Article Copyright 2016 by Gabriel Connor Salter (feel free to share, but don’t plagiarize. I’m a writer, you have no idea what I can do to your reputation).
Last month I attended a chapel service at my college, Taylor University, in which one of the school’s previous presidents, Jay Kesler, spoke. He started by talking about a silly joke he made many years ago at a conference, at the time one of his daughters was getting married: he told someone that really, when you give your daughter to a man to be married, it’s like giving a $100,000 Stradivarius violin to a gorilla.
As I said, he wasn’t being serious. But I think that joke actually applies pretty well to writers when we release our work into other people’s hands.
What I mean by that is when we create stories and then share them with other people, in the process we lose control over it. If it’s work for hire, we give that story to a publisher who ends up having more control over the creation than we do. If it’s a book, we give it to readers who will make it their own or we sell the adaptation rights to a movie/TV/radio producer.
In all three of these cases, the people we give the story to are going to alter it from our original version. They have the best intentions usually, but even so they’ll change the story, and the changes can be terrible. People will misinterpret what you meant to say in the story. People will make adaptations that leave things out – or render the story unrecognizable. People will create bad fan fictions and irreverent parodies.
If you’re incredibly lucky and become that one in a million writer such as Bob Kane (co-creator of Batman) or Arthur Conan Doyle (creator Sherlock Holmes), people will love your work and it will survive multiple generations, becoming part of mass culture. Which will then turn and take your character through so many mutations it’ll make your head swim.
The Evolution of Batman:
The Evolution of Sherlock Holmes:
This isn’t to say that every time a story gets adapted it’s bad, in fact many of these adaptations are great (Sherlock fans, anyone?). But something always gets left out.
So what do we writers do about this?
One option of course, is to release your stories into the world but have as little to do with people who adapt them as possible. Graphic novelist Alan Moore is a great example of this, he has nothing but contempt for people who adapt his books into movies. To be fair, he’s had some pretty poor adaptations made of his books (some of them were positively From Hell), so perhaps he has a right to be angry.
But I would argue that’s a bit too extreme. In fact, I think the best thing we can do is accept our stories are going to be changed, and help the changers do the best job they can with it.
I think this is best for two reasons.
One, in the end trying to keep people’s hands off your story is a losing battle – about as easy as wrestling a violin out of the hands of a gorilla. Good stories always outlast the people who write them, and within four generations most people don’t even remember who it was who wrote that one story everybody knows. Anyone remember who wrote The Little Mermaid? Or Cinderella? Or Beowulf?
Two, really what makes great stories so great is the fact they can be changed. They talk about things people love and can relate to, and whatever that thing is always gets translated over. The modern story Cinderella is very different from where it started (most likely in China), but the idea of a young girl who goes from an awful situation to becoming royalty is present in almost every single version.
I mentioned Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman earlier. While Kane seems to have taken more credit for creating Batman than he was due, he didn’t spend his time lording that status to forcing people to adapt Batman a certain way. In fact, he seems to have been fine with people adapting Batman into drastically different versions.
Obviously most of us aren’t going to create characters as influential as Kane did. But we can choose to have the same attitude. We can embrace the fact our stories are going to mutate and evolve if they resonate with people at all.
“Taylor University Chapel – 02-03-16 – Dr. Jay Kesler.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoXDxuL99YI&list=PL7B10AC5FEAF2A7D2&index=15
“The Vendetta Behind ‘V for Vendetta’.” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/12/movies/12itzk.html?_r=3&oref=slogin&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin&
“Jerry Robinson previously unpublished interview, 6/9/06; part 3 of 3.” http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2013/06/jerry-robinson-previously-unpublished_19.html
“Bob Kane, Creator of Batman, Dies.” http://articles.latimes.com/1998/nov/06/local/me-39865
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