Famed science fiction writer Harlan Ellison claimed The Terminator ripped off his work, but the facts are debatable.
By Nathan Kamal | Published
When The Terminator was first released in 1984, few could have known what a huge impact it would have on pop culture. At the time, director/co-writer James Cameron was just another graduate of the Roger Corman school of cheap exploitation film and star Arnold Schwarzenegger was just beginning to gain recognition after the moderate success of Conan the Barbarian. The Terminator became a runaway blockbuster movie, exploding to a shocking $6 million and launching one of the biggest sci-fi franchises of all time.
However, one of the great science fiction writers caught wind of The Terminator while it was in production and I immediately thought: this must be ripping me off. That writer was Harlan Ellison, the immensely prolific and intensely combative writer of star trek‘s “The City on the Edge of Forever”, the influential dystopian horror story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, A boy and his dog, and winner of eight Hugo awards. The story behind it all is built on a lot of hearsay and directly conflicting statements from the main players, so we’ll try to break down what happened with The Terminator here.
According to James Cameron, the idea of The Terminator was born out of his desire to make a low-budget, high-grossing film like John Carpenter’s Halloween (who, mission accomplished, Mr. Cameron) and a terrifying dream of a metal torso dragging itself out of an explosion. Depending on the interviews you’ve read over the years, it also could have had genesis in various stories he’d read and shows he’d watched in his life, which is kind of how the ideas join. In the end, he cooked up a script and sold it to Gale Ann Hurd for a dollar and the promise that he would direct it when it was produced.
However, according to Harlan Ellison, The Terminator was a rip off of an episode of The outer limits titled “Soldier” which he had written, based on his own short story “Soldier of Tomorrow”. He would later claim that an anonymous source told him the script for a film in production titled The Terminator looked like an episode of a TV show that had aired almost twenty years before, and that the production company had turned down his request to be given the script for a movie (which he found suspicious, for unknown reasons ). After sneaking into a pre-screening of the film, he was sure it was based on his work and filed an infringement suit against Orion Pictures.
Harlan Ellison’s reasoning, essentially, was that “Soldier” and The Terminator involve two time-traveling enemies from the future who end up killing each other, with a 20th-century woman being tangentially involved. Orion Pictures eventually decided to settle with Harlan Ellison for some $65,000, which could be taken as a sign that there was enough evidence for the author’s case. It could also be taken as an indication that the studio did some quick math and figured it was better to pay off an author known for his public grandstanding and file literally hundreds of lawsuits in his lifetime, sometimes based on nothing more than this he thought the general idea for a movie seemed like something he had dreamed up.
For his part, James Cameron has always maintained that the work of Harlan Ellison had no influence on The Terminator, that he “categorically” disagreed with the studio’s decision and was forced to accept it at a time when he had little power. Allegations that he said in interviews that he “scammed a few Outer limits segments” have never been substantiated. And it should be noted that while “Soldier” involves two time travelers fighting each other, it does not include cyborgs, robots, apocalyptic nuclear strikes by artificial intelligence, a pre-destination paradox, the woman of the twentieth century having a role in the future, or a pregnancy.
At the same time, one cannot completely discount the fact that James Cameron could have watched ABC in the 1960s, seen “Soldier” and twenty years later used some of it. To this day, the legally very specific phrase “Recognition of the works of Harlan Ellison” appears in the credits of each episode of The Terminator franchise. You can decide for yourself.