When Ellison Attacks

"Harlan Ellison is a parasite who can kiss my ass" - James Cameron in The Futurist 2009

Harlan Ellison has written many, many science fiction stories. Born in 1934, the Cleveland native reportedly published 100 short stories within the first year of his first professional job, and has over 1,000 stories credited to him by Wikipedia. He has written so many stories that his official website's bibliography has to be indexed and filtered by a variety of criteria.

Harlan Ellison has also filed many, many lawsuits. In 2006, he sued Fantographics, a publisher of comic books and alternative culture-themed books because he claimed several anecdotes about him in one of their books were defamatory. In 2009, he sued Paramount, the owners of Star Trek, for failure to pay him royalties for an episode of the original series which he wrote that aired in 1967. He also sued the Writers Guild of America (the screenwriters' union) for failure to adequately protect him. In 2000, he sued a small website for posting the text of four of his stories but, more notably, also sued America Online and several other telecommunications companies for failing to detect and remove the presence of his stories.


By every account of his childhood ever given, James Cameron was a voracious reader of science fiction growing up. He described his science fiction consumption as “tonnage” and, in interview after interview, he rattles off the names of the science fiction writers from the 1960's and 1970's almost like they're old friends: Bradbury, Clarke, Asimov, and on and on. In a 1999 interview, he listed Harlan Ellison as one of these favorite authors: “In the latter years of high school I got into the newer guys of that time, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, people like that. It was a steady diet of science fiction.”

Since James Cameron writes and produces science fiction movies, and since Harlan Ellison has written so many science fiction stories, there was bound to be some overlap between the events and ideas of their respective stories.

So, it's not any surprise at all that, in 1984, Harlan Ellison threatened to sue James Cameron for plagiarizing his works. Ellison's complaint was never formally filed as a lawsuit, so all the negotiations and the settlement were done entirely out of court.

It's important to note that James Cameron has hardly spoken of the settlement and there appears to be no record of any other parties from the defense (The Terminator producer Gale Anne Hurd, the film's financiers, etc.) making public comments. Because of this, literally all known details of the complaint and the settlement are told entirely from Harlan Ellison's point of view. So, all accounts of the incident are told with a bias – unintentional or not – toward Ellison's side. Cameron commented on the issue at the 1991 T2 Convention: "For legal reasons I'm not suppose to comment on that (the addition of acknowledgement credits) but it was a real bum deal, I had nothing to do with it and I disagree with it."

Ellison says the incident started like this: “Before Terminator came out I began to hear from people, 'Gee, there's this script they're going to shoot that reads an awful lot like your script for Soldier.'” The 'Soldier' script that Ellison is referencing is one of two teleplays he wrote for the anthology TV series, The Outer Limits. The second script he wrote for that series was called Demon with a Glass Hand. Ellison continues, “Now Soldier had been available on videocassette for many years. Demon with a Glass Hand had won all the awards but Soldier was right there in popularity.”

In addition to those casual warnings of similarities from unnamed persons, Ellison also was told by a friend of his,Tracy Torme, that, while visiting the set for The Terminator, he had asked Cameron where he got the story idea. According to Ellison's account of Torme's statement, Cameron replied, “Oh, I ripped off a couple of Harlan Ellison stories.”

Ellison says that he contacted Hemdale when the movie was still in production and asked to see a copy of the script and was surprised when they refused.

The final clue that he might have a case for plagiarism came when Ellison wasn't invited to the press screening for The Terminator. He said, “Now, I get invitations to everything and anything, but for some reason, I never got an invitation to the screening of The Terminator.” According to the science fiction news program Prisoners of Gravity, Ellison was able to sneak into the screening by posing as film critic Leonard Maltin's assistant. Upon first seeing The Terminator, Ellison said, “It was not my desire to find a similarity. I was sitting in there thinking, 'Please don't let it be.' But if you took the first three minutes of my Soldier episode and the first three minutes of The Terminator, they are not only similar but exact. By the time I left the theater, I knew I had a case against someone who plagiarized my work.”

So, Ellison and his attorneys then contacted Hemdale (the financiers of The Terminator) and Orion (the movie's distributor) to discuss a payment or settlement, with the obvious threat of a lawsuit in case none was offered. And soon after this initial contact, Ellison's complaint received even more support.

“About a week after my attorney contacted Hemdale, I got a call from the editor of Starlog magazine. ....It turned out Cameron had given an interview to Starlog and, after I began inquiring at Hemdale, [The Terminator producer Gale Anne] Hurd sent Starlog a legal demand to see the interview.” According to Ellison, Gale Anne Hurd then modified Starlog's article on The Terminator. She omitted a quote from Cameron in the article that read, “'Oh, I took a couple of Outer Limits segments.'” The reason that the Starlog editor had contacted Ellison was to provide him with the original version of the article, the one without Gale Anne Hurd's editing. Said Ellison, “At this point we went to Hemdale and to Orion and we said, 'I'm afraid we got him with the smoking gun. Now do you want to do something about this or do you want us to whip your ass in open court? We'd be perfectly happy to do it either way.'” Between the account of Tracy Torme and the Starlog interview, the attorneys for Hemdale and Orion quickly realized that they wanted no part of a lawsuit, by Ellison's accounts. “They took one look at this shit and their attorneys said, 'Settle.'”

According to celebrity biographer and tabloid writer Marc Shapiro, Hemdale was actually willing to go to court if Cameron himself wanted to. However, if they did go to court at Cameron's behest and they lost, they would have then turned right around and sued Cameron (presumably for fraud). So Cameron ultimately acquiesced. In the one quote from him attributed to the matter, he was reported to have said, “What it came down to was that I could risk getting completely wiped out or I could wave it off and let this guy get his f------ credit.”

