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Why ‘True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto Is Not a Plagiarist

Why 'True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto Is Not a Plagiarist

Mike Davis of LovecraftZine,
a fansite dedicated to the master of macabre H.P. Lovecraft, recently posted a
long piece detailing the myriad, sometimes jarring similarities between the existentialist ramblings of "True Detective’s" Rust Cohle and the writings of cult horror author Thomas
Ligotti, specifically his nonfiction book “The Conspiracy Against the Human
Race.” Davis, reproducing a conversation he had with Jon Padgett (the founder
of a Ligotti fansite), lists various instances in which Cohle seems to be channeling
Ligotti’s work. Some of the similarities are banal — both Cohle and Ligotti
mention the “illusion of a self,” which is basically Intro to Nietzsche — and
some are more overt, such as comparing the world to a meat grinder and a
gutter. Davis is now fully embarked on a furious, one-man crusade against "True Detective" creator Nic
Pizzolatto — who was, ironically, plagiarized by a self-published poet before the show even aired — and his phenomenally successful HBO

Davis, echoed
by many of his commenters, opines that this is plagiarism, pure and simple. (You’d
think the writer of a Lovecraft fansite would be more open-minded to writers
borrowing from other writers, since Lovecraft heavily riffed on Edgar Allan Poe
and the less-famous Algernon Blackwood, and has subsequently been rip-offed so
many times by so many writers it’s hard to keep track, but irony abounds.) Yet,
contra Davis’ invidious article, plagiarism isn’t such a cut-and-dried matter.
This isn’t a freshmen seminar on American Literature, and Pizzolatto isn’t just
copy-and-pasting lines off of Wikipedia: It’s art, and art isn’t so

makes repeated mentions that Pizzolatto’s show has become insanely popular,
pervading the modern pop-culture lexicon, while Ligotti continues to dwell in
near-obscurity. That’s sad for Ligotti, though he’s made very little effort to
break on through to the other side. (Has anyone even asked him how he feels
about “True Detective?”) But this is hardly an unheard-of phenomenon. Actually,
if Pizzolatto is vying for greatness by “stealing,” he’s in good company.

Some writers
view plagiarism as a natural part of the organic, ever-evolving process known
as art. In his enthralling essay called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem likened writing to jazz, where musicians have
always tapped other musicians, taking their stuff and manipulating it, changing
it, rendering it their own. Citing Bob Dylan and Williams S. Burroughs as
writers who have “plagiarized” and receieved praised for it, Lethem argues that
plagiarism has always been a part of writing:

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I
was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my
very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of
something called “Naked
,” excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance.
Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer.
Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an
effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to
understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets
of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have
called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American
science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition
for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was
central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally
believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on
my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating
the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors
was no plagiarist at all.

succinctly, a little-known writer once quipped, “Mediocre writers borrow. Great
writers steal.” His name was T.S. Eliot.

As Quentin
Tarantino once said: “If it’s done well, it’s homage, but if it’s done badly,
it’s just plagiarism.” The library of films that have ripped off other films is vast and deep.
Some filmmakers, such as Tarantino (of the VHS generation) and Spielberg (of
the network-TV generation), amalgamate their influences to engender their own
style; you know a Tarantino film or a Spielberg film when you see it. They have
distinct personalities, laced with self-awareness and spurred by the
commingling of established film styles, and have since been rip-offed
themselves. Tarantino in particular lifts from obscure films that inspired him,
and he’s been extremely open about it. He doesn’t just cobble together some
hodgepodge vanity project and call it a day. Of course other filmmakers do just
that, suffusing their films with so many references and allusions to other
films they start to resemble an Ouroboros, a fat entity stuffed with
pop-culture knowledge chocking on its own ass. (See: Kevin Williamson,
struggling to recapture the brilliance of the first two “Scream” movies and
failing ungracefully.) But Pizzolatto is not Kevin Williamson. He’s more akin
to Tarantino.

