1If there is something that can be said about the strange times we live in, it is that media-wise we experience a world of characters and stories in a constant state of restless motion. The numerous platforms and online communities dedicated to fans of specific media products encourage people to unleash their creativity and produce content based on their favourite characters, occasionally even disregarding their initial context and designing alternative narratives or universes for them. Modern media consumers and producers tend to assess narrative characters according to the restlessness these protagonists are capable of–the more interesting the heroes, the more stories and mediums they can be featured in. This paper aims to investigate this phenomenon together with looking at other effects fandoms can have on character migration, such as transforming the essence of characters to the point of their becoming unrecognisable, dismissing some character interpretations due to prejudices against the performers of those roles, and cancelling cinematic adaptations of series because of the disappointment generated by their first instalments.
2We live in an age that favours character migration. It is not just the old problem of creativity, related to everything already having been said and done, it is not just the hype of the transmedia narratives concept–allowing a story to be arched on various media and thus having characters function in films, books, on the web and possibly in video games as well – it is the examples we get from the day-to-day life, from the people we follow, from the media with which we surround ourselves.
- 1 “As a social network, Twitter revolves around the principle of followers. When you choose to follow (...)
3The borders between narratives and reality are clearly fading, prompting us to refrain from thinking of characters only in relation to a constrained fictive space. Social media and online promotion are blurring the lines even further. For example, part of the PR strategy of HBO’s recent series True Detective was not only a Twitter channel for the show itself dedicated to sharing the latest news, but also individual Twitter profiles for the two main characters, Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart (played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson respectively). The two accounts reproduced the best lines from the show, but also interacted with each other using the fictional voices of the characters. In a first instance, also part of the promotional strategy was the fact that the two entities followed their followers back, thus establishing a psychological bonding between the fans and the show1. Through this flattering strategy of making fans feel noticed and important, HBO were aiming at obtaining a better grip on their audience. Yet, despite the temporary joy of being followed back, getting to read “Martin Hart has started following you on Twitter” in your feed was in fact as bizarre and disruptive as it would be to receive e-mails from of Harry Potter or actual letters signed by Mr. Darcy.
4The True Detective situation is however just a minor intrusion in terms of fiction merging with reality, compared to the degree of invasion of other fictional worlds in our daily real-life spaces. A perfect example is to be found in Harry Potter and the J. K. Rowling magical universe. Not only did Harry manage to jump from page to screen, then to a Lego video game and ultimately to the online platform Pottermore, but fans have started embracing the series vocabulary when referring to everyday life events. People resistant to or skeptical of the Harry Potter world would simply be referred to as “muggles” in conversations between fans, while the regular act of receiving an e-mail from somebody would be described as it being “delivered by owls” (Pottermore Insider).
- 2 By 31 July 2011, after an online competition that had lasted for seven days, one million users were (...)
5Here are some excerpts from e-mails sent by fans to the administrators of the Pottermore platform when the website failed to grant access to users as fast as initially promised, the launching process being delayed for several months2:
‘Dear Pottermore. I’m taking the time to write this to remind you that I am not a squib. I want my letter now, please.’ Heelsoverheaad
‘… I really think you should have sent another owl with my letter [...] Errol really isn’t up for long flights anymore.’ TheShepard10 (Pottermore Insider)
6Both users refer to ordinary e-mails by calling them “letters”, clearly referencing the communication method used in Harry Potter’s magical universe where wizards contact each other through notes carried by owls. The second user even mentions the name of one owl character, Errol, known in the Potter world for failing to deliver messages properly, either misplacing them or being very much delayed. The user is overlapping his experience of not receiving a message when expected to similar situations in the books, when characters have failed to receive important messages. In a similar way, the heelsoverheaad fan is overlapping real situations with fictional instances from the magical universe. ‘Squibs’ are children of wizards who possess limited or no magical capabilities at all. When stating that he is not a squib, the user implies that he has magical powers and therefore should be allowed access to the wizarding world. The user’s extensive knowledge of the Potter universe thus overlaps the magical status within the fictive world, the fan considering him/herself ‘magical’ for having immersed him/herself as much as possible in Rowling’s world (and of course not for actually being able to perform spells).
