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.