Written by Jerry Janda, author, producer, and co-star of “Painkiller”
People have been telling me that the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror reminds them of “Painkiller,” a 15 minute film that I wrote and produced.
As a writer, I wince at news like that. On one hand, you wonder if someone ripped you off — a possibility that, at my level of writing, triggers mixed feelings. (Sure, nobody wants to have their stuff stolen, but on the other hand, it’s cool to think that someone has experienced your work and liked it enough to copy it.) On the other hand, you also wonder if you ripped someone else off (even if only inadvertently).
I talked about this fear during a “Painkiller” screening in February 2015. I don’t like to do anything derivative, and even when I think I’ve come up with something original, I doubt myself in the end. It’s tough. As Robert Englund once said (at a Q&A at a horror convention I attended years ago): There are only so many stories to tell around the campfire. In other words, even when we try our hardest to be creative, there remains the risk that we are churning out variations of the same tales.
Of course, there is a difference between similarities and outright plagiarism, inspiration and blatant theft, and that’s why I’ve been dreading the “Black Museum” episode. I knew I had to watch it, but I was also afraid of what conclusions I might draw after seeing it. (I should also confess that I’ve never seen any episodes of Black Mirror. So “Black Museum” — the last episode of the latest season — is my sole experience with the show. I say this because I may be lacking context for what follows, and some of my opinions may change after binging the series. Still, I think you can understand why I jumped straight into Black Mirror with “Black Museum.”)
Yes, there are similarities between “Painkiller” and “Black Museum” — specifically in the very first segment of the episode. The segment itself is based on “Pain Addict,” an unpublished short story from Penn Jillette. He came up with the story in 1981, and assuming he’s telling the truth (and I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t be), then he obviously didn’t steal anything from “Painkiller” (a script I wrote in 2014). And since no one ever published the story, then I obviously didn’t steal anything from “Pain Addict” either. (An interesting aside: Aspects of “Pain Addict” came up in a conversation with Karl Pilkington years ago during The Ricky Gervais Show. Here’s a short Heavy article that ties all of it together.)
It’s important to note that “Painkiller” and “Pain Addict” (as filmed for “Black Museum” and described by Penn in the Heavy article above) are far from identical. “Painkiller” is about an organism that absorbs pain and rewards its host with pleasure. “Pain Addict” is about a device that allows a doctor to feel the pain of his patients. In both stories, the characters end up hurting themselves to feed their fixes, but that’s the only overlap. The general premises themselves don’t really cross over. (One thing worth noting though: In trying to find the right pleasurable dose of pain, the protagonist of the “Pain Addict” segment of “Black Museum” moans that the damage he inflicts isn’t enough. Anyone who has seen “Painkiller” knows that “It’s not enough” is a common refrain, uttered under the same circumstances — a numbing admission that the character can never experience enough hurt to feel satisfied. Jump ahead to the 1m mark of the “Painkiller” trailer and you’ll see/hear what I mean.)
After watching “Black Museum,” I was relieved to realize that the plots for “Pain Addict” and “Painkiller” aren’t the same. I was relieved to learn that the inspiration for both stories also differs — so I assume the intent does as well. According to the Heavy article, Penn got his idea while in a Spanish hospital, where the device from “Pain Addict” could have broken through the language barrier and made diagnosis faster and more accurate. “Painkiller” was born from my own experiences with opioids and my observations of toxic relationships — all meshing in a tale about the self-destructive nature of chronic pain, self-loathing, and sociopathic dissatisfaction. So clearly our creativity was coming from far different places.
Again, Penn never published “Pain Addict,” so I’m basing my conclusion on what I’ve read about it and on the “Black Museum” segment itself. And my conclusion is this: “Pain Addict” and “Painkiller” cover some of the same ground, but their differences outweigh their similarities.
See for yourself. “Black Museum” is episode 6 of season 4 of Black Mirror, available on Netflix. You can watch “Painkiller” for free online.