7However, it is not only the fans who make references to the books’ terminology in everyday life. Muggle has been so extensively used that it actually has found its way into the everyday language of ordinary people (who might not even be familiar with the Potter world):
Certainly the most prolific of [J. K. Rowling’s] creations is muggle – a non-magical person – which has now gained its own meaning outside of Harry Potter as ‘a person who lacks a particular skill’, and is included in our dictionaries. For an invented word by an author to reach this status is a great achievement, and a clear indication of the impact of the language within her novels; readers have transferred the language from her world into our own. (Pulford, n.p.)
- 3 A red leather ball the size of a football. It’s used in the Quidditch game for scoring.
- 4 A black iron ball used in Quidditch, having a diameter of 10 inches. It’s bewitched to be thrown an (...)
- 5 The Golden Snitch is a walnut sized golden sphere with silver wings. It flies around the Quidditch (...)
8We are, therefore, not just witnessing a character switching medium, but an entire fictional universe migrating into our daily life. And what about quidditch − the sport where two opposing teams of wizards fly on brooms trying to score as many goals as possible before the very small and fast flying Snitch is caught by one of the players − which did not even exist before J. K. Rowling invented it for the Potter world? Fuelled by the extensive information provided in Quidditch through Ages, ten teams of Harry Potter fans decided in 2005 to compete in an improvised version of a Quidditch World Cup. While making real-life versions of the circular scoring gates, the Quaffle3 or the Bludgers4 posed no serious problems for the adaptation of the game, some elements were more problematic. Unlike what happened in the books, real life players could not actually fly on brooms, and there was no corespondence for the bewitched Snitch ball5. Both problems ultimately solved by using regular broomsticks and a human replacement for the Snitch. The first real-life quidditch game was played in 2005 and an International Quidditch Association was formed in 2010 (iqaquidditch.org). Five years later the new sport had become so popular that there were already 175 competing teams from forty-five US States and in five other countries (iqaquidditch.org). While, for the time being, the sport is still only being performed by fans of the Potter series, undoubtedly, with its ever growing popularity, we can expect other people as well will want to participate, even if they are not necessarily faithful followers of the franchise.
9The migration of characters and situations has thus become a trademark of our society. But how does this affect the traditional idea of characters one encounters in books, plays or films? It is fair to say that the new audiovisual context has, in some instances, diluted the idea of a ‘character’ so much that we are in fact dealing more with brands and labels rather than conventional protagonists. In order to ensure their migration onto several platforms or narratives, traditional characters have been reduced to names or stereotypical attributes. Take for instance Robin Hood, the outlaw from English folklore, hero of over thirty books, twenty video games and over sixty films (wikipedia.org). Since medieval times, his story has been adapted so many times that only a limited number of characteristics recur in most versions: Robin is known for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, being the leader of a gang of outlaws and having a love interest in Marian, sometimes portrayed as a noble lady, other times as a maid or commoner. However, each narrative was ultimately responsible for creating its own ‘Robin Hood’, making the resulting stories range from realistic to fantastic and even sci-fi. It thus becomes the purpose of each media product to reinvest the narratives with substance and relevance. The following sections discuss what can happen with characters in these processes of transitions, and how fans can altogether influence their migration.
10One of the first questions we need to ask when talking about migration or adaptation is exactly what happens to a traditional character during this process. Syd Field, a famous screenwriter and theoretician of the Hollywood’s script-writing process, describes the adaptive work as an original process that takes literary sources and then re-invents their narratives and characters:
When you adapt a novel or any source material into a screenplay, you must consider your work an original screenplay based on other material. You can’t adapt a novel literally and have it work (...).
The verb to adapt means ‘to transpose from one medium to another’. Adaptation is defined as the ability ‘to make fit or suitable by changing or adjusting’ modifying something to create a change in structure function and form. It only starts with the novel, book, play, article or song. That is the source material and nothing more. (Field 258-259)
11According to Field, adaptation is the process of transferring a work belonging to one platform into another medium. Scholars like Yingjin Zhang also embrace this theory, stressing however that the dichotomy between adaptation and original work is influenced by the characteristics of each medium:
Literal fidelity is both unlikely and undesirable to achieve because film adaptation involves the shift from a single-track, verbal medium to a multi-track medium that simultaneously plays with written and spoken words, theatrical performance, moving photographic images as well as music and sound effects. Simply put, the “essentialist” concept of fidelity does not work in film adaptation. (Zhang 86)
- 6 See Adaptations: Primitive forms of Transmedia Narratives? by M. Dicieanu.
