Is the Netflix original film Burning Sands, about the torturous travails of fraternity hazing, actually original?
Or was writer-director Gerard McMurray's feature, which premiered on the streaming site in January, actually lifted from a novel of the same name by Al Quarles Jr., a Philadelphia School District administrator and author?
Both novel and film are set at predominantly black colleges and tell the story of straitlaced students who respond to the pressure to fit in by rushing a fraternity. Both stories focus on the sometimes inhuman treatment of pledges by older frat members.
Quarles' attorney filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in Pennsylvania charging that McMurray and co-screenwriter Christine T. Berg plagiarized Quarles' two-volume novel Burning Sands, which he self-published through Amazon in 2014. (The suit can be accessed online here.) The suit names Netflix and Mandalay Entertainment in addition to the screenwriters.
"Al is a great guy who put his heart and soul into these books," Philadelphia attorney Brian Lentz said Tuesday. "We think that the evidence will show they took his creative work without his permission."
A Netflix representative Tuesday said the subscription service would not comment on the suit. Calls for comment from McMurray's and Berg's lawyers were not immediately returned.
Quarles, 50, of Willow Grove, said he was shocked to find the film had "as many as 100 points of similarities" to his books. "There are some differences, but the heart of the movie was taken directly from my books," he said.
Quarles said he was immediately struck by the film's title, identical to his book.
"But that in itself isn't a smoking gun," he said. "Burning sands is an expression you would hear around fraternities. It's a term to describe coming into a fraternity, crossing the sands, and making it in."
At the heart of the dispute are two personal stories. McMurray has said that he based his film on his own experiences as an undergraduate at Howard University. Quarles, an administrator for the School District's homeless and emergency services, also drew from his own life. The Abington High School alum attended Millersville University in Lancaster County, where in the late 1980s he pledged Kappa Alpha Psi, although his experience did not mirror those in his novel.
"I loved my fraternity," he said Tuesday while en route to a vacation in Orlando with his wife and three children. "At Millersville I didn't go through any sort of torture," he said, referring to the horrors faced by the young men he depicts in his novel. "But I know some excesses were committed in the 1980s."
Quarles said he began the novel nearly 18 years ago. "I started it on an old Mac word processor. It didn't even have spell-check," he said. "I wrote through to the end, then I took a year off and went back to it. I would do that, work on it for a while, then wait a year. So it was a real process."
He published the first volume, Burning Sands: My Brother's Keeper Volume 1, in 2014. "We're pretty sure that the [Netflix film] wasn't written until 2016," he said.
Quarles said he's optimistic but too busy with other things to dwell on the fate of the lawsuit. He was recently accepted as a doctoral candidate in education leadership at Gwynedd Mercy University.
And he's working on a couple of new books, including a children's book he wrote with his 10-year-old daughter. "It's called Bullies Are Not Just Boys."