The Hunger Games: Rip-Off or Spin-Off?

Ever make a decision that sounded good at the time, but left you wondering “what was I thinking” afterward? Add “attend midnight movie before early morning flight” to that list, right below “go to short timeshare presentation in Mexico to receive free drink coupon” and “buy two puppies to keep each other company.”

After my first blog on The Hunger Games, some of you asked me what I thought of the movie. Here’s my ten-word review: I stayed awake until 3:00 a.m., so it must be good. Others forwarded to me an article suggesting that The Hunger Games ripped-off of a twelve-year-old Japanese flick, “Battle Royale” making it not so creative after all. Once again, not so fast.

Nearly all creative ideas simply re-mix what we’ve noticed in our lives. And because what each person experiences is different, the ideas we spit out at the end look or sound different, even if born from familiar elements. Remixing old elements in different ways is what creativity is all about (in my book, IDEA-LINKS, I call these “old elements” idea-links).

Quentin Tarantino’s movies mixed elements from Italian B movies, classic movies and his own life experiences. Steve Job’s elegant product designs combined elements from his study of calligraphy, his practice of Zen Buddhism, and his admiration of his father’s cabinetry work. Likewise, Paul Simon’s music blended elements of musical styles ranging from do-wop to Latin to gospel.

We call ideas “rip-offs” when the new creation closely mimics the original. But even one small change to the original still makes it a creative idea…and often times a huge success. For example, “The Voice” may seem a blatant rip-off of “American Idol,” but two small changes—turning the judges away from the contestants while they sing and having judges fight to represent them—make the show feel refreshingly different from Idol. It’s a runaway success.

Let’s pretend author Suzanne Collins did borrow the plot structure from “Battle Royale” (though I’m thinking she probably wasn’t even aware of it). By adding one tiny twist—a lottery—she created an entirely new idea. Assuming further that she lifted that element from The Lottery—Shirley Jackson’s short story, about randomly-selected teens getting stoned (to death) by rock-wielding neighbors—doesn’t diminish its creativity. Adding that slight spin, regardless of where the added element originated, made it a new creation.

So it’s time we make the critical distinction between a rip-off and a spin-off. When you make an exact copy of something, that’s a rip-off. When you put a twist, or different spin on something, that’s a spin-off. When we do spin-offs of our own successes, they’re called sequels (movies and books) or line extensions (new products). For example, Peanut Butter Cheerios (delicious, by the way), just added a new flavor spin to the Cheerios we’ve always loved. Yet, when we make similarly small changes to the successes of others—as Collins did—they’re unfairly and incorrectly tagged as rip-offs. So we end up feeling guilty about making them.

Here’s this week’s lesson: Your best chance for a winning idea typically comes from taking someone else’s success, then making one small change to it. A spin-off. This is how most successful ideas are born, in entertainment or in business. So take a look at the successes in areas important to you, then ask yourself, “what small twist or change could turn this into a slightly different, but hugely successful idea?” Don’t just think of one twist and stop. Think of fifty, then pick the best one. And while you’re doing it, think of the process as spinning-off rather than ripping-off. That’ll tamp down any guilty feelings.

Remember, in the end, we don’t get rewarded for how wildly creative an idea is, but rather how well it works. Speaking of which, I’m excited for The Hunger Games sequel. This time, the matinee.

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