Steal Without Shame
Today marks (more or less) the 20th anniversary of The Legend of Bagger Vance, the first book I ever got published (after almost thirty years of trying)—and, in its brand-new, leather-bound incarnation, the centerpiece of this year’s Christmas Special at Black Irish Books. The video below is me telling all about this one-time-only Holiday Gift Special. Take a look. The video’s short. And trust me, we went all out for this Christmas. This Special is a good one!
Meanwhile I’m gonna take the next few weeks in this space and share a few reflections on the subject of The Legend of Bagger Vance and of the emotional and spiritual passage that is required of every writer before he or she can ultimately break into print.
Reflection #1 is the title of this post: Steal Without Shame.
Here’s what I mean:
When I started writing Bagger, I was working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. I’d been doing that for about ten years. For the first four or five I worked with a partner, Ron Shusett (Alien, Total Recall).
One of the tricks Ron and I used to employ when we were struggling to get a handle on a new story was we’d ask ourselves, “Is there a model for this story? Is there a book or a movie that has a similar theme and structure? And if there is, can we steal it?”
I use the word steal in its most noble and honorable sense. As Sir Laurence Olivier said,
Mediocre artists borrow. Great artists steal and make better.
Why steal? Because there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel. If Shakespeare has already cracked the structure of the love story, why not study how he did it?
Ron and I had a corollary to Olivier’s mantra:
If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best.
Here are a few classic structures that have been ripped off to excellent effect more times than anyone can count: The Odyssey, the Iliad, Xenophon’s Anabasis, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Moby Dick, High Noon, Shane. Did I mention the Bible? The Christ story is probably the greatest and most moving of all—and the one that has been stolen the most.
When you steal a great story, it gives you confidence. You know you’re working with a theme and a structure that have passed the test of time. Are we ripping off the structure of the Jesus of Nazareth saga to tell a contemporary police story set in New Orleans? Then we know we must ask ourselves such questions as, “Who is our Judas? Do we have a Mary Magdalene? Have we written a great Betrayal Scene?”
For Bagger, I stole the structure of the Bhagavad-Gita.
Are you familiar with the Gita? It’s been called the “Hindu Bible.” It’s a monumental work, timeless, profound. And it’s short. You can read it in an hour.
The Gita is the story of the great warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna—i.e. God in human form.
(See what I mean? It’s a fantastic story in twenty-five words or less.)
I didn’t rip off the Gita cynically. I’ve always loved the book. I’ve read it probably thirty times. For years I thought, “There’s gotta be some way I can use this narrative structure. It’s so deep. It’s so good. I gotta steal it.”
Here’s how the Gita starts:
Ancient India. Two armies are lined up across from one another—chariots, elephants, everything. A titanic battle is about to start. At the head of one army is our hero, the great warrior Arjuna.
Arjuna looks across at the warriors in the opposing army. He recognizes many. They are friends, teachers, comrades. Suddenly he is seized with grief and dread. What good can come from war? Are we not mad to slaughter each other in the name of pride and ambition?
Arjuna calls out to his charioteer Krishna (Krishna, remember, is God) and orders him to drive their chariot out between the two armies. There Arjuna stops, lays down his immortal bow, Gandiva, and refuses to fight.
(Is this a great opening or what? And it gets better.)
Krishna responds to Arjuna, not by obeying him but by reading him the Riot Act. Krishna orders Arjuna to stand up and remember his courage. “You will not be slaying the enemy,” he says (in his capacity as God, who knows all and can do all), “for I have slain them all already.”
The rest of the Gita is Krishna’s instruction of Arjuna in all things material, spiritual, and metaphysical. He teaches Arjuna about karma, duality and non-duality, about discipline and honor and yoga in the Indian sense of the word, meaning self-discipline toward the end of union with God.
I stole that scene lock, stock, and barrel, and I stole half of Krishna’s instruction to Arjuna.
I just changed Arjuna from a troubled warrior to a troubled golf champion—and changed Krishna from his charioteer to his caddie. I kept the idea that Krishna is God. I borrowed his Hindu title of respect, Bhagavan (meaning “lord”), and called him “Bagger Vance.”
And I changed the setting from ancient India to Savannah, Georgia and the central clash from a battle to a golf tournament.
It’s not stealing if you take it and tweak it.
It’s not stealing if you infuse it with a new and original spin.
Was I confident? Yes and no. Part of me believed, “This stuff is so deep and so great, it has to resonate with people.” But another part was not so sure. “Have I gone too far? Is this stuff too alien, too weird? Will anybody get it? Will anybody care?”
More next week on the fine art of stealing.
[Finally, in the spirit of our Black Irish Books Holiday Special, I want to say a big, turkey-stuffed THANK YOU to all our loyal readers and site visitors. Shawn, Callie, Jeff and I send you all our best for a great Holiday Season. We try to keep this blog straight-shooting and generous and we thank you, our friends, for being that way to us too. Happy Holidays!]