Stranger Than Fan Fiction

The lunatics have taken over the asylum

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There was a time fanfic was a much derided form of writing. It was separated from professional writing by an abundance of mary-sue characters, pretzel-shaped soap-opera plots and continuity so shoddy that sharks were jumped on cyborg dragons even before the shark made an appearance. Some would argue that we’re still living in that time. I’d agree except it seems like over the last ten years, Hollywood has been completely taken over by fanfic writers and almost every recent genre flick is an elaborate fan film. Except by virtue of household names in the cast and high production values, it’s difficult to distinguish a mainstream cinema release from a fan-made homage based on quality alone.

Most obvious examples have been the recent cast-of-thousands super hero epics brought out by Marvel. Where the solo adventure films they’ve made have been by-and-large pretty good films (the first Captain America, the first and maybe second Iron Man, Ant-Man, Deadpool, etc), the ensemble films play like stories told by children while playing with their Avengers action figures.

Ultron knocks out Thor but Iron Man saves him so Loki grabs the Tesseract to mind control Black Widow but the Hulk throws him into the volcano. BOOOOOOOM. But then…

I’m willing to concede any film that tries to incorporate so many disparate, overblown characters (aliens, gods, mutants, billionaire scientists, and guys who are just good at shooting arrows) into 120 minutes is going to have a hard time not feeling a bit like a bonkers fanfic—especially since the stakes are raised with each sequel. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to the super hero battle royale.

Ghosts of our childhoods

Though I enjoyed Ghostbusters (2016) as much as I have any reboot, it started me thinking about what are the real problems with reboots and sequels. Why do even the best of them fall flat of the original (assuming the source material isn’t a 1930s serial or other sufficiently out-dated property)? It seems the most lifeless are often the ones which generate the least criticism, the ones that pay the most fan service and take the fewest risks.

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Despite angry shouts of the new female-led Ghostbusters destroying fragile (male) childhood memories, it is essentially a carbon-copy remake. The tone, costumes, sets, props and jokes are more or less identical. If the cast had been male, with the original character names, it’d have almost been a too-faithful recreation to be at all interesting. And it would’ve been, in essence, a fan film; a mary-sue where some fan-boy wrote himself and his friends into the seminal Murray and Aykroyd roles.

And this is, I think, is what feels soulless about even the best reboots. There’s no act of creation. The best bits of Ghostbusters (2016) are when the new characters get to interact with each other and explore their world. It’s actually a shame all the ghost busting gets in their way to ruin a decent buddy comedy.

Not a soaring achievement on all fronts by any means, when Battlestar Galactica was rebooted in 2004, it was sufficiently re-engineered to be it’s own creation. The risks they took with a  new vision for the Cylons paid off and the show has a unique identity on its own terms. Angry fanboys even quickly forgave their childhoods being “ruined” by a female Starbuck. I suspect that Ghostbusters (2016) will—unfairly in my opinion—be an almost forgotten cultural footnote in five years, while the uneven and flawed BSG will be a permanent entry in the annals of science fiction.

I have a blah feeling about this

The other day I watched about 15 minutes of Star Wars The Force Awakens on Netflix to see if I was correct in the assumption I made while leaving the cinema. I wondered then if, as much fun as I’d just had, that it’d seem hollow on the laptop screen. And, yes, there were still some great moments (mainly involving Poe Dameron), but the film felt limp and superficial. It felt like a fanfic. Or, more aptly, it felt like an amazingly well-made, high-budget Star Wars fan-film—but a fan-film nonetheless. It’s just all so very Star Wars to the point of being aggressively uncreative in its adherence to the Star Wars form. A catch-22 since this makes it actually enjoyable, unlike the Prequels (more on them later). But the characters didn’t feel quite solid, somehow I was aware I was watching actors playing-at Star Wars. On some level you’re always aware this is the case in any movie, but usually you’re able to forget in the moment. As with the Avengers films, I found that Rey and Kylo and Finn feel somewhat like action figures being puppeted by children making up their own Star Wars adventures.

