“Did you sell movie rights to VANISH?”

I’ve been asked this question several times over the last few weeks — and the reason for that question is about to air tonight on the Lifetime Channel. “Human Trafficking,” starring Mira Sorvino and Donald Sutherland, is about the sex trade, and judging by the previews, it features a ruthless crime network that lures foreign women to the U.S. and then sells them into involuntary sexual servitude.

Sound familiar?

Then I received an email from a reader who said they’re currently shooting a completely different feature film up in Canada, about a ruthless crime network that lures foreign women into the U.S. and then sells them into … well, you guessed it.

No wonder I’ve been asked if I’d sold the film rights to VANISH. After all, my book is about a ruthless crime network that lures foreign women into the U.S. and … oh, you know what I’m talking about.

What exactly has happened here? Is Hollywood making a movie of VANISH? Has Hollywood stolen my story without telling me?

No. What this illustrates is a phenomenon that occurs quite regularly in entertainment, the simultaneous development of almost identical storylines. In this case, I can be pretty sure of the explanation. In 2004, the New York Times Magazine published an in-depth article about the shocking realities of the sex trade involving foreign women smuggled into the U.S. When I read that article, I got that big emotional whomp on the chest that told me I had to write a story about the subject. That’s how VANISH came about.

I suspect that, out in Hollywood, some producer or screenwriter read that same article and got exactly the same big whomp on his chest and thought: I have to make a movie about this.

This is simply what happens when so many writers and artists and filmmakers are all tuned into the zeitgeist. (Or reading the National Enquirer.) We read that a little girl’s fallen into a well and been heroically rescued, and everyone rushes to write a novel or make the TV movie about it. A Scottish researcher clones a sheep, and within two years there are half a dozen novels about cloning. It’s the danger of choosing a hot news topic as the focus of your next story; your book may be competing with a whole host of other novels about that very same topic.

Sometimes, though, there’s simply no explanation for the bizarre coincidences in the entertainment industry. A friend of mine who reads scripts for movie studios told me that she once received, in the same week, two different scripts about a man who’d been reincarnated as a dog, and who then had to win back the love of his still-human wife.

Okay, THAT’S weird. But it’s not plagiarism. Neither screenwriter had ever heard of the other. The fact that they simultaneously came up with the same wacky story idea is just one of those mysteries of the universe.

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