Derivative Works And How to Stop Cringing at Them

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Image Source: Pixabay, Mysticsartdesign.

A derivative work is ANY subsequent work that was based upon an original. That means film or TV adaptations of books are derivative works. It means fan fictions are derivative works. And it means sequels and prequels where multiple authors are hired to contribute to a long-running series are derivative works. That last one might not be as widely recognized as such, but the fact that Agatha Christie is continuing to write Agatha Christie mysteries long after her death means a lot of professional fans are given legal copyright allowances under contract to continue her legacy with additional works based on the originals. Ditto for the Nancy Drew series, Star Trek series, Marvel comics, and so on. The only squeeze room for debate on this matter is if we’re talking about the original author reusing her own world and characters to create spin-offs. In such a case, the derivative work will not be reinterpreted through someone else’s vision. The original creator is in control. But the original work is still being referenced to create anything new borrowed from it.

So, why it is important for book, film, and TV lovers to recognize and appreciate derivative works AS derivative works?

When I was an English major in college, I took a Film Literature class. I also had to take Drama 101. These courses were often considered somehow less academic than the more traditional classes on Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, Linguistics, etc. (Probably because they are visual format, rather than linguistic: which I wrote about in a previous article on book snobbery.) But all forms of literature, including screenplays and stage plays require writers. Screenplays and plays can be just as deep as books, emotionally and creatively, depending on the circumstances under which they are adapted. And both books and film have limitations and advantages according to their nature.

Our syllabus for Film Lit was comprised of reading a novel, watching the movie based on the novel, then writing a comparison essay. We watched a few extra movies that were stand-alone or turned into books based on the films (which is less common, but occasionally happens). I learned that derivative works should be reviewed differently from original works, especially if they are different media formats, because there are very important differences between the two.

1) Understand the very fact that the derivative work is NOT the original makes it DIFFERENT BY DEFAULT.
People who expect movies to be like their original books are often automatically disappointed and highly critical — sometimes before they even see the final product. But to compare the product of a single author’s viewpoint and character creation to an attempt to recreate that same product by coordinating the various visions and talents of a director, producer, any number of actors, and stage and costume designers is an unbalanced comparison. Interpretations can get close to the original, but they will never be exactly what you expect because you, the director, the actor, and the author are all different people with different imaginations and different interpretations. If you ask 30 people to draw a bird, you will get 30 different-looking bird drawings because each person’s vision and talents are unique. Most will probably look nothing like a real bird. And an oil painting of that bird would look very different from a digital print. No amount of comparisons will turn that digital print into an oil painting or a real bird. To expect a film to be EXACTLY like you imagined the book is unrealistic.

2) Books will never in a million years BE films.
This underscores the first point, but more directly why. Films should be judged by film standards, not book standards. Books are linguistic; they use language to spark the reader’s imagination. If you’re a good reader, you probably enjoy books. If you’re not a good reader, does that mean you can’t enjoy good literature? Of course not. Some people are visual learners more than they are linguistic learners. (By visual I means “spatial”, not “able to see printed words on a page”.) Film and stage productions are collaborative visual and auditory efforts that spark the physical senses. Books and films are very different experiences, and that is as it should be. In books, if you skim descriptions, you might miss some of the atmosphere. But in film everything from lighting to camera angle to sound effects must be taken into consideration to be sure the atmosphere is credible. Books may or may not give detailed or vague descriptions of character faces, voices, and body language, according to whether it’s important to the scenes. But in film, actors have to convey all those things all the time to bring a character to life. And then there are props and costumes. In a book, we don’t usually care about the footwear of a Medieval knight on a battlefield. But in film, if a Medieval knight is wearing sneakers, someone somewhere will notice, and films automatically get marked down for little things like that, never mind the big offenses.

