With the celebration of today’s release of The Last Jedi (though technically one could view it last night, the 14th of December), one of my biggest questions concerning adaptations has resurfaced. I’ve pondered it for many years with waves of impassioned chin-stroking each time an old story receives a fresh new release in cinemas.
Can there be multiple, conflicting narratives within the same universe?
Yesterday, Vox released an excellent video describing Star Wars’ extensive galaxy of stories involving Star Wars’ characters and world, known as the “Expanded Universe.” The video’s primary point, that the erasure of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special and later de-legitimization of the Expanded Universe both directly shaped “what Star Wars is,” could extend to numerable other “universes” far more ancient than any Yoda.
To illustrate, let’s begin with another Star Wars example: those prequels.
Personally, as one of the children at whom Lucas targeted the movie, I quite enjoyed The Phantom Menace when I first saw it on VHS. But even I could spot all the plot holes and inconsistencies created by the second and third installments. How could Leia remember her mother being “very beautiful but sad” if Bail Organa had adopted her as an infant after Padmés death? Did I miss the part where Anakin was a “good friend” to Obi-Wan? Like, ever?
A couple years ago, right as The Force Awakens came out and I scoured the internet for quality Star Wars articles, I stumbled upon Belated Media’s “What if?” videos.
Essentially, host Michael Barryte supposes he is an executive at Fox. If George Lucas approached him with his three screenplays’ first drafts, what edits would he suggest? New Media Rockstars quotes Barryte as saying, “Whenever I try to tackle these ‘what if’s I like to look at my start point and my endpoint and then make sure that I’m at least starting and ending at roughly the same spots.'” He didn’t want to completely start from scratch, he simply wished to tweak a few things in order to make the films a better experience for their audience.
Not wholly unlike a reboot of a classic work. Netflix’s Anne with an E approached L.M. Montgomery’s story with a layer of grit that changed the tone of the original story, but did resonate with many. Today’s consumers media often prefer “what would really have happened.”
Or take Arthurian legend. Chances are, most people could identify one or two of the main stories, but wouldn’t know their Galahads from Percivals. In the Middle Ages, those living in Britain may well have named Sir Gawain (of Green Knight fame) as their favorite, but today it seems many latch onto the fame and tragedy of Sir Lancelot, leaving Sir Gawain’s deeds to side-plot status.
Even among versions of Lancelot there are discrepancies, particularly as pertains to his affair with Guinevere. In Thomas Malory’s original Le Morte D’Arthur, there’s no question of the Queen’s infidelity. As J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation The Fall of Arthur puts it, quite clearly: “Strong oaths they broke.” The musical Camelot implies as much, and the 1981 film Excalibur does far more than imply.
BBC’s Merlin sidesteps this misdeed entirely by having the affair take place between an undead Lancelot and enchanted Gwen (both courtesy of Morgana), so the unpleasantness is limited for the show’s younger audience. Essentially, the showrunners “fixed” a problem their audience may have found unsavory.
So, can fans “fix” a bad story with fan fiction and headcanons?
If enough people say they like, say, Michael Barryte’s versions of the Star Wars Prequels better than George Lucas’s, does that make it the “real” story? Or at least the “official” version?
It probably depends on how many times they are retold. And who is telling them. Because Barryte’s stories aren’t feature-length films, use no actors, and exist as a “what-if?” rather than a story in their own right, they cannot exist on the same level as a full Star Wars film.
In a hundred years from now, however, an entertainment creator may stumble upon Barryte’s work and turn it into a heavily-consumed piece of literature or art, reigniting the Phantom Menace legend of ye olde 1999. People will write peer-reviewed articles on why Jar-Jar Binks existed only in the most ancient Star Wars texts, and whether or not its a shame newer versions erased him. The Atlas Obscuras of the world will joke about the bewildering original context surrounding Owen’s adoption of Luke Skywalker. Darth Maul’s name will be feared enough to appear in lists like: Voldemort, the Joker, and Darth Maul.
So what about Star Wars’ Expanded Universe?
Technically these texts no longer belong in the Star Wars canon, but as Vox pointed out, we have already seen references to the Expanded Universe’s best ideas in Disney’s new Star Wars installments. Despite the variation in quality and differing priority levels indicated in Lucasfilm’s canon database The Holocron, people still read and know these stories.
But are you talking about adaptations or just unofficial what-ifs and fan rewrites?
I don’t know. I think we’re in a bit of a grey area here, because aren’t all adaptations just what-ifs that found the right person anyway? Aren’t many adaptations more rewrite than retelling?
Who’s to say Barryte’s versions of Episodes I, II, and III aren’t simply adaptations of an existing work? The people who own the creative rights, certainly, but as long as the idea is out there, don’t hypothetical adaptations also exist, albeit on a different plane? As long as the internet remains an equal-access meeting ground, hypothetical adaptations, such as they are, could well become reality. I know that I’ve watched the Belated Media prequels enough to remember them better than the official story, so at least in my head, I’ve decided that’s how the Star Wars prequels go. If I keep insisting to people the first two movies largely took place on the doomed Alderaan, maybe eventually they’ll start picturing it in their own minds. And when they summarize the Star Wars prequels to their grandchildren, they may decide, “You know, telling it this way feels more right,” just as they’ll also tell the kiddos about exactly how big that fish was.
So yes, licencing rights may prevent flashy fan-made versions of officially recognized adaptations for the time being.
But starting next century…
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 37. Print.
Videos by Vox and Belated Media. Source: YouTube.com
Interview with Belated Media’s Michael Barryte: http://newmediarockstars.com/2015/12/what-if-episode-iii-were-good-first-look-and-interview/
Featured Image via starwars.com.
Merlin Photo: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00q6qxm/p00q6qjw