The hotly anticipated Justin Timberlake/ Andrew Niccol joint In Time has recently come under fire from Harlan Ellison. The SF giant is claiming the film has the exact same premise as his uber-famous short story “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Tick Tock Man.” As a result, Ellison is suing Niccol and attempting to facilitate an injunction against the film’s release. The Hollywood Reporter weighed in, noting that copyright laws don’t necessarily protect ideas alone; that a concept’s story and dialogue need to be similar enough to one another in order for a violation to exist legally. So the question becomes, does Harlan Ellison have a legitimate complaint? And I think the answer might be: maybe.
I think “’Repent Harlequin!’” might be in danger of being ripped off by In Time based solely on what I saw in the preview. The concept of an oppressive society in which the primary mode of control is the doling out of literal time is the exact same premise as the famous Ellison story. There are characters called Timekeepers, and someone ends up being on the run from them.
As articles from both The Guardian and New York Magazine articles have pointed out, there are a lot of dystopian science fiction stories out there and there probably isn’t something unique enough about Ellison’s story to win the case. While I’m not an expert and am unsure what he needs to win the lawsuit, I will say, that to my knowledge, that story is pretty damn unique conceptually. I believe that a lot of even casual fans of print SF would have recognized elements of “’Repent Harlequin!’” when they saw that preview; time being used as a commodity, the idea that people are penalized by removal of time, and someone eventually going on the run with a female accomplice, all of these things the preview shares in common with the Ellison story. Will the complete movie end up being deadly similar? Well I suppose if Amanda Seyfried ends up betraying Timberlake, then yes. (Er, spoilers?) If the plot is totally different, and Timberlake wins, or the Timekeepers turn out to be good guys, then I guess it would be a significantly different thing. But the preview was close enough to “’Repent Harlequin!’” that it gave me pause.
As The Onion’s AV Club points out, Ellison has a long history of legal action insofar as it relates to the protection of his work. Way back when Ellison sued James Cameron over The Terminator, there was a smoking gun in the form of Cameron actually saying out loud something to the effect that he “ripped off a few Harlan Ellison stories.” Whether there is a similar smoking gun with Niccol remains to be seen. However, what I find troublesome about the analysis of Ellison’s history of lawsuits is the way that history seems to be slanting some of the news on this story. In my opinion, most of these articles contain a dose of snark that seems to come along with every piece of news about Ellison getting upset about something. I happen to enjoy Harlan Ellison, and don’t find his quick temper to be all that offensive. Also, I think it’s relatively tiresome to go ad hominem when talking about a question of whether or not someone’s really cool idea is in fact being ripped off. Just because Ellison has a reputation of being testy, does that mean his complaint here is illegitimate?
According to this MovieFoneBlog piece, well-known film critic Richard Roeper has seen the full movie and actually thought the movie was based on the Ellison short story. So if Andrew Niccol’s script turns out to be VERY similar to Ellison’s story, then I’m a little baffled as to why they wouldn’t have simply approached Ellison in pre-production. I suppose it’s possible Andrew Niccol hasn’t read or heard of “’Repent Harlequin!’” but I would find that a bit shocking considering how much genre cred Niccols has.
Maybe Niccols knows his story is totally different and that in the end Ellison will realize it and everything will be fine. (This happened back when the 2009 Star Trek was rumored to feature The Guardian on the Edge of Forever. Ellison initially voiced concern, and then when it was revealed there was nothing from his famous Trek episode in the new film, he admitted he was wrong and came out in support of J.J. Abrams.) Roeper’s belief that this was an adapatation of the story sort of puts this kind of outcome in question, however. It’s not like Roeper is a guy has a reputation for being controversial for the sake of it.
That little detail is not mentioned in most of the news articles online regarding this story, and I think what gets lost in all of this is that Harlan Ellison totally has a right to get upset out something like this, even if he turns out to be wrong. Many articles seem to imply that “this happens a lot with him.” Well, maybe that’s not because he’s a difficult guy, but instead because he’s written a lot of cool stories! If you had any reason to believe the guy who made Gattaca was ripping off your most famous story and Timberlake was the star, you’d be pissed too.
Just because Ellison has a reputation of one kind or another doesn’t make that short story any less special. In my opinion, the concept of that story is so singular and so elegantly original that if In Time does turn out to be a rip-off, it will sort of ruin the story. If you’ve ever listened to Robin Williams reading “Repent Harlequin!”, then you know it’s a beautiful piece of work that deserves better than to be casually poached by a big budget movie. And as thinking people, fans shouldn’t sit by and poke fun at this situation just because the man who wrote the story might be perceived as controversial. The story itself features a character who injects chaos into a world addicted to soul-sucking order and routine. A big Hollywood production company certainly reminds me of the Master Time Keeper, whereas as Ellison reminds me a little more of Harlequin. And though Harlequin didn’t beat the system by throwing his jellybeans into the cogs, he was heroic when he did it. Let Ellison throw his jellybeans. He’s got every right to.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.