Thursday, July 3, 2014

Genetically Modified Fiction

Before the start of the holidays, I was proof-reading an essay for my son. It was for Media Studies and he'd chosen a subject called 'Modding'. I had no idea what that meant, and Logan's essay explained that it is the modification of video games by players in the gaming community. Members of the general public take their favourite games and make changes to suit themselves. This may range from a simple tweaking in clothing style to the creation of a completely new game based loosely on the original game's engine. Many 'mods' fall between these two extremes.

His essay explains how modifying an existing product and releasing it as one's own has its dodgy aspects. He discusses the fact that it is not limited to the gaming industry, although that was the focus of his essay. The writing of 'fan fiction' is also becoming popular. This occurs when fans of a movie or book series make use of existing characters and universes invented by some original author or creator to write and publish their own stories. My son used to love those Star Wars novels, written by a variety of authors who based their stories on the movies scripted by George Lucas. Recently, I've told my daughter that I'd love to see her read more novels, and she says that she prefers to stick to fan fiction about her favourite You Tube celebrity, Toby Turner, aka Tobuscus.

When you think about it, something similar has been happening for many years. Although we never referred to it as 'fan fiction' it basically shares the same characteristics. I'm referring to the habit of people writing sequels to classics or well-known books whose authors, in many cases, are long dead. I loved 'Sanditon' which was the six remaining chapters of Jane Austen's final manuscript finished off by another lady who preferred to remain anonymous. We have 'March' written from the perspective of the father of the girls in 'Little Women'. There's 'Wide Sargasso Sea', a sequel to Jane Eyre from the point of view of Rochester's mad wife, Bertha, which I had to read because it was on the English syllabus at Uni when I was a student. Most recently, I've seen 'Longbourne' based on the servants of the Bennett family in 'Pride and Prejudice'. Just because these books may be perceived as more literary, do they basically fit the characteristics of fan fiction?

A reviewer I chanced upon recently had a bit of a rant about authors who write this material, which I'll try to paraphrase. Basically, she's over this sort of 'sequel' because those who write them are enjoying benefits they haven't fully earned, and piggy-backing on emotions and effects which the original authors produced with sweat and tears. In many cases, she believes that modern attitudes which can't help creeping into the stories are often alien to the intentions of the original authors, who would possibly turn over in their graves if they knew what was being done. Do you think she has a point?

It's not really a new question. We've all seen movies or TV series which have let us down because they deviate from the books they are supposed to reflect in major ways. I've seen Agatha Christie movies which have taken liberties with characters and their motivations. The Anne of Green Gables series starring Megan Follows started off well, but eventually had Gilbert going off to fight in the War and Anne publishing a novel, none of which ever happened in L.M. Montgomery's books.

How about the Little House on the Prairie series, with Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon? They wrote in an adopted son named Albert for the Ingalls family, which certainly never happened in reality. 'It's nothing like the book,' we say with disappointment, but warning bells should ring whenever we read, 'Based on the book, 'Whatever' by John Doe' which happens almost one hundred percent of the time. These literary 'mods' seem to mean that people feel free to meddle with stories which are already beloved and well-established literary icons.

The saddest thing people may say is, 'I don't need to read the book now, because I've seen the movie,'

Sometimes I feel like crying out, 'No, what you've seen may be a modified mish-mash with only names and a few scenes in common, nothing like the book!'

When I contemplate the possibility of people wanting to do something similar with my books, I get a chill deep inside. It would make me very nervous to think of another person 'modding' my books with either plot changes or unplanned sequels. In 2009 I wrote a sequel to 'The Risky Way Home' and 'Picking up the Pieces' which I named 'A Design of Gold' but I was the one who had the sudden idea of where to take the younger characters from those books. It wouldn't be the same if someone else did it. I'd want them to run it past me first, at the very least, to make sure they have the same vision and goals for my characters. I definitely wouldn't want my published stories twisted into something that never happened.