Some of the
most adored films in American cinema blatantly steal from other films. In the
original “Star Wars,” as wholesome and beloved as any American film, George
Lucas lifts shots from Leni Riefenstahl’s (technically brilliant, morally repulsive)
Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” Brian De Palma, who has long battle
accusations that he’s just a second-rate Hitchcock pillager, transferred a
scene from “Battleship Potemkin” for his iconic baby stroller and staircase
shootout in “The Untouchables.” Kubrick yanked a shot from “The Phantom
Carriage” for the iconic “Here’s Johnny!” shot in “The Shining.” “Raiders of
the Lost Ark” steals its rolling boulder scene from “Journey to the Center of
the Earth.” Sergio Leone blatantly remade “Yojimbo,” and got sued for it, as “A
Fistful of Dollars.” The beloved Pixar movie “Up” bears a striking similarity
to a short French film called “Above Then Beyond.” And “The Matrix”…  well, just
watch this:

 The fact of the
matter is that artists rip off artists all the time, and what Pizzolatto did
isn’t unusual or morally decrepit. More importantly, it makes sense within
the structure of the show: Rust Cohle claims that we’re all under the illusion
that there is a self, which is an idea he got from an obscure writer who
borrowed from Williams S. Burroughs and Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
People are always trying to pass off things they’ve read as their own ideas.
Why should Cohle be any different?

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Michael K

Ideas cannot be copyrighted. Their expression can. Based upon the key word ‘Thresher’ alone, a judge should have no problem in finding that Ligotti’s work has been (unnecessarily) plagiarised. That is, he could and should have been given credit, a nod, even a wink but received nothing.
This is what pukes on an otherwise great show.


Hey Greg, great passionate argument.

Also, wrong. You write for indiewire for a reason. Your word against mine, and both are just as valid. Believe you me on that one, homie.


I have never seen the show but on the basis of the fact that this writer's only real defense is that "wrong isn't wrong because some other people may have done it (or not even exactly it, but something kind of like it)" I assume that it is true. There's a reason logical fallacies are called 'fallacies'.

Ryan Widger

I picked up on Ligotti immediately having been familiar with his only work of non-fiction, "The Conspiracy Against The Human Race." By the second episode I was jumping outta my chair and thrilled that his examples (in a book that is a survey) of different thinkers through out history on pessimism and optimism found a way into popular culture with the amplitude, power, and delivery that such subject matter deserves. He even brings up Keats’s Negative Capability (in reference to Shakespeare and tension with out skipping a beat.) People slam Zizek for similar reasons (although a self proclaimed Lacanian) for his musings during the three hour long "The Perverts Guide to Cinema," It's a given. Most people who follow Zizek have not put in the effort or work to understand true Lacanian thought and analysis yet he introduces a Marxist take on it. In the case of Mr. Pizzolato, I doubt the 32-35 people who have commented here or are rasing a stink elsewhere even know who Ligotti is or the fact that so few words in his book are his own. Like most Philosophy, footnotes are rarely present as these ideas are rarely new and exist as givens in most every culture; there are so few ways to say such things.
As for the character of Rust Cohle whose worldview is one of the 2 unreliable lenses we see the story through, a heavy reading of Ligotti would derail a show whose narrative is driven by the aforementioned "regular kind with a big dick," while the other is "mainlining the secrets of the universe," i.e. compelling characters based on ideas and ideological thought. This is necessary for the show to work because it is certianly not driven by it's often trite and familar gumshoe narrative. True Detective is entertainment and the biggest nod Liggotti will ever receive outside of Wayne State University in Detroit. If you are looking to it for an in depth historical survey of pessimism then you should try reading instead. Haters gonna hate and its easy to hate on a freshman grand-slam. We should enjoy and applaud Pizzolato for his ability to incorporate unflinching material into such a compelling story without getting lost in the details ("Once I have the source work for the characters, the narrative takes care of it's self." He also mentions Ligotti and the book in several articles, not when he is cornered, trust me this Pizzalotto dude will make you look foolish in about 3 seconds.) That’s what good stories, worthy of being passed down through generations until they become namesless lore do, much like Ligotti's research and references to several nameless and undocumented Scandinavian Philosophers who fill his pages have become…Legend.


I have not seen the show, so I don't have a dog in in this fight.

However, if one goes to Davis' site and look at the similarities between Ligotti's text and ideas and Pizzolatto's, one can't help but wonder if the charges of plagiarism are, in deed, true.

If the author of this essays says otherwise then he doesn't know what the tern plagiarism means.


So, your argument is that because others also plagiarize, is it okay? Idiotic and groundless. Could be the guy bit off more than he could chew, and "borrowed" to save time. He has whined in print how it is difficult to showrun AND write all the scripts. Poor guy. Success can make some believe they can do no wrong.


I don't think the "everyone steals" line of defense as stated in this article is ever particularly effective, though I agree that the accusations of plagiarism are ridiculous in this case.

Ligotti wrote a book of philosophy called The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, excerpts of which are fairly similar to some dialogue spoken by a character in a fictional tv show called True Detective. When asked about it in interviews, the writer of the television show volunteered that the dialogue was heavily influenced by said book of philosophy.

