Wait, Did Stan Lee Come Up with the Idea for 'The Purge?'
Like the idea around its base premise, the trajectory of the Purge movies makes no goshdarn sense whatsoever. It all started with a weak home-invasion flick that took no advantage of its somewhat interesting premise of “What if cops didn’t actually stop crime and murders?” with the clever twist that this wouldn’t be a documentary. But then the movies kept getting better and smarter while accidentally giving us the best live-action Punisher ever (outside that one kick-ass Thomas Jane short.)
Circling back to our original point: The Purge is a fascinating piece of pop culture, and it’s weird that no one really did anything quite like it before. The specific formula of a government-sanctioned night when all crime is legal with the explicit goal of culling the population to helping out the economy is kind of simple, but it doesn’t have a lot of precedent. Parts of it can be found in some older properties. The closest to what The Purge did was probably the 1999 Japanese novel Battle Royale, which told the story of a bunch of teenagers who are trapped on an island and forced to kill each other by an authoritarian government. Pretty Purge-y so far. But the ultimate point of the battles was for a cult-of-personality fascist leader to stoke fear among the population so as to better control it, with the clever twist that this wouldn’t be a documentary for a few more years.
It also lacked the kind of Purge-y societal acceptance of the indiscriminate killing like we see in The Purge, where people go with the program not because they are terrified of a right-wing government but because many truly believe that this is all the right thing to do for whatever reason. The good Death Race movies (i.e., the Roger Corman ones) had a bit of that, as did Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story The Lottery but, again, it was only a little bit Purge-y. Weirdly, the most accurate proto-Purge seems to be the totally forgotten made-for-TV movie Tempting Fate (1998). It told the story of an alternate world that seems almost utopian but where the government occasionally selects random people for the rest of the population to hunt down and viciously beat to death with baseball bats as a form of societal stress relief.
As far as Purge-y stories go, this one seems the Purge-iest of the Purge-y, and, no, we will not stop using that word, deal with it. But even that wasn’t where the idea originated from, as Stan Lee apparently beat it by 20 years. In a bunch of notes from 1978, Lee scribbled a bunch of ideas for who knows what. Books, movies, TV series, and saucy puppet shows, maybe? Anyway, one of them read, and we quote: “Future. Population growth is out of hand. Govt. has a week each month when people are paid a bounty to murder anyone.”
Now, the word Purge-y has been used a lot in this article (mainly to annoy you), but you got to admit, this idea is pretty … close to what we got in the later Purge franchise. There’s the government angle, the population-control/economy aspect, and it was all supposed to happen within a designated time frame.
It’s weird that despite being accused of taking undeserved credit for so many pop-culture phenomena, Lee actually came up all on his own with a formula for a media juggernaut, and he never even realized it. In the end, maybe the lesson here is that just having a good idea isn’t enough. You also need the right timing. This is why we vow to never stop campaigning for Thomas Jane to play the Punisher again, no matter how often Hollywood executives beg us to get out of their bathrooms.
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