Copycat Culture: Adapting to a World of Adaptations

November 18, 2014 6:10 PM

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When it comes to fiction - which today includes television, movies, video games, and other narrative media - copying someone else's ideas is nothing new. The Romans, after all, openly borrowed most of their gods from the Greek pantheon; the Greeks, in turn, clearly adopted and adapted elements from the animistic, agriculture religions that preceded them; and whether by divine fiat or imaginative inspiration, many events recorded in the Christian Bible explicitly echo earlier narratives in the Jewish Torah. Indeed, there is some reason to believe that the stock of basic human narratives is relatively small: in the twentieth century, thinkers as different as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Northrop Frye each developed interpretive systems based on groups of supposedly universal archetypes or stories like "the shadow" and "the journey home."

One doesn't need to accept Jung's hypothesis of a "collective unconscious," however, to see that sharing, borrowing, or outright stealing someone else's ideas have long been the engines behind narrative evolutions and variations. For a long time in Western culture, moreover, this wasn't a problem. A...

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