Organ transplantation in fiction

Organ transplantation is a common theme in science fiction and horror fiction. Numerous horror movies feature the theme of transplanted body parts that are evil or give supernatural powers, with examples including Body Parts, Hands of a Stranger, and The Eye.

Organ transplants from donors who are unwilling, or incapable of objecting, to having their organs removed are a recurring theme in dystopian fiction.

In contrast to unwilling organ donors, there is the theme of individuals who want to donate their own life-critical organs, such as a brain or heart, at the cost of their own life.

Organ theft

The term "organlegging" was coined by Larry Niven in a series of short stories set in his Known Space future universe originally published in a 1976 collection called The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, later expanded and re-released as Flatlander. The story The Patchwork Girl was also published alone as a novel in 1986.

In Robin Cook's 1978 novel Coma, set in the present day, the organ thieves operate in a hospital, removing the organs from patients in a facility for the long-term care of patients in a vegetative state. The story was also made into a film, Coma in 1978, and later into a two-part television miniseries aired in 2012 on the A&E television network.

Organ theft is a theme in a number of horror movies, including Turistas, and also (in a less overtly horrific manner) as a theme in realistic dramas such as Dirty Pretty Things and Inhale.

In the TV series, Trigun, the protagonist's severed left arm had been transplanted without his knowledge onto an antagonist's left shoulder.

State-sanctioned organ transplants from criminals

The same series of Larry Niven stories also contains the theme of organ donation from criminals becoming institutionalized within society to the point where even minor crimes are punished by death, in order to ensure the supply of new organs to an aging population. Niven originally developed this theme in his novel A Gift From Earth, first published in 1968 and also set in his Known Space universe. In A Gift From Earth, the descendants of colonists from an interstellar colonization mission are preyed upon by the descendants of the crew, who enact laws that make even the most minor offences carry the death penalty to allow their organs to be "harvested" and stored in "organ banks" for later use.

The theme had previously been explored by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson in their 1964 novel The Reefs of Space, the first novel of their Starchild Trilogy, in which mankind labours under the "Plan of Man", enforced by computers within a surveillance state. Unlike in Niven's novels, donors are kept alive for as long as possible to enable more organs to be removed for transplant until they eventually succumb from their injuries. The novel also features a Frankenstein-like theme of a man assembled entirely from the body parts of others.

In Sui Ishida's 2014 dark fantasy manga series, Tokyo Ghoul, a state sanctioned organ transplant is performed between an unwilling donor and the main character of the series. It was the subject of much controversy in the series itself. Unbeknown to the surgeons however, the unwilling donor was a ghoul, a monster who eats human flesh, causing the main character to have ghoul-like characteristics.

Organ transplants from victims raised to be organ donors

The idea of state-sanctioned involuntary organ transplants is taken one step further by the concept of creating people solely for the purpose of acting as organ donors. Generally, these donors are clones of their eventual organ recipients. This idea has been explored by several writers.

The 1979 science fiction horror film Parts: The Clonus Horror, written by Bob Sullivan and Ron Smith, is set in an isolated community in a remote desert area, where clones are bred to serve as a source of replacement organs for the wealthy and powerful. The clones are kept in a seemingly idyllic environment of apparent leisure and luxury, right up to the point where they are killed for their organs.

Michael Marshall Smith's novel Spares has a similar premise. Unlike the clones in Parts: The Clonus Horror, the clones are kept in conditions resembling those of farm animals or a concentration camp.

The 2005 American science fiction action thriller film The Island continues the theme, where clones live in a highly structured environment isolated in a compound. After the movie's hero learns that the compound inhabitants are clones who are used for organ harvesting and surrogate motherhood for wealthy people in the outside world, he escapes.

Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 dystopian novel Never Let Me Go also has a similar theme to its predecessors, but lacks the action-adventure theme of the previous works, concentrating on the characters' feelings and personal stories and the development of psychological horror at their plight. It was later made into a 2010 British drama film of the same name.

Recently, a commission for Radio 7, (now called BBC radio 4 Extra), called Jefferson 37 by Jenny Stephens also explores the same theme in a four-part radio play. The whole plot takes place within Abbotsville, a free range laboratory, where the clones are deliberately dehumanised. The story culminates with their humanity resisting the desire to quash it.