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Though fans have been vocal about how J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films do not adhere to the Star Trek form, its really Abrams and his teams’ child-like storytelling that is their weakness. I’m actually inclined to give him credit for trying to be somewhat creative with the Trek franchise. The Next Generation was light years away from The Orginal Series in many respects but found a vast audience of old and new fans. By contrast, many fans felt violated by Star Trek (2009) and the film found a primarily non-Trekkie audience. Box-office returns prove the films are a success by that metric (the only one that counts for Hollywood bean counters), but even people who enjoy the films would most likely admit they’re trash with no lasting cultural significance. They might even be confused why you’d suggest they should have cultural significance.

The fundamental problem isn’t a misunderstanding of what is, or isn’t, Trek, but that the scripts feel like they came right out of the spiral-bound notebook of a twelve-year-old boy who views things like plot, character and continuity as mere encumbrances to more explosions and bigger laser battles.

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Is this because  J.J. Abrams,Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof are all simply terrible writers? I rather suspect they’re reasonably all proficient at basic storytelling and characterization to get where they are. Though it has to be admitted Abrams’ Lost is an indefensible narrative mess. Latter seasons of Lost actually play-out exactly like someone writing fanfic based on the first two seasons. But I digress.

With Star Trek, something else besides poor writing has to be going on. One of the appeals of fanfic for the reader is they already have a deeply developed relationship with the characters. A fanfic writer doesn’t have to waste time telling you who Snape is, they just get right into the story because Rowling has done the work already. Star Trek (2009) was approached much the same way. Kirk’s and Spock’s personalities are already established, so the Abrams’ team didn’t bother to write their characters. Aside from a few childhood flashbacks—which somehow manage to provide zero illumination—there’s nothing in the script that defines any of the characters. You feel the actors strain to bring their characters to life with completely interchangeable dialogue. Chris Pine delivers his lines like Kirk, Zach Quinto delivers his like Spock, but the lines aren’t Kirk or Spock or Scotty or Bones lines. They didn’t have to actually write the characters so they didn’t, they wrote an action fanfic for previously established characters.

Again, they’re animated action figures and this seems to have become the norm for reboots and sequels.

Once more, without feeling

Though its raison d’être is admittedly to be an ode to several classic films, the much beloved (nominally) original story Stranger Things is essentially an E.T. fan-film. Search-and-replace “Mike” with “Eliot” and the script pretty much becomes a fanfic of Eliot’s next adventure a year or two after E.T. went home.

And while on one level there’s nothing wrong with this (Stranger Things really is an enjoyable watch), the lack of true creativity involved in creating Stranger Things, The Force Awakens, Star Trek or Ghostbusters places them in a spiritual dead spot.

When I was in art school, the debate over what is “Art” and what is “Craft” was a perennial pass-time. And during these debates the old chestnut “If you can piss on it, it’s Art, if you can piss in it, it’s Craft” is either the first or final volley. The idea that Art is purely decorative (a sculpture) and Crafts (a mug) are functional. I never agreed with that epithet. In my view, whether you can piss on or in it, if it’s something genuinely new (or a sufficiently new take on an existing idea) then—intentional or not—it will communicate something intangible to the viewer that they’ll feel in their soul. This is when even a ceramic mug becomes Art. If you’re merely rehashing what’s come before, no mater how artfully it’s rendered, it’s Craft.

When E.T. came out there’d never been a movie like that before. It redefined the children’s adventure movie and created an entirely new take on the “little green men” story. The striking newness of the film is what resonated with audiences more so than, or in spite of, the manipulative sentimentality of its Old Yeller love story. Though a popular movie, designed for mass appeal, E.T. is a work of Art. As is Star Wars (1977) or Ghostbusters (1984). All films that worked within a genre, but turned it on its head.

