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. 🙂

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Joys and Disappointments of Re-Reading

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Image Source: OpenClipart by bf5man

Last week I did a book review for 1984 — a book which I stated having already read four times. I read an article this morning that made me think a little more deeply about why some of us re-read some books and not others. Is there any benefit in reading something more than once? Spoilers aren’t the only disappointments that can go along with multiple readings. The answers to why someone would re-read a book probably vary as much as people and the books they choose to read. But I was curious, so jotted down some of my own reasoning.

Disappointments

Let’s start with the obvious disappointment — spoilers. The reason I don’t re-read most books (or re-watch most movies) is because I already know what’s going to happen. I can NOT know what’s going to happen. So, the element of surprise, the plot twist, the freshness of getting to know new characters, the shock of losing a character, the absolute immersion of that first read is forever lost after the initial curiosity has been explored and satisfied. It’s a wonder anyone purchases any book or film based on that alone. Checking them out at a library or renting a view from Netflix will do for most one-time stories.

Another category of disappointments might be more personal. Perhaps I outgrew a book I loved as a child. Perhaps my ideology changed. Perhaps my education or life experience turned me in a different direction. It’s hard to appreciate fairy tales or romances in which the prince and princess live “happy ever after” when facing divorce because “forever love” becomes as credible a concept as unicorn poop. A doctor might read about a fictional wound and be critical of the author’s lack of real medical knowledge. Or a scientist might point out a flaw in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. Or perhaps a white author’s attempt to portray a black character is handled in a way that the reader finds offensive. These little annoyances can often be forgiven during initial reads because we’re distracted by other stuff going on, or we were too young or inexperienced to know or care. But as we grow and change, details like that can get under the skin like a pebble trapped in a shoe.

The third kind of disappointments with re-reading can be more mundane, namely time and energy. If my time and energy are limited, then I have to make choices about what I read, how much I read at a time, and consider why I’m reading it so that I can prioritize. I used to spend my high school summers lying in the backyard with a stack of sci-fi library books because the only reading I could do during the school year was school related. Summer was for MY reading list, and aside from part-time jobs, I had all the time in the world to delve into imaginative worlds. Now, I can barely squeeze in 30 minutes before bed, and even that’s not a guarantee every night. Do I really want to spend my precious 30 minutes re-reading something I’ve already read, rather than exploring something new? And if I’m tired, can I stick with it if it’s not fresh?

Joys

In spite of the reasons for not bothering to read books a second time … I do. I think perhaps the main reason for this is because I grew up loving books as if they were best friends. I’m an only child and spent most of my childhood reading, writing, drawing, and making music to keep myself entertained without having to rely on other people. Later I added language and culture studies to my alone-time interests. I went to the library once a week and came home with — literally — armloads of books, some that that were new, others that I had already read multiple times. I handled them with care, never dog-earing a page, never writing in them, never letting them get wet, always returning them on time … so that they would be there when I wanted them again. I was a member of several book clubs in and out of school, and I looked forward each month to receiving my little cardboard box in the mail or ordering through the Scholastic catalog. Books were treats, fond memories, comforts always there for me, even when people were not. I kept some of those book club favourites, and looking through them now is like looking through a family photo album. I can remember how old I was, where I lived, and what my interests were during my first read. Growing up, it becomes harder to make time for old friends, but familiarity and comfort are probably my number one reasons for keeping old books and reading them more than once.

My second most prominent reason for re-reading is depth. This is what applies to re-reads like 1984. My first read was in high school, and it was assigned, and it was taught with a particular political and religious bias because of the school I attended. I appreciated this book because it was a good dystopian story, but admittedly, most of the details were memorized for a test or writing a book report. When I had to read it a second time under college direction, my personal circumstances had changed. I realized much of the first read went over my head. And my disposition in life was different by then for a number of reasons. It felt like I was reading a hidden layer underneath the obvious one. I liked that. I was seeing things that made me pause and re-think interpretations I’d been taught. I was seeing parallels to other books and historical or current events. The third time I read the book, I was the teacher, so I dug even deeper. And this most recent fourth read went even deeper still. Every time I read this book I see a new layer of details and intangible subject matter. Books that evoke that kind of response deserve to be called classics and should be read more than once.