The plot of Unwind, a 2007 science fiction novel by young adult literature author Neal Shusterman, takes place in the United States, after a civil war somewhere in the near future. After a civil war is fought over abortion, a compromise was reached, allowing parents to sign an order for their children between the ages of 13 and 18 years old to be "unwound"—taken to "harvest camps" and having their body parts harvested for later use. The reasoning was that, since all their organs were required to be used, unwinds did not technically die, because their individual body parts lived on.

Organ repossession

The idea of the repossession of transplanted organs has also been used in fiction, in the films Repo Men, and Repo! The Genetic Opera.

Self-Sacrificial Organ Donation

In the film John Q., the character played by Denzel Washington takes a hospital hostage in hopes to force the surgical staff to transplant his heart into his dying son. In the TV series Psycho Pass, the antagonist is given the opportunity to donate his brain to help power a system that determines if an someone is likely to perform a crime.


Organ transplantation has also been used as a theme in a number of comedies, including The Man With Two Brains and the horror comedy The Thing with Two Heads.

See also

Further reading

  • "Transplant Medicine and Narrative", in Squier, Susan Merrill. Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004, ISBN 978-0-8223-3366-1
  • McCormack, D. (2012). "Intimate Borders: The Ethics of Human Organ Transplantation in Contemporary Film". Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies. 34 (3–4): 170. doi:10.1080/10714413.2012.687290.
  • Badley, Linda. Film, Horror and the Body Fantastic (Greenwood Press, 1995) ISBN 978-0313275234
  • "Dr Frankenstein and the Industrial Body: Reflections on 'Spare Part' Surgery." Cecil Helman, Anthropology Today Vol. 4, No. 3 (Jun., 1988), pp. 14–16.
A Gift from Earth

A Gift From Earth is a science fiction novel by American writer Larry Niven, first published in 1968 and set in his Known Space universe. The novel was originally serialized as "Slowboat Cargo".

Appointment on Route 17

"Appointment on Route 17" is the fiftieth episode and the fifteenth episode of the third season (1988–89) of the television series The Twilight Zone.

Awake (film)

Awake is a 2007 American conspiracy thriller film written and directed by Joby Harold. It stars Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard and Lena Olin. The film was released in the United States and Canada on November 30, 2007.

Cross (TV series)

Cross (Hangul: 크로스; RR: Keuroseu) is a 2018 medical thriller South Korean television series starring Go Kyung-pyo, Cho Jae-hyun, and Jeon So-min. It aired on tvN's Mondays and Tuesdays at 21:30 KST time slot from January 29 to March 20, 2018.

Flatlander (short story collection)

Flatlander (ISBN 0-345-39480-1) is a 1995 collection of stories by American writer Larry Niven, all set in Known Space. It is the definitive collection of all stories by Niven about ARM agent Gil Hamilton. Many of the stories revolve around the theme of involuntary organ transplantation.

The book includes the stories Death by Ecstasy (formerly The Organleggers), The Defenseless Dead, ARM, The Patchwork Girl, and The Woman in Del Rey Crater—the only previously unpublished story in the collection.

The collection is essentially a replacement for a 1976 collection called The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton (ISBN 0-345-24868-6) which contained only the first three stories. The Patchwork Girl was also published alone as a novel in 1986 (ISBN 0-441-65315-4).

The title derives from the in-universe term flatlander, referring to an Earth-living human, as opposed to those who do not live on planets. This is because the land looks flat.

Hands of a Stranger

Hands of a Stranger is a 1962 American horror film directed by Newt Arnold and is unofficially the fourth film adaptation of The Hands of Orlac.

Inhale (film)

Inhale is a 2010 American thriller film directed by Baltasar Kormákur. It stars Dermot Mulroney and Diane Kruger.

Les Mains d'Orlac

Les Mains d'Orlac (English: The Hands of Orlac) is a French fantasy/horror novel written by Maurice Renard, first published in 1920. It is an early example of the body horror theme in fiction.

Percy (1971 film)

Percy is a 1971 British comedy film directed by Ralph Thomas starring Hywel Bennett, Denholm Elliott, Elke Sommer and Britt Ekland.

The film is based on a novel of the same name by Raymond Hitchcock, and is today remembered for its soundtrack by The Kinks. It was followed by a 1974 sequel, Percy's Progress.

Pound of Flesh (2015 film)

Pound of Flesh is a 2015 Canadian action thriller film directed by Ernie Barbarash, and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Darren Shahlavi. It is the third collaboration between Van Damme and Barbarash (following Assassination Games in 2011 and Six Bullets in 2012).