There are two separate (and very divergent) accounts of the monetary settlement. Ellison told the TV show Prisoners of Gravity, “And they settled with a substantial amount of money, not the kind of money I'd have gotten if I went to court. It was, uh, 65 or 75 thousand dollars with an additional five thousand to be paid to be after a period of time that was stipulated in the contract if I did not speak of any of this.” But according to Marc Shapiro, the amount he received was actually $400,000. Finally, Harlan Ellison was to receive credit on all subsequent copies of The Terminator.

Now let's take a look at the actual similarities between The Terminator and Soldier.

(It's important to note that, contrary to many claims at internet science fiction and movie sites, Demon with a Glass Hand absolutely was not one of the stories they were alleging that was plagiarized by The Terminator. Indeed, aside from the fact that Demon with a Glass Hand and The Terminator both have protagonists who travel backward in time, there are no substantive similarities worth noting. Also, in the interview with Prisoners of Gravity, Harlan Ellison specifically states that Soldier, and not Demon with a Glass Hand, was the only story plagiarized. So any claims that Demon with a Glass Hand was a direct source for The Terminator are bogus and any evidence used to compare them are the result of critics grasping for similarity straws.)

First, let's take a look at the basic story for The Terminator. Here is the quick synopsis offered by IMDB.com: “A human-looking, apparently unstoppable cyborg is sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor; Kyle Reese is sent to stop it.”

Note that none of the primary plot elements used in that synopsis are parallel to Harlan Ellison's soldier. Not the cyborg, not the assassination mission, and not the savior.

In 2009 book the Futurist, Cameron finally vented on the issue: "It was a nuisance suit that could easily have been fought. I expected Hemdale and Orion to fight for my rights, but they abandoned me. The insurance company told me if I didn't agree to the settlement, they would come after me personally for the damages if they lost the suit.  Having no money at the time, I had no choice but to agree to the settlement. Of course there was a gag order as well, so I couldn't tell this story but now I frankly don't care. It's the truth. Harlan Ellison is a parasite who can kiss my ass"

Now, let's take a look at the basic story for Soldier. Here is the quick synopsis offered by Wikipedia (IMDB.com doesn't offer one): “Eighteen hundred years in the future, two foot soldiers clash on a battlefield. A random energy weapon strikes both and they are hurled into a time vortex. While one soldier is trapped in the matrix of time, the other, Qarlo Clobregnny, materializes on a city street in the year 1964.

Qarlo is soon captured and interrogated by Tom Kagan, a philologist, and his origin is discovered. Qarlo has been trained for one purpose, fighting, and that is all he knows. Progress is made in "taming" him; eventually Qarlo comes to live with the Kagan family.

But the time eddy holding the enemy soldier slowly weakens. Finally he materializes fully and tracks Qarlo to the Kagan home. In a final hand-to-hand battle, Qarlo sacrifices his life to kill the enemy and save the Kagan family.”

In that entire synopsis, merely one sentence parallels The Terminator: “Qarlo Clobregnny, materializes on a city street in the year 1964.”

That's it. By Harlan Ellison's own admission, the similarities between the two stories are in the very beginning. Again, here's what he said, “But if you took the first three minutes of 'The Terminator', they are not only similar but exact.”

“The first three minutes.”

Ellison flat out denied taking anything from any other episodes on his own website: "Terminator" was not stolen from "Demon with a Glass Hand," it was a ripoff of my OTHER Outer Limits script, "Soldier." (http://harlanellison.com/heboard/archive/bull0108.htm)

Here are the actual, substantial similarities between the two stories, broken down item by item. As Harlan Ellison himself said, they're all contained within the earliest shots:

1. Both The Terminator and Soldier open with exposition describing a future full of warfare:

2) Both stories then have characters travel in time through a circular visual effect.

3) Finally, both stories have the protagonists from the hellish future arrive in the present day in an alley.


That's really all there is to it. In Soldier, the time traveler is sent back through an accident and he spends the first part of the story in a mental hospital and the latter half living in the resident of a doctor who's trying to help him assimilate into a more peaceful world. Of course, Kyle Reese in The Terminator was sent back intentionally and then identifies the woman he's supposed to protect from a cyborg.

But the most memorable and important elements of The Terminator – the romance of Kyle and Sarah, the fact that Sarah's unborn son will save humanity in a war, and, most of all, the title character cyborg and his culturally iconic chrome endoskeleton – don't even have the most remote analogs in Soldier.

Because of these scant similarities, it can be safely inferred that it was Cameron's two statements confessing to plagiarism – one to Tracy Torme and the second to the reporter for Starlog magazine – which were the true cause for the payment made to Harlan Ellison. If those two statements hadn't been made and Harlan Ellison had sued on the basis of the similarities alone, it seems highly, highly unlikely that the lawsuit would have gone anywhere.

As evidenced by the synopsis of the movie from IMDB.com, few (if any) of the plot or visual elements which people associate with The Terminator had any existence at all in Soldier.

And then there's the question of why Cameron made such flagrantly incriminating comments to Tracy Torme and to Starlog. Obviously, part of the reason was just because it was true: he had borrowed from Soldier (and possibly he was also using other ideas from Ellison's hundreds and hundreds of other stories.) But since The Terminator clearly stood on its own two feet as a story and since those statements could only lead to a plagiarism lawsuit, why did he say them? One possible answer is that he was naïve and didn't expect that borrowing small elements from an existing story could hurt him. For instance, the movie that Cameron credits with inspiring him to want to be a filmmaker, Star Wars, openly borrowed from a host of other stories (such as Flash Gordon and the Legend of King Arthur) by George Lucas's own admission!

In the final equation, despite borrowing a couple of small elements from Solider, if he did, it's clear that The Terminator stands on its own two feet as a story and as a classic movie.


Written by David Brennan