Might it be more productive to think of filmed adaptations of literary works as “fan fiction”? Of course, by its most frequent definition, “fan fiction” exists in some of the weirdest, most disreputable corners of the internet, where Harry Potter fans imagine sexual encounters between wizards and muggles, or defiantly non-professional authors extend and deepen the mythology of ALF. Yet the impulse is the same: both writers of fan fiction and directors of expensive productions such as Cloud Atlas and The Hobbit make choices; they adapt, extend, or remove significant features of the original based on personal proclivities and by ignoring or adhering to the demands of audience of the texts course audiences.
On the Urban Dictionary, someone calling themselves Mistaki corrects other his fellow urban lexicographers by noting that “other definitions completely trash fan fiction.” The prior reviewer “Cherrie” offers a paradigmatic definition that you probably share: “Something really fun for extrenely [sic] bored people who like their favorite show/movie/video game too much.” In an effort to bring some much need decency to this forum, Mistaki admits that a lot of fan fiction is awful (just like a lot of normal fiction is awful), he or she is more sympathetic to the genre:
It is true, however, that some fanfictions are rather poorly written and only a few hundred words, and it is also true that some people just write them so they can have their favorite characters have sex (lemon). But, if you take the time to find something decent, you can end up with a fanfiction story that is so close to the original piece of art, that you’d barely notice the difference.
So in other words, according to Mistaki’s distinction: good fan fiction is an act of mimesis rather than departure. If you want to write Encyclopedia Brown and Sally’s boudoir romance, you miss the point of the author’s original intentions, and you give over to your own weirdness, which violates the sanctity of the original. I agree that fan fiction deserves more sympathy than it gets, but I’m not sure I agree with Mistaki that “lemons” aren’t just as interesting as those stories in which you’d “barely notice the difference.” Of course, this didn’t really matter until recently, when writing fan fiction had a similar impact to drawing a picture of Optimus Prime putting onlipstick one a piece of notebook paper that you then threw away. But Fifty Shades of Grey changed things.
Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan-fiction from “Snowqueen Icedragon.” An erotic adventure featuring characters from Twilight, it soon drew enough of a following to warrant its own website. It was published through a “virtual publisher.” Now it has sold a bazillion copies and created hours of cheap jokes for Jay Leno. No one is saying its good other than the bazillion people who have read it and its three sequels, and they saying it’s amazing. They are buying classical music anthologies “inspired” by the books. This could not have happened in 2004. What “Snowqueen Icedragon” – now known as E.L. James – did was follow the deep fantasies that had emerged from the reading experience. And her new address is easy street.
What’s the difference, ultimately, between Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hobbit, and this story about the Kathy Bates character from Fried Green Tomatoes trying to lose weight, besides the medium of adaptation? The easy answer is authorization. (And money, I guess).Peter Jackson and New Line had the rights to transform Tolkien’s words into a visual form. And yet, is not on some level Jackson making the same kinds of choices that fan-fiction writers do? He’s bound by more expectations, of course, but he can choose to ignore them. In the first LOTR movie, he dropped Tom Bombadil – probably for economy and its intrusion of a uncinematic quaintness – and gave Arwen a more prominent role, probably because the studio was concerned women might not watch the movie otherwise. So there’s another distinction: the institution matters more for Jackson, while fan fiction writers operate with the blessing or curse of autonomy. Still, I think the point is not that Jackson made these choices because of the prominence of his adaptation, the point is that he made these choices at all. There are issues of fidelity and there are issues of departure, and Jackson got yelled at and celebrated for both of them from bookish kids who dressed up as Balrogs for their seventh grade costume day. But don’t fan fiction writers imagine themselves before the same kinds of audiences as Jackson? Much like Jackson sought inclusion and approval from a fervent and zealous tradition of Tolkien readers, fan fiction writers also have to think about the communities that they engage. And of course, in terms of what makes them different, the other answer is quality. As mediocre as Zak Snyder’s version of Watchmen was, it’s better than these.
By now I’ve completely conflated “adaptation” and “fan fiction,” and that’s the point. I hope to think about this later in terms of the fascinatingly flawed adaptation of Cloud Atlas by the Wachowskis, in which they revered the spirit of the book but (particularly in one instance) significantly changed its substance. But if we take away issues of authorization and quality, we’re left with some startling similarities rather than obvious differences.