But perhaps the best reason for re-reading a book is the most simple: fun. It doesn’t have to be a childhood favourite or a literary masterpiece. Sometimes if it was fun the first time, it can be fun again for the same reasons you found it entertaining in the first place. Really that is the ultimate reason why we read fiction in the first place — for entertainment. If the book does nothing more than that, it has still done its job of providing a pleasant activity for a short time. Fandoms are built upon this kind of devotional investments in fictional worlds and characters. And in non-fiction, inspirational, practical, or academic refreshing of knowledge is always beneficial. I am currently reading Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You, and I can already tell I will be re-reading that one many times over for the remainder of my life. It’s so relative to me, personally.

If my forever home could have a floor-to-ceiling, grand library to keep all the books that I ever loved, I’d probably never use any other room in the house, except to eat, sleep, and shower. Realistically, I know I’d never be able to re-read that many books. I’d be desperate for new material, so why I hoard old books is a mystery to me. But every room in my current house has at least one bookshelf filled with books that I have either re-read, or that I intend to “someday” re-read. Some I hang onto for reference. Others I hang onto for memories and pleasure. And when I move into my next home, though it will be much smaller, I know I will have a hard time parting with many of my favourite books due to lack of space. I can’t imagine not having books available for re-reading.

Book Snobbery

"Book Reviews" by Merodinoongaku
Diversity in book reviews is normal.

What it is.

Book snobbery is what happens when a reader values one book above another as if such a thing could be objective. That means judging a book without emotion or opinion. Grant it technical aspects of writing can sometimes be judged objectively. But when speaking of the book as a whole? Never.

This happens a lot when comparing literary genres. For example, people love to feel that literary genre is superior to fantasy, horror, romance, young adult, or comics. Book lovers also tend to feel books in general are superior to screenplays for films or TV or stage performances.

Or book lovers tend to strongly dislike particular authors or series due to personal biases, especially in the age of the Internet, where it’s not enough to say, “I didn’t like this book.” The anti-fan might mock the author and fans, destroy the author’s career, or possibly even threaten his or her life.

Most book snobs don’t view themselves as snobs at all, though. They’re more likely to think younger generations are simply not smart enough to appreciate old-fashioned literature because of modern attitudes or digital addictions. Or they’re more likely to think the author they dislike lacks talent. Or they think fans are sheep for flocking to whatever current trend is popular. But while those certainly could be true scenarios, there are no absolutes when it comes to why people like or dislike what they do or don’t. Humanity has always been and will always be diverse when it comes to the arts.

I have read studies that reinforce notions that books are better than visual storytelling because they encourage imagination, that literary genre is better than pulp fiction because of realism. I know that some authors had no training or knowledge of the craft of writing and publishing because their work started as fan fiction that was gobbled up because of topic popularity regardless of professionalism. It is easy to fall into the trap of book snobbery if you love to read or write. But why does this happen, and why is it bad?

Why it happens.

1. It is precisely because human beings are subjective when it comes to the arts that we judge our favourite to be superior over whatever we dislike. I try to keep this in mind when I review anything. If I am aware of my own personal biases before going into a reading, I will try to be fair and give back one star when reviewing if I didn’t like it. I feel very strongly about the differences between a poorly written book and a book that was well-written, but just not my cup of tea. And since the purpose of my review is both to inform the author how I felt about the book and hold the book up to fellow readers to make their own judgments about whether or not they think they would like it, I shouldn’t let my personal bias taint the review with more criticism than the work itself deserves. If I don’t like football, I’m going to assume books about football are boring. But that’s not fair to the author or other readers who might be football fans. My reviews need to reflect this. So, personal bias, I think, is the most common contribution to book snobbery.

2. Type of medium is probably the second biggest contributor to literary prejudices. Books are often viewed as superior to other forms of story-telling because books have a more educational and academic reputation than TV, film, stage productions, games, etc. But there are many ways to tell a story — each with its own limitations and blessings. And, again, how well a story is received is really up to individual taste of the reader.

Some people have a more visual intelligence than others. That means they take in information about the world around them through their eyes. Others are aural-intelligent, so their biggest input comes from being able to hear. Others are kinetic, or touch-intelligent. They need to move and handle things. So, if an aural or kinetic child falls asleep or can’t sit still reading a book, it doesn’t mean they’re being disrespectful of the book. It means they need access to stories in different means. Not lesser means — different means. Audio books, stage performances, films, and games will appeal more to people who are not primarily visual learners. But a well-rounded individual should be able to enjoy story-telling in any format without shame.

