Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Night Stalker

A Writer's Life: The Night Stalker: "ABC has announced their fall schedule and one of the shows they picked up is Frank Spotnitz's new version of The Night Stalker."

I remember the original version of this series with great affection. I also remember that I once wrote a letter to a writer named Les Whitten, suggesting that he sue somebody for plagiarism because the series seemed to me to be a direct steal from his novel Progeny of the Adder. I got a reply from Whitten that said, in so many words, that it just wasn't worth the effort. I still think he was ripped off, though.


Jeff Meyerson said...

As much as I'm hoping for the best I'm pretty sure the new Night Stalker will not hold a candle to the Darren McGavin version.

ksnake said...

It's a complicated story, and I only know a little of it. Basically, the people who made that original TV series, and the two massively successful TV movies that gave rise to it, are blameless. They were adapting a not terribly distinguished unpublished novel by a guy named Jeff Rice. Rice wrote his novel, originally called "The Kolchak Papers", several years after Whitten's book came out. Rice's agent sold the rights for TV, and only later was the novel actually published, in a slightly rewritten form. Rice had no active role in either the movies or the series, but he has since managed to reclaim the literary rights to the Night Stalker franchise.

AIP had optioned Progeny of the Adder, and since the similiarities were obvious--much more so than the similarities between Whitten's novel and the TV Kolchak--they threatened legal action. Rice repeatedly insisted he'd never read Whitten's novel. It was impossible to prove he had, and AIP decided the game wasn't worth the candle.

Richard Matheson wrote the first two Kolchak teleplays, and the character he came up with was so much superior to Rice's take that it effectively constituted a new creation. He made numerous changes to Rice's manuscript, all of which improved it. However, it is true that many of Whitten's presumably purloined plot elements remain--precisely because they were the backbone of Rice's book. Whether he'll admit it or not.

Whitten went on to write many other successful novels, though none as influential as Progeny. Rice went on to write a novelization of Matheson's second Kolchak teleplay, "The Night Strangler" (and did a predictably awful job of it), and has since only published a handful of unremembered short stories, and a few little known Kolchak comic books.

Whitten is right--suing would get him nowhere at this point. And the last thing he or any self-respecting writer would want would be to become identified with the travesty that this new Night Stalker remake will unquestionably be.

ksnake said...

Oh, and I left one more thing out--obviously Progeny was never adapted, precisely because after The Night Stalker, it would be thought of as an inferior knock-off. There was a movie made of "Moon of the Wolf", another fine Whitten effort--it starred David Janssen--but without anything close to the production talent that made the Kolchak movies, it didn't even approach their quality, and is little-remembered today.

I love the Night Stalker--Darren McGavin was magnificent in the role, Matheson's script for the first two movies were incredibly, TV legend Dan Curtis did an amazing job producing, and David Chase of Sopranos fame was script editor on the shortlived series--his first major job in TV.

But face it, plagiarism is not a victimless crime. I hope Rice can live with himself.

Bill said...

Thanks for the comments. I remember the movie of Moon of the Wolf, of course, and I still have my paperback copy of the novel. I liked it nearly as much as Progeny of the Adder. All this was a long time ago, of course, and I'm glad someone remember more about the whole thing than I do. It's interesting that I'm not the only one who saw the similarities. Well, they were obvious to anybody who'd read Whitten's book and then see the TV series.

Mike said...

Well, you've piqued my curiosity.What was the plot of Progeny of the Adder? I remember the telefilm of Moon of the Wolf and liked it.Are the books still in print or this is an ebay situation?

Bill said...

As I remember Progeny of the Adder at this late date, the plot is very similar to the first Nightstalker episode. And it might be an eBay situation, for sure.