If I feel so strongly about that, I have no reason to think that Ms Bronte, Austen, Alcott or any other writer would feel different, just because they are no longer in the position to complain. I'd be interested to hear what others have to say about the subject. Writers, would you feel at least a little twinge if someone else took your characters, settings and themes and put 'mods' on your work? Readers, do you get terribly disappointed when a movie you've looked forward to based on a favourite book seems to stick very loosely to the plot?

Do you think it's a bit like genetically modifying food? Many people protest about this because we sometimes end up with food which is not as tasty or nutritious. We may have seedless watermelon which tastes more insipid, new-styled grains which contain artificial synthetic gunk that may make us sick over time, or larger-sized, hormone-fed animals which may provide more meat but never live truly healthy lifestyles while alive. With genetically modified books, we may well end up with a product which is more insipid, loses some of its punch or adds in artificial substance which is alien simply because it wasn't in the original author's head. As people protest about genetically modified food, should we ever make a stand about genetically modified books?

Thanks to Logan Vince for writing an essay which inspired a lot of thought.


  1. You've raised a lot of interesting questions Paula. I guess one of the motivations behind fan fiction is that they assume authors should be flattered that people want to keep their characters alive in new stories. If the new author stays true to the original intent of the first author, it may be okay. But as you say, how do we know what the original author would have thought?

    I also was disappointed with the TV sequels to Anne of Green Gables because they didn't stick to the books. She never would have fallen for that middle-aged man instead of Gilbert! I really liked March by Geraldine Brooks, but I had to think of it in a different basket to the original Little Women books. Louisa May Alcott was quite liberated and feisty herself, but would she have been happy with Mr and Mrs March's liaison down by the river before they were married? Maybe not. (Still there were a lot of really thought-provoking features of that book that brought home the horrors of the Civil War and the plight of African Americans in a very real way).

    I'd be very nervous about someone taking my characters and using them in a different way. Especially as a Christian writer, I'd worry that someone with a different worldview might take my character or story and do something that I wouldn't want to endorse. I guess copyright laws can stop that sort of thing in our lifetime, but hopefully we won't be turning in our graves. Interesting food for thought. Thanks for starting the conversation Paula :)

    1. Hi Nola,
      The flattery aspect would be apealing, that would be hard to deny. I once had a reader of 'Picking up the Pieces' who was also a budding film-maker, approach me with the intention of making a screenplay of the book. It sounded exciting but I haven't heard about any progress in years, so it must have petered out.

  2. A really interesting issue, Paula.You've raised some points of view I'd never considered.

    I must say that I read books like March with a different perspective. I think of it as the author asking a question such as— what would happen if?

    Or: I wonder what Rochester's mad wife, Bertha was thinking?

    Mucking around with Anne of Green Gables or My Sister's Keeper in the TV/Film versions is another thing. I get really annoyed when a major character doesn't belong or they change the ending which changes the whole point of a book—especially when the rationale is that the audience couldn't handle it if the ending wasn't happy!

    Anyway, an interesting topic!

    1. Hi Elaine,
      What you say may be the reason why several modern authors have taken on the challenge to write these sequels (or companion books). They get wondering, 'what would happen if...?' and it goes on from there.
      I still can't help wondering if they'd be so bold if they knew the authors were still alive, possibly willing to give feedback :)
      And I agree, changing the ending just seems a bit cheeky, although I can understand why Disney did it with Hans Christian Andersen's 'Little Mermaid'. Imagine how many heartbroken little girls there would be if they kept it how Andersen had it.

  3. These issues are something I encounter on a regular basis, as I am involved in some major fandoms. When it comes to movie versions of books, I'm okay with some changes, as I know it is a different medium and some minor alterations may make it more effective in the visuals. However, I draw the line at changes that make the characters go against the personalities that were established in the books and plots that deviate so widely from the book's plot to the extent that the characters are only recognisable by their names.
    When it comes to fanfiction, I don't mind it. I read some of it and I have written some myself. However, again I draw the line at it then being published as original work. You are right, Paula. It feels like cheating to me. They've let someone else do the heavy lifting, milking their success by simply renaming (in cases where these works have been published commercially) characters made popular by someone else. It can be an easier road (we all know being an author isn't easy!) but it seems unethical to me.

