True Detective and Plagiarism

True Detective and plagiarism is something I have mentioned before when I wrote my review, but it is now something that has gained traction – being reported here by the BBC. I found this article on Flavourwire that seeks to address the issue and it inspired me to right a response.

Flavourwire argues that because Ligotti uses the ideas of previous philosophers (like Shopenhauer) then there is no way that Nic Pizzolatto, writer of True Detective can be plagiarising, because by that standard, Ligotti himself would be guilty of plagiarism. While  True Detective obviously was inspired by Ligotti’s book ‘The Conspiracy Against The Human Race’, and while Rust Cohle clearly espouses a similar philosophy to the one described by Ligotti, that’s not the issue here. Of course a TV character can have a philosophy based on a philosophy book, and of course it isn’t plagiarism to allude to the concept of the self as an illusion (not really the point of Conspiracy, as I understood it). Flavourwire seems to have the misconception that the case for plagiarism hinges on the fact that True Detective is influenced by other works, and argues that intertextuality is normal, or in short: ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. I agree with this conclusion, all ideas are borrowed from elsewhere and adapted, stolen and mixed with other ideas or based on something and expanded upon.

Nic Pizzolatto himself has this to say on the issue (in a statement to E! News):

“Nothing in the television show True Detective was plagiarized. The philosophical thoughts expressed by Rust Cohle do not represent any thought or idea unique to any one author; rather these are the philosophical tenets of a pessimistic, anti-natalist philosophy with an historic tradition including Arthur SchopenauerFriedrich NietzcheE.M. Cioran, and various other philosophers, all of whom express these ideas. As an autodidact pessimist, Cohle speaks toward that philosophy with erudition and in his own words. The ideas within this philosophy are certainly not exclusive to any writer.”

I agree with Nic and Flavourwire that of course a character can espouse any philosophy they choose, based on whatever work they choose – even obscure ones like Conspiracy. But the problem is not that True Detective has based itself on some of the philosophical ideas in Conspiracy, but that it seems to be copying some dialogue almost verbatim. This is what is meant by plagiarism and it is something that Nic Pizzolatto doesn’t address.

This interview on The Lovecraft Ezine has a number of examples comparing the dialogue in the series to that in the book, here is just one of many:

We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law”. (Rust Cohle, True Detective)

We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.” (The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, p.111)

There are a lot of similar quotes, and even more telling are the quotes found in the original script – this one is especially obvious I thought, as not only is this a recurring sentence in Conspiracy but it is used in several other Ligotti short stories, almost like Ligotti’s catchphrase (and quite a gloomy catchphrase at that!):

There is no point. Nowhere to go, no one to see, nothing to do, nothing to be.” (Rust Cohle, True Detective Original Screenplay Draft)

Without the everclanking machinery of emotion, everything would come to a standstill. There would be nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no one to know.” (The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, p.116)

As the Lovecraft Ezine points out, this original draft is what got both HBO and Matthew McConaughey on board. 

I think it is hard to deny that True Detective lifted dialogue from Ligotti, not just ideas. It took particular phrases and concepts and reworded them slightly in a similar way to how I used to do my college homework. How much do you have to rephrase something before it stops being plagiarism? Has Nic Pizzolatto come up with original material that just happens to have been inspired by Ligotti, perhaps as an homage or as a reference? I could almost believe that if it wasn’t for the way that it seems like Nic Pizzolatto is trying to hide this particular influence – there is no reference to Ligotti in the director’s commentary for example, and he has only admitted Ligotti’s influence after being pushed on the subject. If Nic Pizzolatto was writing an homage, surely he could have credited Ligotti sooner and helped bring some attention to a relatively unknown author? 

In truth, I don’t think there is a legal case of plagiarism, it’s not an area I know about and it’s undoubtedly more complex than I am aware of. But I think there is an ethical consideration here: why acknowledge other influences (for example Nic Pizzolatto mentions that Cohle is influenced by Nietsche) but try to keep the biggest influence secret? If it is an homage to Ligotti then surely you would state that beforehand. Would it really have hurt the show to loudly and proudly proclaim that it is inspired by Thomas Ligotti? Nic Pizzolatto is now up for an emmy for this dialogue, and it is hard to shake the impression that he would prefer no-one to know that it is at least partially copied.

My final issue is that I don’t think this would all have annoyed me so much if it wasn’t for the fact that essentially all the Ligotti influence is little more than window dressing on a relatively conventional cop show. I loved True Detective, it’s an exceptionally well done programme, but ultimately I think by including so many Ligotti references I was expecting something more, particularly from the ending. Cohle talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk and everything wraps up with a well written but disappointingly optimistic conclusion – something that Ligotti would never have written himself. Mind you, apparently the conclusion was lifted from Alan Moore.

One Comment on “True Detective and Plagiarism

  1. I had to chuckle when you mentioned walking the line of plagiarism when doing your college homework. I too have wondered what the technical difference between a plagiarized work was and something that only referenced something else. In the words of a non-native-English speaker friend who also struggled to grasp this concept, he said it seemed a waste of time to reword something that was already written out in better grammar and spelling than what he would have been able to produce.

    I actually missed all the articles about True Detective and plagiarism but reading your blog, I’m astonished that the director didn’t address this in a more outright fashion. I don’t think anyone would have taken issue with Rust speaking Ligotti-ese if Pizzolatto had said the character was heavily inspired by Conspiracy. As someone who was never exposed to Ligotti and much of Alan Moore, I had no expectations to be let down and consequently, I didn’t have gripes over the optimistic tones of the ending. I guess more knowledgeable and/or purist fans of Ligotti or Alan Moore might think this sacrilegious but I think it’s kind of cool when ideas and themes get blended. Perhaps one can argue that the Alan Moore ending was not earned with a nihilistic character like Rust but I wouldn’t say I’m in that camp.

    Cool film/tv blog! (I found it through imdb.com.)

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