A recent new release in theatres is the movie Stillwater starring Matt Damon as a father who travels to France to try to prove his estranged daughter did not commit murder. If it sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. It’s been compared to the Amanda Knox story and her wrongful conviction in Italy.
The writer and director of the Stillwater, Tom McCarthy had even stated in an old Vanity Fair interview that he and his co-writer had been fascinated by Ms. Knox’s case. Consequently, Knox has been vocal in her annoyance that that these kinds of movies "profit off my name, face, and story without my consent."
However, McCarthy has been adamant that Stillwater is not based on Knox’s experience. None of the characters are real. Like many writers, he admits to taking “bits and pieces” from numerous stories that he hears or reads and weaves those elements into his own. But this is a “whole different story.”
Is it? Really? Succinctly put, Stillwater about a young “American woman studying abroad involved in [a] sensational crime and she ends up in jail."
It certainly sounds like a French version of Knox’s story. And one has to feel for the woman who has had her life, her character repeatedly picked apart on television for 14 years. And now it’s being used for a multi-million dollar movie?
However, the description also sounds like every story of a young American travelling to another country who did – or did not – break the law and get caught in the legal bureaucracy of that culture. Hollywood produced this years ago with the likes of Midnight Express, Brokedown Palace, and even Return to Paradise.
Furthermore, to quote myself during a discussion about a commercial campaign idea, “There’s no such thing as a truly original idea.” (Okay, Mark Twain might have said it first.)
And it’s true. Ideas don’t come out of a vacuum. Every idea we have is inspired by what we’ve already seen, heard, or learned – other people’s inspirations and failures, and definitely by their successes.
In Hollywood, that’s especially true. Every season, TV has multiple crime procedurals and medical dramas with little variation.
Bridget Jones’ Diary is a whimsical take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Cruel Intentions is a re-interpretation of the French Dangerous Liasons. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has been re-visited over the decades with both men and women cast in the role of the ugly duckling being re-created into a beautiful swan: My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, Educating Rita, She’s All That, Can’t Buy Me Love and most recently, Her.
Even the Star Wars anthology is inspired by multiple writers and films including Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, E.E. Smith’s sci-fi, and Richard Wagner's musical Der Ring des Nibelungen. Did that make it any less innovative or ground-breaking?
There is no doubt that Knox’s story was behind McCarthy’s desire to write Stillwater. But along the way, there were many other inspirations too.
And inspiration is not something we own. It’s shared. Whether we like it or not.