12It seems fair to assume that when a character changes media or even versions of the story created by different directors, it is only natural for it to undergo a series of alterations. However, as discussed elsewhere6 the ideal process described by Field is quite different from what the spectators experience when faced with both forms of storytelling. Viewers who have read the book before seeing the movie adaptation will not be able to assess the film individually, apart from its literary source, but will evaluate instead the two forms together, comparing and contrasting their similarities and differences.
13The reason for this phenomenon is given by Linda Hutcheon’s in-depth exploration of the adaptation process. In her work A Theory of Adaptation, in addition to considering, as Field did, that “an adaptation is its own palimpsestic thing, a derivation that is not derivative – a work that is second without being secondary”, she identifies other characteristics as well:
In short, adaptation can be described as the following:
An acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works
A creative and an interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging
An extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work. (8)
14Therefore, in addition to the process of transposition identified by Field, she mentions also the inter-textual engagement – a relationship that permits a two-sided exchange between the adaptation and the original as far as the audience of both works is concerned:
Paul Anderson’s 2002 film Resident Evil will be experienced differently by those who have played the videogame of the same name, from which the movie was adapted, than by those who have not. (Hutcheon 8)
15We can thus conclude that every time a character switches media or narratives, there will always be a ‘baggage’ that will migrate with it as far as the audience familiar with the character’s history is concerned. But can this extra baggage also influence the viewing experience in a negative way? And if so, what are the factors that influence this acceptable amount of changes in a character we are familiar with?
- 7 The segment of the audience exposed to both the film and the book.
- 8 For the evaluation of audience perception I have resorted to the users’ feedback as expressed on IM (...)
16As Alan J. Pakula’s 1993 adaptation of John Grisham’s 1992 The Pelican Brief shows, in some instances the book-and-film audience7 seems to be able to embrace even radical changes regarding the main characters. In the book, the journalist Gray Grantham is Caucasian, rather plump, slightly superficial and infatuated with the main female character Darby Shaw, or rather her legs. Denzel Washington brings a different vibe altogether compared to the book’s protagonist but most significantly, has a different skin colour. Yet, these differences hardly played any part in the way audiences assessed the book and the film together8, the main points of concern being either Pakula’s or Grisham’s plot construction. According to Goodreads – the popular social media platform dedicated to books – out of fifty-eight comments in the topic discussing the book to film adaptation of The Pelican Brief, only three focused on Gray Grantham / Denzel Washington differences and none of them considered the change of skin colour significant. On the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) too, viewers comparing the film with the book did not mention this big change made to Grisham’s male lead, nor were the other changes the character underwent put into question.
17This situation however seems to have radically changed nowadays. For example, when Jennifer Lawrence was announced as the actress chosen to play Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (2012), fans complained about her weight, hair colour (Lawrence being a natural blonde while the character required her to be brunette), age and overall her too nice, Barbie like complexion (Fleming Olivia). When discussing the film’s casting on Goodreads, some fans of the book were excited with the choice, most were surprised but willing to give the actress a chance, but an important segment expressed utter disappointment, such as can be seen in the reactions below:
‘I have a feeling this movie is going to flop. [...] Jennifer Lawrence LOOKS 20 years old...not 16. She also has a very curvy, womanly figure, unlike Katniss who is starving and super thin. Same with Gale, he is a hunter, not even a miner yet in the first book and they cast Liam Hemsworth, who has the "big and buff movie star body" It’s all just unrealistic.’ (Amy, June 2011)
‘I think she looks way too old. Katniss is more... waifish, and there are definitely enough waify actresses out there.’ (Annie, June 2011) (Goodreads.com)
- 9 One can argue that this ‘apparent increase’ of fans’ interest in having their voice heard with rega (...)