    1. Hi Lynne,
      I completely agree with the points you've made. Personality changes are very annoying. Hollywood's Heathcliff, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, was completely different to Emily Bronte's Heathcliff :)
      I'm sure we've all come across those plot changes where only the names are kept the same.
      And those fanfiction authors who publish their material as original work, expecting the established fan base from the original to latch onto them, are a bit cheeky and unethical.

  4. Having recently done a unit on Script Adaptation, I have a greater appreciation for the challenges of converting a novel (long, complex and able to delve deeply into the minds of the characters) to a movie (2 short hours, visual and external). Two very different mediums - so even the most faithful reproduction has to make hard choices - about simplifying the plot (maybe dropping subplots), the number of characters and externalizing thoughts and emotions. I agree though that this can be done badly - especially if the movie is changed drastically. My daughter & I hated the adaptation of Eragon for instance - characters & events were changed willy nilly. It was barely the same story. Whereas I'm a bit more ambivalent about the changes made to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.

    I'm of two minds about fan fiction - in one sense it's a tribute to the author and the power of the world and characters she (or he) has created. But there is always the risk that fans will take it in directions the author would hate (maybe some of the steamier fan fiction about Snape for instance). And I do think there is significant moral and legal (copyright) problems with taking someone else's story, changing a few minor details and then publishing it as your own. I guess the difficulty is knowing where the line between plagiarism and influence ends. As we are all influenced by the stories we've read and admired. Some theoists argue that there are only about 7 or even 1 basic plot that most stories keep retelling. Christopher Paolini for instance was criticised for borrowing heavily from Star Wars, Tolkien and Anne McCafery's Dragonriders of Pern. And there are definite parallels but I think his particular amalgam is unique. Besides Stars Wars itself is the Hero's Journey (how many stories use that as their structure!). And then sometimes it's just great minds thinking a like. I've had more than one person suggest a resemblance between my fiction and Game of Thrones - but I have never read these books or watched the TV show & I started writing and planning my books in the early 90s. Any resemblance is surely coincidental.

    I must say though that I've enjoyed some of the adaptations and remakes - eg Westside Story (which is a modern remake of Romeo and Juliette), or March (which actually fills a gap Alcott left as she never really tells us what the father did the year he was away) or, dare I say it, Bride and Prejudice. I think if avid fans were readapting my books 200 or even 400 years after I had penned them - I would be thrilled that my work had such timeless and enduring impact on future generations.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      Movie scriptwriters have a hard job in front of them when it comes to converting books. Yes, my husband and son were bitterly disappointed about the adaptation of 'Eragon' too. As for 'The Hobbit' and LOTR, it's hard to think of anything they could have done to make it any better.

      I can understand why you would be in two minds. It's one of the tricky issues which can verge on grey rather than being perceived as either black or white. Another one which fits in with what you've mentioned is 'My Fair Lady' which has huge similarities to Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew' which was also based on 'Pygmalion.' And when you think about it, 'Pretty Woman' with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts was probably a more recent adaptation of that same theme. Nothing new under the son.

      Your fiction and Game of Thrones is an interesting comparison. I haven't watched Game of Thrones either, but my hubby, son and nephew all love it.

      Interestingly, after referring to my son's essay, I was reminded that his favourite game in which he's risen high, (League of Legends) is regarded by many as a 'mod' developed from World of Warcraft. It's something that is so widespread and insidious, I'm sure we don't even realise it's being done half the time.

  5. I think perhaps we all do it to a greater or lesser extent - the theorists call it intertexuality, the level in which our knowledge of the world and creativity is drawn from reading and absorbing other texts. To some extent we can't help borrowing from those that go before us - but I think there is a line between a tribute - doffing the hat in the direction of the greats - and straight out plagiarism - just that that line is rather fuzzy.

  6. Yes, if only that line was clearer at times. I can remember way back when Colleen McCulloch was accused of plagiarising L.M. Montgomery's 'The Blue Castle' in her 'Ladies of Missalonghi'. And the two storylines were remarkably similar in many ways.