Once upon a time there was a boy wizard named Larry Potter. Larry was an orphan and didn’t know he was a wizard until one day, a letter arrived . . . wait. doesn’t this all sound a little familiar? Of course it does. Which brings us to the crux of a recent literary lawsuit: can anyone really own the idea behind a tale?
That’s the question Canadian courts will have to decide in a lawsuit over Gold Mountain Blues, a novel by Toronto author Ling Zhang. The book, described by The Globe and Mail as ?a family saga about Chinese immigrants to Canada,? was originally published in Chinese, but the lawsuit concerns the new English-language version. Three noted Canadian writers?Sky Lee, Paul Yee, and Wayson Choy?filed the $6 million suit, claiming ?Zhang’s book contains numerous elements copied from their work, including characters, plots and descriptions.?
And that, naturally, makes me wonder about vampires. Not the mythical creatures themselves, but books and movies with plots about vampires. Especially plots that contain a plucky teenage heroine or hero, a loyal band of friends, and battles (both physical and emotional) against various sinister creatures?either the vampires themselves, or werewolves, or any strange combination thereof.
Off the top of my head I can name The Lost Boys, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Twilight series, and The Vampire Diaries. A search on Amazon turns up dozens more, with vampire romances a popular theme. All these plots are rooted, of course, in the tradition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the tales of Vlad the Impaler that go back centuries before that.
The names are changed, but all these works contain strikingly similar themes, descriptions, and plots. Whether your vampire is the hero, à la Edward Cullen, or the villain, there are only so many ways to describe his nocturnal wanderings and taste for blood. Should all these authors and filmmakers be sued for the similarities, a sort of domino effect of lawsuits based on whichever book was published first? Of course not.
Obviously, Gold Mountain Blues has nothing to do with vampires. And the tales of millions of Chinese immigrants are fact, not fantasy. But many of those immigrants? lives had common threads: difficult journeys, the deaths of loved ones, and abysmal working conditions, for example. With more than 15,000 migrant Chinese workers hired between 1880 and 1885 to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, plus the vast numbers that worked the California gold fields in that same century, there were bound to be many that suffered permanent injuries.
So It’s no surprise that both Gold Mountain Blues and The Jade Peony (Wayson Choy’s 1995 novel) feature a ?disfigured railway worker who saves his foreman from death.? Or, indeed, that several other Chinese-immigrant characters in Zhang’s book resemble those in the plaintiffs? works.
If there truly are only seven stories in the world, and all cultures and periods repeat those themes endlessly, we must make allowances for the well-intentioned overlap That’s bound to take place. Still, I think I’ll change the name of my boy wizard to Larry Totter. Just in case.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several novels, including the suspenseful Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing?and for more musings on the literary world.