Friday, December 05, 2008

JMS, Plagiarizing Himself

For the last couple of months, I've been boggling at the positive buzz surrounding Clint Eastwood's The Changeling, for the simple reason that the script is by J. Michael Straczynski. Was it possible, I wondered, that in the decade since Babylon 5 went off the air Straczynski had learned how to write dialogue that didn't make its hearers simultaneously cringe and guffaw?

The film's IMDb page would seem to indicate otherwise:
Christine Collins: I used to tell Walter, "Never start a fight, but always finish it." I didn't start this fight, but by God I'm going to finish it.
That settles it: it's going to be impossible for genre fans to watch this film without laughing inappropriately.


Tzvika Barenholz said...


I suppose the great maker would argue that since only a limited audience got to appreciate the line when Sheridan uttered it, there is virtue in repeating it for a wider hearing by the movie-going public.

Ted said...

Can that line really be traced to B5? A little Googling turns up the following:

"We didn't start this fight, but we certainly have to finish it." -- Tony Snow, Jewish World Review

"As in 1941, we did not start this fight. But, by God, we are going to finish it." -- Patrick Mullins, Capitalism Magazine

"Israel did not start this fight, but I think they are going to finish it." -- Rod Amis, Huffington Post

"Conservatives, this has to be a call to arms. You didn't start this fight, but by God, you can finish it." -- Christopher Cook, Modern Conservative

Admittedly, I wasn't a big fan of B5, so to me the line sounds like a generic piece of rhetoric.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

No, it isn't an original B5 line, but it is an iconic B5 line. Which is why I don't think genre fans can watch this film with a straight face.

Anonymous said...

I suppose that it was intended as a nod to B5 fans. Nice gesture, but I still found that line, good enough for a fantasy hero like Sheridan, given to a single mother in the 1920s, a little out of place.


iainjclark said...

To be "fair" to jms (or alternatively to entirely support your point) he's been ripping off his own lines for years now. For example, Jeremiah used several B5 lines, and I remember his Spider-man comic 'borrowing' some quips from Jeremiah.

Dan Dassow said...

Abigail, I assume that you have the maturity not to laugh when you hear the line when you see Changeling. If you had already seen the film, you would have known that the line is also used early in Changeling as a set up to the later statement. Since you have been following the buzz surrounding Changeling, I am surprised that you were not aware the majority of the dialogue is quoted directly from official documents, such as court testimony.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

No, I did not know that, but do you know for a fact that Christine Collins just happened to have made an utterance that was all but identical, right down to the context of a lesson from parent to child, to one made by Straczynski's most heroic character in one of the most important episodes in the series most closely associated with his name? Because that strikes me as something of a coincidence.

Niall said...

Having now seen it, I can say that the first time the line appears is rather nicely handled; the second time, the one quoted above, falls flat. But in general the dialogue was not so bad that I would have guessed at JMS' authorship if I didn't already know. There are clunky moments -- notably a couple of times when someone says something involving the word "hell", and the final lines of the film, which I don't for a second believe ever happened in real life -- but they're sporadic, not endemic.

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