colour, as a matter of fact."

            But remember, this passage was originally written in 1958, not only before colour TV, but also before video recorders and certainly before the kind of television desensitisation that The Truman Show producers argued that their film analysed.

            However, perhaps the aspect of the film that most people found eerily pertinent to television's obsessions was the fact that a normal person can not only be a TV star, but also be one without knowing it.  Surely that was a comment on the Jerry Springer/Police, Camera, Action/Beadle/Driving School times, and not merely lifted from Dick's novel?  Although sadly, in the years since the film’s release we seem to have gone full circle so that with the likes of TOWIE, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Made in Chelsea we actually view a reality show that is in actuality a scripted drama pretending to be a reality show, “starring” real people whose reality is composed of taking part in a scripted reality TV show.  Even Dick would have considered the Russian Doll nature of such a reality to be implausible although one can only wonder if the likes of Kim Kardashian can sympathise with the character of Ragle Gumm when he finds a magazine and sees:
            “On the cover of Time....was his picture.  With the words underneath it:
            Photographs of him as a baby.  His mother and father.  He turned the pages frantically.  Him as a child in grammar school."
Although arguably the fact that she knows she is part of a TV reality show makes the scenario even more preposterous.

            Of course, it could all have been an unhappy coincidence.  Brian Aldiss has himself said that Dick, of all 50s science fiction writers, "is the one who is seen as immensely contemporary."  It could indeed be that we are all living in a world that Dick, working in the fifties, considered to be a nightmarish future world (Time Out of Joint, lacking robots, aliens etc was originally published not as a science fiction novel but as a "novel of menace").  And, similarly, the novelist and poet Thomas Disch said in a 1994 episode of the BBC arts programme Horizon, that Dick was often writing about what it was like "to live in a media-soaked world", his short-stories and novels often being obsessed with media disinformation, Governmental conspiracies and Cartesian doubt.  In Dick's novels historical figures did not really exist (after all, he had never seen them) but were the creation of later hack writers and computer programmers; the President was not real but a computer generated image spouting meaningless homilies to rob the population of their own opinions; and the population was duped by an American-Soviet agreement into thinking that each side is maintaining a status quo in the Cold War by continually developing new and fearsome weapons - weapons which the leaders of both sides know are actually nothing more than Blue Peter-style sticky-back plastic constructions.  And indeed, in a society where sociologists have shown that the constant stream of Crimewatch-style programmes on TV tends to make the public's fear of crime far greater than its reality, is Dick's 1964 novel The Penultimate Truth really so far-fetched?  In this classic tale of media manipulation, the entire population is forced into underground bunkers because of an impending nuclear war, and once there are fed hours of news broadcasts showing the nuclear devastation on the surface.  It is only when one citizen accidentally makes it above ground that he realises that the whole war is a sham, the government leaders living on huge estates surrounded by thousands of acres of lush vegetation, while beaming down the faked images of destruction to the hapless populace in the cramped bunkers below.
            So perhaps it is just a coincidence that The Truman Show was so much like Time Out of Joint, a novel by a writer who examined and re-examined the power of the media and its representations of reality.  After all, Dick wrote over forty novels and two hundred short stories in his thirty year career.  Or it could be that the makers of The Truman Show were hoping that this no-one would remember any of these works so that any possible plagiarism would remain uncovered; that as they assert in the film, TV rules everyone's life to such an extent that books are of only minor importance to many, so who would discover that they have ripped one off? 

            Or there is perhaps another explanation that Dick would almost certainly have found amusing.  Andrew Niccol, screenwriter of The Truman Show said, "people are starting to question our relationship with television.  Some film-makers are thinking about it more.  The topic is unavoidable."  Here he only mentions television and film.  Could it be that these film-makers, the media-meisters of our time and people who grew up in the television-soaked world that Dick found so potentially dangerous in 1958, are actually unaware of the many novels and short-stories that have addressed the theme, their upbringing being based solely around celluloid and nitid TV screens?  For if so they made a far more profound statement with their film than they could possibly ever have intended.

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