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The Devil and Sharon Stone?

Posted on: Thursday, April 29th, 2010
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Commercials for Law & Order have long trumpeted the series’ affinity for stories “ripped from today’s headlines” and, normally, there is little reason to object other than the obvious creative poverty and marketing simple-mindedness the strategy suggests. However, last night, I caught a very special episode of SVU that did not borrow from the New York Post’s boldface, but rather boldly ripped off David Grann‘s incendiary article,”Trial by Fire,” that appeared originally in The New Yorker and won a 2009 George Polk award. The “creatives” at Law & Order lifted the entirety of the plot points of a Texas arson case and helped themselves to Grann’s compelling characterization of the radical scientist who countered prosecution claims and decades of apocryphal methodologies for convicting alleged arsonists. On the show, Brad Dourif‘s findings are embraced as gospel. In real life, Dr. Gerald Hurst was, essentially, ignored. On the show, the ADA (Sharon Stone) proves the case for the defense! In real life, the accused, Cameron Todd Willingham, despite his likely innocence, was executed.

Somehow, I doubt Mr. Grann (author of the best-selling The Lost City of Z) was compensated for his contributions to the “Torch” episode of SVU. And, I doubt producers made any donation to the Innocence Project. In light of these oversights, I urge you, dear readers, to do what you do best. Read. More. In particular, pick up a copy of David Grann’s provocative collection of essays, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession. It is the best book of journalistic non-fiction I have read in many years. (And I’m not just saying that because I hosted Mr. Grann at Words & Wine earlier this year and consider him amongst the best interview subjects ever.) Chock full of colorful characters and unbelievable storylines, you, too, may be tempted to write scripts based on what you discover in Grann’s book and, if you do, I trust you’ll do the proper thing and buy the rights first.

(In fairness, Cold Case apparently featured a similarly “inspired” episode, though I have not seen it.)

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