There is no shame in preferring to watch Moby-Dick over reading it. The point is to enjoy the story, however you can best receive it. Personally, I thought Moby-Dick was the most god-awful book I ever tried to read … second only to The Life and Diary of David Brainard (both school assignments, by the way). For most of my life I hated Moby-Dick because I could not get into the author’s writing style. But decades later, I watched the film version of it and loved it. Now I believe it’s a fantastic story, and I see why it’s such a classic. But Herman Melville’s writing style put me to sleep! Later, I was astounded in college to be able to take a film-literature class, and to realize that visual story-telling is not lower-class literature. It’s just a different medium. The story-telling can and should still be top-notch. (People must keep this in mind when speaking of derivative works like film adaptations of books.)

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Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in a 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick. The ultimate lesson in letting go of an unhealthy obsession …

3. Level of quality is probably the third offender. Is George Orwell’s 1984 better than J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? If you think the answer to this is yes, you are ignoring the fact that books are written for different genres, about different topics, and for different audiences for a reason. I cannot stress this enough: literature is not a competition between best and worst. Literature is one of the few things in life in which there is something for everyone. Literature is inclusive. You can like 1984 AND Harry Potter. You can like comics AND classics. Some of the best stories around come from children’s literature, while some of the most snore-worthy things ever written have perfect, textbook, college-level prose. Level of quality boils down to level of appreciation. And there are no limits on that.

4. Finally, I mentioned that there are technical, objective areas that matter in arts. And in my opinion this is the only area where it is okay to have a certain amount of expectations. But even there, people can differ in how important or unimportant they think technical aspects are. You would think grammar is essential to being uniform in the literary world … and yet if you study grammar deeply enough, you will see that English grammar rules are a mess. So, there’s a lot of grammar that is up to the author or publisher or reader to decide whether it’s appropriate, and each of them may differ. Ellipses are the perfect example: is there no space before and after the three dots, one space after the three dots, or one space before and after the three dots? The answer will depend on which rule book you consult, what the publisher demands, what kind of composition you’re trying to write, and author’s preference! So the real rule for ellipses is, “Pick one format and be consistent.”

But because we are also talking about literary art forms, we have to acknowledge that many writers intentionally break the rules. Consider E.E. Cummings, who did away with capital letters altogether in his poetry, so that even capitalizing his name feels somehow wrong. You may also notice my own rebellion when it comes to placement of punctuation in regards to quotation marks. The reason American English always place commas within quotations is because of the way typeset printers were built. Same goes for why we spaced twice after periods. Some punctuation keys were smaller and more fragile than others. So, they simplified a grammar rule for the sake of antique technology. Nowadays, the double-space-after-the-period rule is no longer enforced anywhere. And if you look at British English, logic is still applied to how punctuation relates to quotation marks. Rather than simplifying the rules for the sake of machines we no longer use, I prefer to apply logic. If the punctuation in quotations ends a sentence, it goes inside. If not, outside.

In such cases, we have to ask whether works that break rules are “poorly written” or “intentional”. (See what I did there? I’m such a rebel.) 😉 Poorly written work deserves to be called out as poorly written with thoughtful analysis as to how it could be improved. But artistic differences or controversial options (such as Oxford commas), are what they are. And unless they destroy the reader’s ability to comprehend the story, they should be left alone as part of the author’s intentions, for whatever reason.

Why book snobbery is bad.

Book snobbery is something all lovers of stories should try to avoid because in all cases, fostering the love of reading is better than discouraging it. Most human brains are flexible enough to appreciate the nuances of differences for what they are, as long as they are free to enjoy literature as one of life’s little sweetnesses. If someone is badgered into reading materials they don’t like or can’t easily absorb, or if they are shamed into giving up what does interest them because someone else called it inferior, their love of reading may be damaged ever after. And the one thing every scientific and sociological study has in common regarding reading or literature is the fact that stories are good for human development. Literature improves empathy, imagination, communication skills, and critical thinking skills, however we choose to digest it.

If you need some snappier answers on the subject, check out Matt Haig’s blog article, “30 Things to Tell a Book Snob” (http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/writing/online-writer-in-residence/blog/558/). My favourite is number 17: “Freedom is the process of knocking down walls. Tyranny is the process of building them.” … Very relative to my books … and current events, in many ways.