Przekładaniec is a 1968 short science fiction comedy film directed by Andrzej Wajda based on the screenplay by Stanisław Lem, which was a loose adaptation of Lem's 1955 radio play Czy pan istnieje, Mr. Johns? (Translated into English as Are you there, Mr. Jones?). The title was variously translated into English as Layer Cake (literal meaning), Hodge Podge, and Roly Poly.The central idea is the problems related to organ transplantation, namely, what is the legal identity (and the associated legal rights) of a person whose body includes many transplants and that of a person whose body was used for many transplants?The film is a rare example when Lem was pleased with an adaptation of his work.Lem's screenplay was first published in 1968 in film magazine Ekran and included into Lem's 1971 short story collection Bezsenność. The original radio play was published in the 2000 collection Przekładaniec of Lem's scenarios.

Seven Pounds

Seven Pounds is a 2008 American drama film, directed by Gabriele Muccino, in which Will Smith stars as a man who sets out to change the lives of seven people. Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, and Barry Pepper also star. The film was released in theaters in the United States and Canada on December 19, 2008, by Columbia Pictures. Despite receiving negative reviews, it was a box-office success, grossing US $168,168,201 worldwide.

The Amazing Transplant

The Amazing Transplant is an American 1970 sexploitation film, written, produced and directed by Doris Wishman. The film stars Juan Fernandez, Linda Southern, and Larry Hunter.

The Defenseless Dead

"The Defenseless Dead" is a science fiction novella by American writer Larry Niven, set in the Known Space universe. It is the second of five Gil Hamilton detective stories. It was published in 1973 in the Roger Elwood anthology Ten Tomorrows.

Science fiction philosopher Stephen R. L. Clark, in his work How to Live Forever (1995), mistakenly credits this story with inventing the term "corpsicle." The term had already appeared in Frederik Pohl's The Age of the Pussyfoot (1969), after an earlier spelling by Pohl was published in a 1966 Worlds of Tomorrow essay, "Immortality Through Freezing".

The Eye (2002 film)

The Eye, also known as Seeing Ghosts, is a 2002 Hong-Kong-Singaporean horror film directed by the Pang brothers. The film spawned two sequels by the Pang brothers, The Eye 2 and The Eye 10. There are three remakes of this film, including Adhu, made in 2004 in Tamil, Naina made in 2005 in Hindi and The Eye, a 2008 Hollywood production starring Jessica Alba.

The Harvest (2013 film)

The Harvest (released as Can't Come Out to Play in the UK) is a 2013 American horror thriller film released by IFC Films that was directed by John McNaughton. It is the first feature film he has directed in over a decade (his last feature film being the 2001 movie Speaking of Sex) and his first horror venture since Haeckel's Tale, a 2006 episode of the horror anthology series Masters of Horror. The movie had its world premiere on October 19, 2013, at the Chicago International Film Festival and follows a young girl (Natasha Calis) who befriends a seemingly lonely and confined boy her own age, only to fall afoul of his mother.

The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant

The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant is a 1971 science fiction/horror film directed by Anthony Lanza. It is the earlier companion to the 1972 blaxploitation film The Thing with Two Heads.

The Island (2005 film)

The Island is a 2005 American science fiction thriller film directed and co-produced by Michael Bay. It stars Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou, Sean Bean, Michael Clarke Duncan and Steve Buscemi. In the story, Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor) struggles to fit into the highly structured world he lives in, isolated in a compound, and the series of events that unfold when he questions how truthful that world is. After Lincoln learns the compound inhabitants are clones used for organ harvesting as well as surrogates for wealthy people in the outside world, he attempts to escape with Jordan Two Delta (Johansson) and expose the illegal cloning movement.

The Island cost $126 million to produce. The original score was composed by Steve Jablonsky, who would go on to score Bay's further works. It opened on July 22, 2005, to mixed reviews, earning $36 million at the United States box office and $127 million overseas for a $162 million worldwide total.

The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler

The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler is a 1971 science fiction film directed by Bob Wynn and starring Leslie Nielsen, Bradford Dillman and Angie Dickinson. This was one of the earliest films to depict medical exploitation of cloning, even though the term was not used. It was shot on videotape and transferred to film for theatrical and TV release. Gold Key Entertainment commissioned this film at the same time as it commissioned the film The Day of the Wolves, and tried to persuade Ferde Grofe to film that on video because of the cost savings, but he declined.

Organ transplantation in fiction
Novels and
short stories

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.