By contrast, Stranger Things is to film what an exquisite raku vase (one that looks just like a thousand before it) at a craft fair is. It’s very well made—completely beyond most people’s abilities—but is also a mere reproduction. It’s paste, not a gem.

I mentioned Old Yeller in relation to E.T. Though I don’t recall ever seeing it stated, I’m sure the classic boy and his dog movie was an influence on Spielberg’s boy and his alien story. Yet, never once while watching E.T., have I ever thought “Ohhh… he’s referencing Old Yeller. I see what you did there, Steve.”

The same could be said about all of Lucas’ inspirations when he made the original Star Wars. In Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress two men and a woman escape a heavily fortified enclave but the comparison really stops there. There’s a super-cut of all the shots Lucas stole from it but to watch The Hidden Fortress, not once would you think “Huh. This is totally a samurai Star Wars.”

Even when watching it for this express purpose, I find it hard to see Star Wars in The Hidden Fortress. The tone, pacing, fundamental story line, and characterization are so completely different (not too surprising since it was made in a different culture during a different era) anything Lucas borrowed really is by way of inspiration and not direct plagiarism.

I don’t mean the above as an accusation of direct plagiarism against the Duffer Brothers, or a defense of George Lucas, but there is a difference in the influence and knowledge of film history that informed Lucas and Speilberg’s 1970’s and 80’s work and the elaborate mash notes to fandoms which are made now.

Tron: Legacy, Terminator: Genysis, and Jurassic World are pale imitations for their franchise’s former glories, but they can’t be accused of being made without a certain amount of devotion by their makers. In a way, they are the film equivalent of dating someone who is exactly like your ex, who has all your ex’s superficial qualities, but amplified to unrealistic proportions while they lack the essence of the real person you originally fell for.

To extend the metaphor, a film like the stylishly bleak and gritty Terminator: Salvation is more like an actual ex. One who you hooked up with after several years and in the morning you realized they’ve changed. Or maybe you have. But while they’re a legitimate version of themselves, you can’t stand who they’d become—brooding and cynical with pretensions of sophistication that utterly fail to hide their endearingly corny b-movie heart. It’s a pathetic train-wreck, painful to witness, but at least they’re trying.

Harder, better, faster, stronger

I’ve been targeting recent reboots and sequels, but this isn’t a new phenomenon. If you think about it, Rambo: First Blood, Part II only makes sense as an extremely poorly written First Blood fanfic written by someone who liked the guns and commando maneuvers, but didn’t remotely understand the film. As the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard films progressed, the characters of Martin Riggs and John McClane became larger than life parodies of themselves as were the story lines they were placed in. Though still enjoyable, very little of what’s in the third films of both series would’ve made the cut in the script for the first films—simply too overblown and ridiculous.

In rare instances bigger actually has been, if not better, then equally as good. Aliens is Alien on Rambo’s steroids but, somehow, successfully so. The bonkers theatricality of The Road Warrior is Mad Max raised to it’s full potential. Though I (vehemently) disagree, common wisdom holds that Terminator 2: Judgement Day made a legitimate blockbuster out of a lowly b-movie. But these are exceptions to the rule and subsequent films would buck the trend and fall short.

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More consistent with the trend, the goofy Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was more of a Raiders of the Lost Ark satire than a legitimate prequel. The humanity and realism (well, okay, as much “realism” as is possible in a supernatural thriller) were drastically dialed down while preposterous action sequences were ramped up to absurd levels. Even as a child I saw it almost as a parody. It did, however, teach me at a young age not to expect much from sequels.

And a lesson well-learned too since Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might have broken me. I’m still partially convinced that disaster was based on a fanfic one of Lucas’ kids found online, showed to him as a joke, and Dad said, “Hell… I’m tapped out of ideas. Let’s just use this. It’s pretty good! Indy hides from an atom bomb in a fridge. I’d never have thought of that!”

