Culture Trips

Seeing double: why Hollywood keeps telling the same story twice | Film

The rush by film studios to buy stock in the GameStop story is a natural Hollywood reaction to a major event. Rival interpretations of the day Reddit took on Wall Street will be produced by Netflix and MGM, with the latter acquiring rights to Ben Mezrich’s forthcoming book about the news. While it’s likely Netflix will release its film first, does it really matter if it wins the race?

Dotted through Hollywood’s history are releases that carry more than a passing resemblance to each other. “Twin films” are a sign of studios’ compulsion to capture a historical moment on celluloid as soon as possible.

For instance, after the 2013 Boston marathon bombings came Patriots Day and Stronger; and the 2018 rescue of 12 Thai children and their football coach, first depicted in The Cave (2019), will soon be the subject of a Ron Howard movie. Going back further in history, Brian Cox’s portrayal of Britain’s wartime leader in Churchill arrived only months before Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning turn in Darkest Hour (2017).

Twinned films are a long-established phenomenon in Hollywood. Jezebel (1938), made in the shadow of the hotly anticipated Gone With the Wind, which was released the following year, was conceived in part as a consolation prize for Bette Davis, who had been unsuccessful in her attempts to be cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Both films feature a “southern belle” caught in the deep south on the eve of the civil war. Though Jezebel hasn’t resonated in the same way as Gone With the Wind, it still had a marked success, earning a best actress Oscar for Davis.

Vivien Leigh, left, as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and Bette Davis in Jezebel.
Southern belles … Vivien Leigh, left, as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and Bette Davis in Jezebel. Composite: Allstar

More recent years have seen this doubling up repeated on a blockbuster scale. The classic example is the match-up between Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, with its attendant mythology about how Disney and Paramount fought to gain a competitive edge.

Bruce Joel Rubin, co-writer of Deep Impact, said that prior to Disney passing on the script, an early meeting featured a canny executive scribbling notes throughout discussion of the film, which subsequently sparked a furious debate over plagiarism. In the end, Disney chairman Joe Roth’s last-minute decision to invest $3m in bolstering Armageddon’s special effects was designed to provide breathing space between the two.

Released just one month apart in the summer of 1998, Leder’s thoughtful look at planetary doom grossed more than $300m at the international box office, while Bay’s bombastic, Aerosmith-inflected blockbuster raked in more than $550m.

Being beaten to the punch is not as financially disastrous as you might imagine, but claiming the cultural space can have a significant impact. In 1997, Dante’s Peak, starring Pierce Brosnan, was released two months before Volcano, a similar tale of geological apocalypse, and while neither captivated critics and audiences, Brosnan’s buffer between Bond films is arguably more keenly remembered.

In Olympus Has Fallen (2013) secret serviceman Gerard Butler rescued president Aaron Eckhart from terrorists; months later, White House Down saw Channing Tatum protecting Jamie Foxx from a similar threat. Though neither made more than $200m worldwide, Butler was gifted with a franchise that will soon return for its fourth instalment, Night Has Fallen.

If there’s an air of plausible deniability to twinned films – who will notice if we just switch Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman (No Strings Attached) with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis (Friends With Benefits), right? – then on the far end of the spectrum we have mockbusters: straight-to-video film-making that brazenly mirrors blockbuster releases. Less than a week before Sam Mendes’ 1917 arrived in UK cinemas, supermarket shelves were flooded with copies of The Trench, which was later joined by 1917: War Above the Trenches. Though these titles may frame their releases as an honest homage, or as standalone adventures, they thrive on unsure audiences.

Whether twin films confirm blockbuster film-making’s lack of originality or its desire to give audiences what they want, the phenomenon isn’t going away. As Dorothy Parker shrewdly observed more than 70 years ago, plagiarism is the only “ism” Hollywood believes in.

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