The dialogue was important to the characterization of one of two major characters in the television show, though the vast majority of the series and literally every other character made no reference to Ligotti or his work.

This is not a case of plagiarism. The character clearly was written to have been a reader of the book and based his personal philosophy upon it. If the character were a Christian and paraphrased biblical philosophy would that be plagiarism? Does it only count as plagiarism if the author is still alive or if the book is obscure?

The plagiarism accusers in this case are heavily leaning on the interpretation that the writer was "cornered" in a couple of interviews into naming Ligotti as the source of the character Rust Cohle's philosophy. That was not the interpretation I had when I initially read those interviews prior to these accusations, and I still don't get that sense upon rereading them. Ligotti is sufficiently obscure that Pizzolatto could have plausibly just said he'd never read him and that'd have been the end of it.

And where is the accusers' case if in fact Pizzolatto was not forced to name Ligotti as an influence? Because the simple fact either way is that he did in fact reference and credit Ligotti in several interviews, ergo did not take credit for those particular philosophical insights that the character speaks in a few episodes. By definition it is not plagiarism if you credit the other author for their work – regardless of whether you are "forced" to do so. If Pizzolatto were accused of plagiarism and then conceded he did, that would be a different story. But he quite openly credited Ligotti in the Wall Street Journal of all venues. So to claim he was hiding it is spurious in my opinion.

You could perhaps argue it was theft of intellectual property but given that the quotes were paraphrased at worst and not essential to the overall work you'd have a tough time proving that, I think.


Yes, it's all a part of a flowing stream. Taking from others is inevitable. I recently found out that Pizzolatto drew a great deal of inspiration from the movie Kill List for True Detective. Especially near the ending. Really loved that discovery. It's a great film. Why wouldn't one want to emulate it.


I think Pizzolatto have many inspirations. A lot of the imaginary and some elements on the show resembles too much to Hannibal.


Many thanks for the first piece of good, original (!) writing I've come across on Indiewire in some time.


He never once acknowledged his "influence" until someone pointed out the blatant similarities, he's absolutely a plagiarist and apparently a smug asshole too.


Wow this is an embarrassingly biased article. Plagiarism isn't bad because many people have borrowed from Lovecraft? OMG SO IRONIC LOL

There's a huge difference between re-contextualizing a melody or a film shot, and stealing entire lines of text to justify your mediocre tv show's artistic credentials.

bob morane

"What is originality? Undetected plagiarism." Dean Inge

bob morane

…sorry but Nietzsche stole it from the ancient text of Hinduism (Advaita Vedanta) and Buddhism. The exact term of 'illusion of the self' has been used in many texts in the past. Carl Jung also used those texts in his work. Nobody accused these authors of plagiarism. Artists tap on other artists/philosophers all the time, changing line, words, musical notes to make it personal… I'm almost certain that most of the writers eager to nail Pizzolatto on the wall and hope to seeing him sued for plagiarism have also tapped on other writers and have written lines that sound similar with those authors. As you quoted in this article "Some writers view plagiarism as a natural part of the organic, ever-evolving process known as art." I can bet those don't agree with this have actually done it before and will continue to do it. Their ego just don't want to admit it and wants to make them think they're very original and unique.

"Davis makes repeated mentions that Pizzolatto’s show has become insanely popular, pervading the modern pop-culture lexicon, while Ligotti continues to dwell in near-obscurity."
I wonder if this isn't the real reason behind the whole plagiarism accusation… Had Davis been rich and famous, would he have tried to sue Pizzolatto for plagiarism ?
is the real reason behind this case just monetary and not really about the supposedly plagiarism of an art work?

"What is originality? Undetected plagiarism." Dean Inge


'. . . both Cohle and Ligotti mention the “illusion of a self,” which is basically Intro to Nietzsche . . .'

Not really. Buddhism maybe?


Pizzolatto has only acknowledged Ligotti when cornered about it and even then has tried to blow it off.

Xomparing this type of direct and significant plagiarism to using a common phrase is really grasping at straws. The scenes of this show that have had the most impact and essentially define the show, did so because of words written by other artists. It is pretty black and white.

Pizzolatto should be ashamed and hopefully sued. Maybe he can give us some hints about what classic texts he will be ripping off for season 2.


No respect for Pizzolatto. The worst kind of writer, one with nothing to say who takes from those who do.


Right, but Cohle is a fictional character. Pizzolatto is a hack receiving money for words written by true artists. The heart of the show is a lie.

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