18We are clearly witnessing quite a significant shift from the permissive attitude of almost twenty years ago, with fans now apparently9 becoming more demanding regarding the portrayal of their favourite characters and, as user Amy’s attitude suggests, even questioning the entire adaptation process based on casting choices. Linda Hutcheon also notices that this ‘demand of fidelity’ is starting to expand to a set of currently popular books:
One of the central beliefs of film adaptation theory is that audiences are more demanding of fidelity when dealing with classics, such as the work of Dickens or Austen. But a whole new set of cult popular classics, especially the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, Phillip Pullman, and J.K. Rowling, are now being made visible and audible on stage, in the movie theatre, on the video and computer screens, and in multiple gaming formats, and their readers are proving to be just as demanding. (29)
19Hutcheon mainly names fantasy writers but as the adaptation of E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey shows, this ‘fidelity demand’ really extends to all popular novels, regardless of their genre. And while a couple of years ago petitions for casting certain actors would have reached only the members of the fandom of the adapted work, nowadays it is quite likely they make it into the media. Such was the case with the petition for having Matt Bomer star as Christian Grey, the protagonist of Fifty Shades of Grey. It became a news item for several online publications dealing with popular culture such as Hollywoodreporter, Hollywoodlife or Eonline.
20It would seem that as time goes by, fan power attempts to spread more and more, but is time the only factor or are there other elements that could potentially influence this migration, to consider?
21Several factors seem to influence the adaptation/migration process. One of the most influential and powerful elements seems to be the size and characteristics of the fandom of the initial instalment. Without any doubt, the story-telling changes of the recent years, with a significant emphasis on interactive and transmedia narratives, have made it easier for the voices of fans to be heard, even for projects that were not specifically designed with fan engagement in mind.
22For instance, two fan websites which emerged shortly after the publishing of the first two Harry Potter books, the Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet, showed so much dedication and commitment to the franchise that, for the first time, the founders of a fan site were invited to a press preview on a film set— Warner Bros having asked Melissa Anelli, the webmistress of The Leaky Cauldron, to visit the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban set (Watkins Gwynne). Later, Anelli’s expertise was also used in work on the online platform Pottermore, before the site was launched (wikipedia.org).
- 10 See ‘JK Rowling: Hermione should have married Harry, not Ron.’
23In the wake of the example set by the Potter franchise, series such as Catching Fire, Divergent and Fifty Shades of Grey quickly developed large fan bases from the book stage. It was expected that enthusiasm regarding the books would make users very eager to have the stories migrate to different mediums, so that they could enjoy them more. Again, the Potter fans (otherwise known as Potterheads) provide a perfect illustration of this attitude. Not only were they very permissive when it came to almost all the decisions taken regarding the films, but even the elements that did bother them (such as Pottermore being launched half a year later than announced, or J. K. Rowling’s recent announcement regarding her doubts about Ron and Hermione’s love story having a happy ending10) were ultimately accepted under the mantra that people should just be thankful for whatever the author created.
- 11 The star refused the part in spite of being the only singled out cast choice and preference made pu (...)
24But not all fandoms are as understanding as the Potterheads. Quick to embrace the Fifty Shades of Grey idea for a film, even before there was a script or a director, fans started releasing YouTubevideos with their perfect casting ideas. Petitions were soon launched and certain names started recurring in the press for what IMDb.com dubbed “one of the most talked throughout Hollywood” casting. Most of the nominated actors were flattered, yet some dissociated themselves from a project they had little interest in, as was the case with Shailene Woodley11. Fans, however, remained unfazed, stuck to their beliefs, and continued with wishes and speculations, until the surprise castings of Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steel and Charlie Hunnan as the rich and very attractive Christian Grey. The negative bashing received by both Hunnan and Johnson after the announcements ultimately made the former drop the project (Chen Joyce), just two months before starting shooting, due to “filming scheduling conflicts” (Depper Jenny). Hardly anybody believed the excuse (The Guardian.com), least of all the fans, who strongly felt it was their voice that had chased Hunnan away (Depper Jenny). They started once more online petitions, even more determined to see their chosen actors cast in the role. Their efforts were vain, as producers chose another outside-the-list name in the person of Jamie Dornan. As the movie will only be released in February 2015, we have yet to see the impact of these choices, but even though Hunnan’s departure only delayed the shooting schedule by two months, the film’s release was postponed by more than half a year.
