Convergence Culture and Fan Fiction

So I’ve been reading Henry Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture, which talks a great deal about new forms of interaction with media. One chapter, Why Heather Can Write: Media Literacy and the Harry Potter Wars caused me a bit of trouble. This chapter practically evangelizes fan fiction as a legitimate form of writing, with the strong implication that it can and will lead to commercial writing contracts.

I somewhat understand where Jenkins is going with this. It’s exploring areas of a franchise which are otherwise left alone by the original author. Fan fiction allows the audience to participate, to deepen their connection to the works in question.

Let’s talk early web media. Back in 1997, a 10 minute short film called Troops effectively accomplished what Jenkins is discussing in this chapter. The  film has Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars out on a domestic disturbance call at the Lars farm seen in A New Hope.

Vader and Stormtroopers at Ad Astra

To my knowledge, Troops really started the whole short films launched on the internet. While fan movies had been made in the past, they were not shared as extensively, and did not have the same capacity for collective enjoyment.

Troops was embraced by the fan community, and was even recognized by Lucasfilm with the Pioneer Award at the 2002 Star Wars Fan Film Awards. Since directing the film, Kevin Rubio has been working as a freelance writer, and has even written an episode of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated TV series.

Is film more receptive to fan participation? Perhaps George Lucas is more receptive to this type of collective intelligence? Lucas did have the foresight to maintain the merchandising rights to Star Wars, so this may be part of his goals for a larger media empire.

There is an ever-growing Star Wars fans who own their own Stormtrooper costumes, such as the above photo which I took at the 2009 Ad-Astra science fiction convention. The 501st Legion epitomizes many of the convergence tactics that Jenkins discusses, and makes numerous appearances at fan conventions, as well as charitable events. From what I can gather, they have a relatively good relationship with Lucasfilm’s Fan Relations department.

The 501st testimonal page includes a quote from Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm Content Manager and Head of Fan Relations saying that “e consider the members of the 501st part of the extended Lucasfilm family. They have fun and share a sense of community, while at the same time bringing joy to a lot of people.”

How does this fit in with novel and short story writing? Copyright law is in general fairly unambiguous, in that fan fiction firmly crosses that invisible line that marks out a publisher’s rights. While some franchises, such as the Harry Potter universe have a thriving fan community, under the implicit approval of Rowling, most publishers and the authors they represent actively discourage fan fiction. The above link notes that Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey and Raymond Feist have in the past asked fanfiction.net to remove derivative works.

How then should fan fiction be judged? Is it a valid attempt at engaging with an author’s world, or is it something which has the potential to damage audience perception of a work?

Adapting Screenplays: Blade Runner

As part of English 408A, Media Writing at the University of Waterloo, I have been doing some extra reading regarding screenwriting. While movies are clearly a visual art, where they excel is clearly in the narrative performance. Due to the compressed length, a screenplay is far shorter, and thus the narrative must be compressed. This is one of the reason why many movie adaptations are so very different from the original novel. Complex subplots which stray from the main plot are cut loose, perhaps replaced with shorter subplots which provide a quicker payback.

I’ve occasionally wondered exactly why it is that the short stories of Philip K. Dick are so frequently adapted by Hollywood. Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford is a prime example, and is also a film classic. There are a number of themes from the novel which were dropped from the film. The most obvious of which is Mercerism, and the empathy boxes. The shared artificial reality, designed to allow users to share pain in a spiritual manner, can be read as a critique of our modern media culture. There’s also an interesting parallel to the video screens in Fahrenheit 451. Dick was critical of modern media, in a way that wouldn’t necessarily carry over into a commercial film.

Sadly, this and several other themes are left out of the film. In the case of Blade Runner, I think these changes were justified. Film emphasizes the visual, and while I believe that Philip K. Dick was an exceptionally visual writer, many of the themes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep just wouldn’t translate well into film. Where in a novel, the author can show the thoughts of the protagonist, where in film, this can only be achieved artificially, such as through a narrative voice over.

By trimming down these themes, Ridley Scott was able to emphasize those that remained, and to emphasize the new form of visuals. The world of Blade Runner is very different from that of the original novel. Where Dick’s world was a post-nuclear wasteland, depopulated through emigration, the world shown in the film is a dark, densely populated melting pot of American and asian cultures. This visual style later came to embody the cyberpunk aesthetics.

It’s interesting to consider some of the other adaptations of Dick’s work, especially those from short stories. Where in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? themes were removed from the screenplay, when adapting his short stories, the stories are fleshed out. Not every adaptation remains true to even the core plot of Dick’s original story. Often, the main elements which remain include the name, those of the major characters, and the key plot point of the story. Others, like the Minority Report, follow the path of Blade Runner, weaving together many of the strands of the original narrative, keeping “mostly true” to the original tale, which in some ways, becomes a minority report of its own.

Write For Your Audience

There are many ways in which communication fails. Very often, this is because the writer (or speaker) forgets to take the audience into account. This is becoming increasingly clear in English 408A, the course on Media Writing that I’m taking this term. The current chapter we’re discussing is Copywriting and Advertising.

Batty and Cain have a lot to say about this, but the most important part of writing effective copy is to “always put the reader first” (p 159). I’ve attended lectures and presentations where the speaker is often from business management, speaking to technical developers, where much of the message is lost because they’re using the specific jargon of the business environment. Those of us in the audience spend our time trying to figure out what euphemisms like business process excellence, and synergy really mean, rather than trying to follow the speaker’s line of thought.

While Batty and Cain are talking about writing copy that sells products, the same theories apply to speeches where you want to influence others. I read a great blog post by John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing, which suggests that great leadership has a strong storytelling component.

This is also one of the key points of Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen. With a great story narrative, a speaker can weave together the elements that would have been dropped into technical bullet points. They will be more memorable if related with a good story.

Formulas For Writing

I’m really enjoying my Media Writing course this term at the University of Waterloo. Every week, we have a different writing assignment, and so far, they’ve been quite varied.

Week one was an obituary. Morbid perhaps, but as the format is extremely well defined, it was a good introduction to writing for the media. We have since written newspaper feature articles, magazine feature articles, broadcast journalism, and the current assignment is writing some public relations material.

Part of the challenge in this course is applying writing skills to a particular format. Each week’s assignment tends to take a different approach. It’s a combination of changing audience, and purpose. The expectations of the different formats require a much more comprehensive approach to writing. It’s far different from creative or essay based writing which I’m familiar with. Its also really quite enjoyable. While I don’t see myself joining the dead beat (obituary writing), all of the other formats I’ve been writing in have opened new possibilities for writing, which I’ve never seriously considered before now.

While at the Ad Astra science fiction conference in past years, I’ve often attended the various sessions on writing groups, and breaking in to the fiction market. Many of the writers on these panels have advocated freelance writing of one sort or another. It’s something to keep the mind focused on writing, and keeps the skills finely honed.

Which is all well and good, if I wasn’t swimming in essays at the moment. The only non-coursework writing I’ve been able to manage the past few weeks has been my daily blog posts. I’m not quite ready to give up on them yet.