There’s a great movie in here somewhere

This pet theory about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is belied, of course, by the presence of the Star Wars prequels—which actually did break me in 1999. Or fixed me. My childhood and prolonged adolescence finally ended about fifteen minutes into Episode 1. It was the moment my gods died and I entered the adult world, finally able to put away childish things and face the harsh reality of a new century. A cruel lesson, but thank you Uncle George.

In a way, I don’t think any of the movies I’ve mentioned thus far feel as much like fan films as the Star Wars prequels do. They’re like the scribblings of an amateur writer who refuses to take the advice of their fellow fanfic forum members about what could improve their story.

“Maybe you could just skip past the boring Trade Federation stuff, summarize it in the opening crawl or something, and get to the—”

“You obviously don’t understand my vision of Star Wars. It stays.”

“George, have you even seen a Star Wars movie?”

“Um. Duh. And then what’s really going to be cool is E.T.’s are going to be members of the Galactic Senate.”

“You mean E.T.’s… like the movie E.T.? What? No—”

“Yes. Also, Darth Vader spent his childhood as an enslaved hot-rod racer born of immaculate conception.”

” … “

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There’s basically two types of fanfiction: The type where the writer understands the fandom so well, they create new stories faithful enough to almost be considered canon. And then there’s the sort that uses the world and characters to tell a story completely inappropriate for the fandom.

I don’t mean “inappropriate” in a hyper-sexual slash-fiction way, but in the way a writer might set X-Files stories in the Potterverse. Not a cross-over with Mulder and Scully traipsing around Hogwarts, but Ron and Hermione might be investigating strange phenomenon in a manner more suited to the X-Files. Maybe there’s a UFO or sinister wizard who stands half-lit in shadows chain-smoking cigarettes. Or you might have Admiral Adama exploring the galaxy in the manner of Captain Picard and for some reason Gaeta acts suspiciously like Data.

This is how I see the Star Wars prequels, as a particularly uneven fanfic written by someone who wanted Darth Vader’s origin story (perhaps the only person who did), but was really more of an A Song of Ice and Fire fan. They wanted the epic fantasy soap opera told in seven thick books, but had to do it in three films. And they did so about as successfully as if Game of Thrones had been a trilogy of movies instead of several seasons of TV.

In George R.R. Martin terms, the whole Original Trilogy would rate one volume. Not much happens in it in terms of plot, certainly nothing in the way of complex Shakespearean political maneuvers and tragic character downfall. The Prequels were written by someone who didn’t understand the essence of Star Wars.

They also didn’t understand how epics like A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings are structured either. A Game of Thrones doesn’t begin with Ned Stark’s childhood and angsty teen years; Harry Potter doesn’t spend a whole volume exclusively on Tom Riddle’s youth; We don’t follow Aragorn’s journey from creche to throne. The inability to zero-in on the relevant segment of a story’s timeline is the failing of an amateur writer and something you see in a sprawling 500,000 word fanfic.

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In contrast, The Force Awakens was written by fans who understood Star Wars so well they were able to produce a carbon copy. They understood Rey’s childhood is much more interesting as the mere glimpse of a hazy flashback and that Kylo Ren doesn’t need his own origin trilogy. They understood how storytelling in the Star Wars universe works. All the same, and perhaps there’s no way to get around this, the characters they produced almost feel like they were assembled by sticking their hands into a bucket of Star Wars Mini-fig pieces and seeing what they came up with randomly.