25But why did fans ultimately react so differently in the two cases? One possible explanation is the character’s relationship with the story and setting. While Harry Potter has a series of great suspenseful adventures and is an intriguing character, ultimately, it is the magical world that draws fans in. This also justifies the fans’ attitude that, as long as the magic is done justice to in the representations, the story-line and characters can change. With Fifty Shades of Grey, the emphasis is on the characters and their (mis)behaviour. In fact E. L. James has already shown that the setting and world creation have but little importance in her book, as she initially wrote her story as fan fiction for the vampire love story the Twilight saga (Hollywoodlife.com). The characters from the two series mirror each other in behaviour and even share the same names in the first draft of James’s writing (Deahl Rachel). The first instalment of Fifty Shades of Grey faithfully respects the drama and plot lines of Twilight, although the fantastic elements have been dropped and the sexual premise introduced. The setting is of little importance to the overall story, making people much more interested in the particularities of the characters and their behaviour.
26Another factor influencing the transition of characters through narratives is the stability of the original format. Heroes such as Robin Hood or King Arthur emerged from oral legends and ballads. Given the specificity of the medium and the ways the story was transmitted and reproduced, variations were bound to appear, the initial story becoming lost in the reproductions to the point where we no longer know what started it all. For this reason we are not able to tell for sure whether Robin was for instance a wronged nobleman turned outlaw, a thief, or a huntsman fighting the ruler’s injustice. The lack of clear source material has led to very different versions of the story, including a fantasy approach featuring elements of magic: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (d. Kevin Reynolds, 1991), a parody in which Robin is seen as a leader of men running the woods in tights Robin Hood: Men in Tights (d. Mel Brooks, 1993), and in the Disney’s version Robin Hood (d. Wolfgang Reitherman, 1973), he was even personified as a fox. The character and his legendary bravery have inspired people to tell so many different versions of his story throughout various media such as literature, theatre and cinema, that there are very few elements that have remained constant, as seen in the previous section. Unlike Christian Grey or Harry Potter about whom fans can be very specific, being able to name even their eye colour or to identify what type of behaviour is or is not fitting, Robin Hood can be viewed as a barely defined template, ready to be filled in by each creator’s needs.
27Ultimately, the character’s lack of definition encourages multiple migrations, and, as Ridley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood version shows, there is no apparent reason why this hero should not appear again on the screen in 5, 10, 20 or even 50 years from now. On the other hand, characters such as Harry Potter are unlikely to have another life outside the franchise that originally created them, and even though they also migrated through various media, new reinterpretations seem rather unrealistic.
28While nowadays we can talk about different forms and levels of character migrations, as it is clearly a widespread phenomenon, there will always be restrictions associated with a certain type of transition. Fans of popular books may be very eager to see them migrating to cinematic adaptations or online applications and games, but they will also expect the migrations to occur in a specific way, often based on their own interpretations. Should transformations stray too much from their expectations, the connection between the audience and the story could be severed. Also, these closely monitored migrations are at this point unlikely to occur again, due the extensive involvement of the fans. Stories like Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games may have stormed the popular story-telling mediums, yet as this happened at the height of their popularity, there is little chance remakes will find target groups any time soon.
29On the other hand, more loosely constructed protagonists, often defined by only two or three characteristics, are more likely to see multiple-level migrations. Their impact on the audiences might be less than what very popular series can nowadays achieve, but the fact that they can address various generations of people while still maintaining relevance will always be a reason for producers to find ways of bringing them back and thus prolonging their lives.
30At the moment, fans play a significant role in characters’ migration to the screen, not only by ultimately deciding what works and what fails, but also by determining the type of life a character can have. James Bond may have started as a character from a novel, but since the novels were adapted, he has been migrating from film to film, his new adventures being created especially for the big screen. On the other hand, series with multiple instalments such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Jeanne DuPrau’s The Books of Ember have stopped being adapted after the release of the first parts, due to poor public response and it is unlikely that, in the future, other film producers will attempt to migrate these stories to the cinema screens. In the past, the number of fans might have just served as indicators for producers of contents regarding what people were interested in consuming. Fan power nowadays surely surpasses this. With the input they are now required to have in interactive or transmedia productions comes the desire to shape the actual narratives they are experiencing. The fading borders between reality and fiction are only providing users with a more extensive illusion of control. Yet, contrary to what creators might think, fans are no longer willing to accept just anything that is given them, and they hold a genuine power of their own. We are not just witnessing blurred lines between the real and the imagination, but also between producers and consumers. A better understanding of the role of fans is required, but luckily, the current franchises and cinematic adaptations of books with large fan-bases can provide just the object to be studied and investigated.