We live in the days of Franchise. The pop culture machine has (for a while now) gone whole hog on reboots, sequels, shared universes, and other elements that involve a mix of safe nostalgia and a built in fan-base. I’m less angered by this than most, there is something to be said for the concept that revisting, appropriating, juxtaposing, adapting, and transforming material is how culture always evolves anyway.
But when you are faced with the specific challenge of taking a known work, with an invested fan base, and moving it forward, it does pose specific challenges and opportunities. This has been the dilemma facing comic book writers in particular for generations now, but also crops up in other media.
I’m a firm believer that we never have the “Perfect” version of a character. We have better and worse ones, more and less interesting ones, but they all circle around some essential constellation of elements that no one version can ever fully contain. In a way, this is the process of myth making, and one of the reasons I roll my eyes at people who say “the real myths” are any one interpretation.*
So it has been a particularly interesting few weeks as I happen to have stumbled across some creative types talking about exactly how they handle it.
This mutual interview on grappling with rebooting and continuing Xena: Warrior Princess is a great read, as Genevieve Valentine and Javier Grillo-Marxuach discuss how they are approaching the challenge of bringing forth a comic book sequel and a new live-action reboot, respectively. Hearing them bash around ideas of what parts are iconic, what aren’t, what each media type gives you as pros and cons, is fascinating. Each re-invention, retelling of any story involves struggling with what is essential to that character. Over time, some things coalesce to become sacrosanct, others become important but open to riffing on a basic idea, and some things fall away.
Grillo-Marxuach puts his cards on the table on how he wants to remix the canon given the new more focused dramatic format, but he too has elements that are core to how he views the character, “There are a few things that are sacrosanct: the Chakram and the quarterstaff, of course, Gabrielle’s ambition to become a bard, and—most importantly—that Xena and Gabrielle be soul mates. Like I said, I’m not monster.”
The recent fiery reaction to Batman vs Superman has provoked unfriending and banishment on the social media of some people I know, because to believe these are legitimate interpretations of Batman or Superman is tantamount to treason. This is ridiculous, as Andrew Collas points out in his contrarianly positive review of BvS, pointing out a woman who liked the film’s Luthor, even if it wasn’t “her” Luthor (although she went so far as to deny him being really Luthor at all). And there may be some versions so out of sync that they disqualify themselves as options, although I think that incredibly rare. People who have adapted Wonder Woman have tried hard to refute that statement, though. (I like to think I did better when I took a shot at it a while ago, although if I’ve learned anything since then it is that I probably need to be reading Legend of Wonder Woman.)
I grew up on Doctor Who, which is a show that chose to embrace a mercurial truth about its core character. As the title quote shows, they are all the Doctor, and all unique even unto themselves. I was shown Rashomon when I was young. The stories will contradict, and that’s ok. They fold back on themselves and build on themselves, and your job as a creator is to take the strands you want to look at at weave them anew. This is fine. This is good. This is as it should be. What comes out of it will never be the Definitive Version. And if someone else did it, it won’t be Your Version. It may not even be a Favourite Version.
But you’re allowed to like that version anyway, if you want.
*I’ve always found it amusing that Hesiod’s Theogony is often cited as the “real relationships of the Gods” when he admits up front poets lie, he is claiming authority, and some might disagree.