3) Attention spans and time are everything.
Another difference between books and their visual derivative works is how much time the author or producer has to tell the story and how much attention the reader or viewer is willing to give. The most obvious difference is that most people can’t read an entire book in one sitting, yet films can’t last longer than 2 hours average or people get restless and need bathroom breaks. TV shows, even shorter — 30 minutes to an hour. Why is this? The eye has an attention span of about 3-5 seconds. When you are reading, your eye continuously moves across the page, so it has less of a chance to get bored … unless the story you’re reading is more stale than week-old bread. But with film, that camera has 3 seconds to show you what’s important before your eyes start looking for something else to look at. If you watch old films or TV shows, you’ll notice the camera angles are more straightforward and change less often than they do today. Because today we know the change has to be continual, like scanning words on a page, or the eye gets bored. Loss of visual interest kills attention spans for story-telling. (I suppose the same could be said of audio books if the narrator reads in a monotone or if the eyes have nothing to look at while listening.) Books allow readers to mark a page and put it down when they need breaks. Since authors know this, books can be quite lengthy and epic in nature. With film and TV, however, you must keep the viewer’s attention for the entire story being told at that time. Pause buttons aside (which are not available for stage productions), that means you have to be able to clip the story into shorter, more quickly digested scenes. You can still stretch it over the length of a series for a TV season and get a lot of detail. But films have to cut everything that isn’t essential. They often have the daunting task of making an entire year pass in only 2 hours … or making two people who just met fall in love as if they’d been together forever. Books don’t have those kinds of restraints, which is probably why most people prefer books. They seem to go deeper, and often they do. But depth is not the same thing as length, and that is what must be remembered with reviewing film and TV and stage.

4) There is nothing new under the sun … unless we paint it purple.
All plots ever written have been written before. All plots ever written boil down to only three plots: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. But that’s boring, right? So, we mix it up a little. What if we say man against woman, dog against cat, drug addict against his addiction? What if the dog is lost, and the cat is trying to confuse him so he can’t find his way home? Is that different from the dog plotting against the cat to take over the house? Yes. Suddenly we have something that feels brand new by changing the details. So, if we enjoy Romeo and Juliet, why not jazz it up a little to make West Side Story? Tragic stories of star-crossed lovers in forbidden romances have been told for many centuries in many cultures, and nothing is going to stop people from writing that same old plot. But they will keep changing the details to make it feel fresh and different. So, if “Beauty and the Beast” starts as a centuries-old folk tale, but is then adapted and adapted and adapted (to death), we will keep looking for new and different ways to enjoy this story. Because it is timeless. We don’t have to like every version produced. (Honestly, the thought of a US version of a female Watson to pair with Sherlock Holmes drove me away from watching that series the minute I heard about it. How *could* they?! John Watson is a British man, why would they change that?Why do an American version of the BBC series Being Human, while we’re at it? It’s not like there’s a language barrier; leave it alone!) But it’s a little late to complain about why someone would redo something rather than creating something new, or why they would redo it the same way, or why they would redo it differently. Each similarity brings the comfort of familiarity. Each difference gives us an alternate universe to explore. This is not a recent phenomenon. This is not something that makes a purple sun any less interesting on another world. … Or our own. I mean, WHAT IF the sun suddenly turned purple? Is that really so bad? As ludicrous as it sounds, it’s man against nature (or man, or himself), trying to figure out why he sees a different sun. (Btw, I watched both the American and the BBC versions of Being Human and liked them both, but for different reasons because they intentionally gave it a different plot and character twist based on the original BBC concept.  Maybe I should give American, female Watson another shot? *shrug*)

I recently heard the Witcher novels and games were going to be adapted to a TV series on Netflix. On the one hand, I was so stoked! :3 I love the Witcher series! On the other hand, there’s this little voice in my head saying, “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck.” … Fans of anything in the literary or gaming world can probably relate, if not for Witcher then something else. So, I offer this bit of advice for fans everywhere who cringe when they hear that their favourite books are being turned into movies or TV series. You are right. The derivative work will never BE the original. Nor are they trying to replace the originals. But if you can be flexible and learn to enjoy derivative works for what they are (something based on the original that in no way can possibly be the original), you will find derivative works a lot more enjoyable because you’ve shifted your expectations to a more realistic standard of judgment. 🙂