A Question of Respect

I finally got to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this weekend. I liked it, but I have decided that Jackson made it a trilogy because it will take that long for the audience to keep track of all the dwarves. On the way home, I got into a discussion regarding accurate portrayal of characters in secondary media. I picked the wrong people to discuss such things with, so the conversation didn’t get very far, but it left me wondering: when should we say changes to a story are disrespectful to the source material?

I know that it can vary by individual opinion – something egregiously wrong to one person will be a nonissue to someone else – but is there a point where we can establish a concrete line and say “this is too far?” Or is all fair in artistic interpretation? And should we care?

I’m not talking about being disrespectful to the original author, or to the audience, though most media are guilty of both at times. You could argue that any disrespect to the source material is indirectly disrespectful to the author, and there’s a valid argument there, but I’m more interested in the direct connection between source and variant.

For instance, take The Hobbit movie: Peter Jackson tossed in a bunch of backstory that isn’t part of the original. Now, this backstory is also Middle Earth canon, so it’s part of the story world, but it’s not directly relevant to the plot. In this case, I don’t think it’s disrespectful because Jackson takes care to keep the spirit of the story and its main points intact. In his LOTR movies, as well, his changes were, for the most part, in service to the story, making it accessible to a medium for which it was never intended.

On the other hand, there’s The Last Airbender movie. Considering the internet backlash when that came out, it’s fair to say it was downright insulting to fans of the series because it damaged the canon. The makers didn’t have enough respect for the source material to get character’s names right, much less have any concern for how their casting choices undermined the entire canon of the source. (the racefail involved and its cultural impacts are a whole ‘nother can of worms, which has been covered in detail elsewhere)

I’m mentioning The Last Airbender because it is a specific and obvious example of the kinds of changes that can affect secondary media. By secondary media, I mean any kind of media retelling of a story, be it movie, book, or other format. While many reinterpretations can add to or expand upon the source material, giving us a different perspective on the original while retaining its core / spirit, there are others where the story is manipulated for reasons completely unrelated to its intent.

The issue of respect for source material comes up a lot in “based on real life” stories, and it’s a valid discussion. You’re talking about real events that impacted real people. Respect, in that regard, can be a significant issue. In general, people don’t pay as much attention to changes made to fictional worlds and characters (except the hardcore fans, of course.) Does that mean fictional stories deserve less respect than “real” stories? Some fictional stories have significant impact on a large number of real people, often more than the impact of reality tales.

I don’t think a poorly done retelling necessarily implies disrespect; it might be a labor of love by someone who lacks skill or finesse. Fanfic forums abound with poorly-written homages to their favorite stories, and YouTube allows for clumsy acting and editing that can still show heart. One could argue that parodies are disrespectful, but, really, it depends on the parody.

A reteller can change many facets of a story without losing the inherent story itself. Shakespeare can be set in the Jazz Age, and Dorothy doesn’t have to be the only POV in Oz. Watson can be a woman… but can Sherlock have a happily ever after? Where is the point of no return?

As a reader and potential author, I am aware that I pay more attention to details in storytelling than the average person. I know that there’s no deerstalker caps in the original Sherlock stories, and that all Shakespeare’s roles were technically written for men. I know that the average person doesn’t care about such things. I also know that stories are more significant than most people realize. Stories are the foundation of human society, the record of our history, and the space we use to explore the limits of imagination. We should respect them, and care for them, not just as books or other physical media, but for the inherent qualities that make them special.

So, is there a point where we can say “this is not right?” I suspect it may come somewhere around when a reteller stops using the story as itself, and cannibalizes it in order to further some commercial or personal purpose. When it’s used for name recognition or to draw in an audience without any relevance or context. When it’s being used to mislead for purposes unrelated to the new story. One could say it’s when a person chooses to use, but not to care.

Subverting expectations is a time-honored practice in storytelling. As with all the tricks in one’s arsenal, however, it must be employed properly. Ending the mystery without finding the killer? There’s probably a way to spin that, but it would be difficult. Even if done well, the reader may be offended, and if done poorly… well, that’s practically driving them away on purpose. Taking a story that means one thing and changing to mean something else is not necessarily disrespectful, but it really depends on how one does it. Recognizing the source material and using it to illuminate your interpretation is good. Taking names and ideas and plopping them in randomly just so you can say you’re talking about X? Not so good.

Should it matter? Individual incidents depend on circumstance, but in general I think it should. Someone who disrespects the story also disrespects the audience. Ultimately, the stories don’t care, but people do.

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