Monday, October 17, 2011

'In Time' and Harlan Ellison

     A couple of weeks ago I started seeing trailers for a new science fiction film, "In Time," in which time is literally money: a cup of coffee, for instance, costs 4 minutes. According to the commercial, you only get 25 years and, unless you earn more, after that you die. It stars Justin Timberlake. 
     When I heard about the film, I wondered idly if it was inspired by the Harlan Ellison short story classic "
'Repent, Harlequin,' Said the Ticktock Man," which was also about a future in which time was strictly regulated. As I recall, your life was docked by the amount of time you were late, and Harlequin was an anarchic rebel, deliberately disrupting things, most memorably by dumping jellybeans on a crowd.
     Apparently at least one critic who has seen the film, Richard Roeper, assumed the film was based on the story. Now Harlan Ellison is suing the filmmakers, charging them with plagiarism and copyright infringement. He claims his efforts to sell the film rights have been harmed by this unauthorized version adaptation, and he not only wants financial compensation but to have all copies of the film destroyed before it is released.
     (The only example I know of where such an order was given was with F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu," an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Copies of the film survived nonetheless. I can't imagine a judge making such a ruling, and I doubt if all copies would be destroyed if he did.)
     I don't know if "In Time is close enough to "Ticktock Man" to warrant a lawsuit, but I'm positive it doesn't merit destruction of the film.
     Ellison has a reputation, not entirely unwarranted, as an angry and even violent man. He has bragged of assaulting a TV executive who wanted him to make changes to a script for "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." He once engaged in a campaign of harassment against the comptroller of a publisher who had violated his contact by inserting a cigarette ad in one of his books (yes, there was a short time when publishers did that with paperback books; if Ellison is at all responsible for stopping the practice, he deserves much thanks), including sending a Lithuanian "hit man" to threaten him and mailing dozens of bricks and a dead gopher.  If there's a literary character he resembles, it's Howard Roark from Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead," who dynamited a housing project he designed when the finished product deviated from his original plans.
     In recent years, his literary output has slowed to a crawl because of age and various health problems. I don't think he's had a book of new fiction published since 1997, and few stories since then either. He's always had difficulty meeting deadlines (hence Harlequin's civil disobedience) but he's also failed to deliver on book contracts. Two of the most famous are "Blood's a Rover," an expansion of his novella "A Boy and His Dog" (of which the film of the same name is an authorized adaptation) and related stories, and "The Last Dangerous Visions," a science fiction anthology he was to edit but which is 40 years overdue. (Many of the writers who sold stories to the anthology have since died.)
     He's had difficulty making money from his impressive back catalog too. In addition to science fiction ~ or speculative fiction, as he prefers to call it ~ he's also written film and television criticism, memoirs, crime fiction and straight fiction (a collection of which, "Gentleman Junkie and Other Tales of the Hung-Up Generation, was positively reviewed by Dorothy Parker). He even did a rock and roll novel. But at least three attempts to reprint almost all of his titles in uniform editions were curtailed midway for one reason or another.
     His greater litigiousness may be an attempt to support himself, though I don't doubt he believes the suits are warranted.
     Maybe that's changing. Many of his books are currently available as e-books and audio recordings (he is a great spoken word actor). Hard copies seem to be available too, but I assume they are print-on-demand editions since I never see them in book stores.
     He seems to believe he will die soon. If he's right, I'd rather he spent his last days creating, not litigating. 
     If you're curious about his work, I'd recommend "Deathbird Stories," "Strange Wine," "Shatterday" for fantasy/science fiction fans, and "Gentleman Junkie" and "Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled" for fans of nongenre fiction.
     For more about Harlan Ellison, read the introductions and story notes in in many of his books, or look for the documentary "Dreams with Sharp Teeth."



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