Several weeks ago, Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller revealed that he’d like to reboot the classic 1960s TV show The Avengers, preferably with Eddie Izzard as John Steed. This naturally provoked me to descend into a rage spiral from which it took me some time to recover. I shan’t go into the multitude of reasons why a reboot of The Avengers is a terrible idea, but it did provoke me to consider the bigger picture. Fuller claims he is a great fan of the show, and that’s why he’d like to reboot it. We have lately seen a rash of films and TV shows adapted or, occasionally, remade by fans of the original books or series. On the surface, this seems like a good thing – after all, who better to adapt something than people who love that something to death? But lately I’ve begun to wonder whether it’s the best recourse for fans to impose their vision on adaptations? In other words, might it be better to find a director with greater critical distance?
I think I can better describe what I mean by an example, so let’s take Peter Jackson and his adaptations of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. No one can question Jackson’s Tolkien fan credentials, and those very credentials meant that he pushed for a far more faithful adaptation of the novels than the studio even wanted. The result was three extended films, each of them problematic in some ways, but undoubtedly faithful to Tolkien’s work. There’s no doubt that the series as a whole is one of the more spectacular examples of fantasy filmmaking. Jackson contributed not just to the development of CGI in his formation of the orc multitudes, but created a whole new way of approaching adaptation. If he weren’t such a rabid fan, a mere director hired to do a job, would we have the same result with the same loyalty to Tolkien’s vision?
The other side of the coin, however, draws some of the fannish issues into sharp relief. Jackson had a very particular vision for his Lord of the Rings. Arguments have been made about the racism of the films – as Wyatt Cenac once put it, this is world with dragons and elves but no brown Hobbits – and Jackson purposefully eliminated large sections of the original novels because they did not fit in with his fan vision (including the Scouring of the Shire, arguably one of the most important sequences in Tolkien’s work). Characters are eliminated, or changed in massive ways (Faramir, anyone?), while other sequences are drawn out to the point of boredom (those numerous endings) with slavish dedication to the source material. By the time we get to The Hobbit’s multiple installments, we have moved away from Tolkien and towards a sort of Tolkien-fanfiction, courtesy of Peter Jackson.
Other creators, like Bryan Fuller, have fully admitted to developing fanfiction versions of their favorite series. Hannibal is a fanfiction version of the Thomas Harris books, while we wonder what J.J. Abrams will do with Star Wars (his Star Trek films are pretty much fanfiction themselves). The problem with giving a fan control of a product is that they will naturally try to make it conform to their interpretation – and anyone who has spent any time on fan forums knows that fans, with few exceptions, are as fanatical in their interpretations as any religious fundamentalist. By giving a fan – any fan – control of the very product they’re of means that they suddenly get to rewrite canon. It becomes a form of fanfiction that imposes itself on canonical interpretation, disallowing for other interpretations simply by virtue of being produced. Like it or hate it, adaptations almost by necessity take on canonical significance. Suddenly one fan’s interpretation has taken precedence over every other fan’s.
There’s no easy or clear answer to any of this, and honestly I’m not sure whether there’s any cure for what I see as a problem in fandom. Fandom claims – and tries hard to claim – canonical interpretations of set texts. But visual media is more fluid than literature; it bends and curves in ways that literature never has. Bryan Fuller has provided a new canon for Thomas Harris’s novels, just as Peter Jackson has attempted to impose his vision of Middle Earth onto Tolkien’s. There’s no doubt that we’re better off for seeing Jackson’s vision than we would have been seeing a director who had been hired to do the job, with no passion and, probably, no prejudice. But we are still seeing a piece of fanfiction writ large, an interpretation posing as canon. And as much as we might love what Jackson did, we have to remember that it’s not Tolkien, and it’s no more “correct” than any other interpretation any other fan might propose. It’s not canon; it’s fanfiction.
Oh, and Bryan Fuller? Stay away from The Avengers.