Look, it’s Leia’s head on Obi-Wan’s body. Let’s call her Rey. Here’s a Storm Trooper with Lando’s head… how does Finn sound? Hey, some of these parts aren’t Star Wars, but when you put a Ninjago head on a Vader body and give him a LEGO Knights broadsword, he looks extra bad-ass…

It’s all perfectly Star Wars. But somehow too perfectly and there’s something lifeless about that. George Lucas criticized the film for exactly that reason and it was one of the only times since 1980 that I’ve actually agreed with him. He claimed he’d at least tried to do something new and creative with Star Wars each time out and I have to give him that. Even the bonkers Anakin/Padme shipping (only a fanfic writer would ever pair the child and young adult characters from one story in the next and treat it as being natural and not super creepy and gross), extremely poorly written as it is, feels fresh compared to the building-block relationships in The Force Awakens. Finn and Rey’s friendship doesn’t make me want to stick nails in my eyes and ears, but there’s also something weightless about it. It hits too many of the right beats. It feels like a drum machine and not the exciting organic mess that was Keith Moon. And that’s fine too. Most of the time I’d prefer to listen to the static rhythms of house music than anything by The Who. I’d rather watch The Force Awakens than Revenge of the Sith.

Attack of the Clones

The Prequels bring to my mind something I touched on earlier.  Cloning.

On a friend’s Facebook post about Stranger Things (he rather brilliantly called it a Silent Hill prequel), I hyperbolically referred to it as plagiarism. A fellow commenter came out its defense and asked me how it could be plagiarism if the Duffer Brothers openly admit to referencing the source material that inspired the show. My response was:

I think because the writers of E.T. aren’t being paid royalties or officially credited for the scene where Mike shows Eleven his action figures which is exactly like the scene where Eliot shows E.T. his action figures. It’s beyond referencing E.T. at that point, its actually copying it.

It’s only a few seconds in the show but it’s sort of like someone using the chorus from ‘I Wanna hold Your Hand’ in a song and saying “I was obviously referencing the Beatles, who I love,” but then not crediting them. That wouldn’t fly. They’d get sued.

But I also think most of the time the show (maybe even that scene) is closer to how Pharrell and Robin Thicke were influenced by that Marvin Gaye song on ‘Blurred Lines’. And I really didn’t think they should’ve lost that case.

Really, it doesn’t even bother me. Stranger Things without the carbon-copy references wouldn’t be Stranger Things. It’d be like Paul’s Boutique without the samples. If it’s plagiarism, I don’t have a problem with it other than I think we should call it plagiarism.

This kind of “sampling” of older movies has been going on since there was enough film history for there to be iconic shots to recreate for effect. In the extreme, parody flicks like Spaceballsand the more recent Scary Moviecopy elements and scenes to build jokes around. Stranger Things does it to tap into the opiate of nostalgia. Because Spaceballs is comedy, no one bats an eye…

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Memes like the one I made above are an example of a shift in the way we see the appropriation of stories and images. Daily, thousands of memes based on Hollywood characters are created and shared without the consent of their creators or subjects. As a culture we now have the technology to “sample” every form of media for our own purposes and entertainment. Keane Reeves’ face is an accepted expression of amazement, we use GIFs of TV shows to express political opinions, singers build songs around the beats of other musicians’ hits, politician’s wives reassemble speeches from the First Lady’s soundbites.

In a sense, we’re all fanfic writers now, shaping our realities from our favourite bits of pop culture. In our Facebook timelines we create cross-over fictions where Pokémon battle Marvel villains and long-dead spiritual leaders have movie quotes attributed to them. Demonstrably fraudulent statements are taken as fact if it makes the world feel more comfortable to us. On some level, it’s the same as a fanfic writer placing their favourite characters—or themselves—in a story they’d like to read. Our favourite stories have all ended and we’ve begun creating a reality for ourselves that isn’t quite canon, but is more comforting than the stories we’re living.

The lines are becoming blurred and as the traditional cycle of Art imitating Life imitating Art continues to accelerate, it becomes more of an indistinguishable haze with each rotation.

 

 

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One Response to Stranger Than Fan Fiction

  1. […] I remembered what I mean to talk about on the podcast. It ties in to the premise of my previous blog post, which was how Hollywood movies, especially franchise films, have taken on the characteristics of […]

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