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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fanfiction, Formal and Otherwise

I went to a performance of Les Miserables back in November of 1988.  It was election day, and my two companions were coworkers who had become good friends.  One of them was a staunch conservative, the other a rabid liberal.  Both were delightful.  The show was now on tour and we decided to go together after enjoying a good supper in Philadelphia. 

It was a wonderful evening, and a bit of a landmark.  For the first time my two friends agreed on something political: I had told them that evening that I had written in Lyndon Larouche for president.  Naturally, I had not, but the look of horror on their faces was fabulous and I chuckled until the curtains parted and I was plunged into Les Miserables.

This was the first time Les Miserables ('Les Miz') had been on tour, and the cast (I now know) was top quality.  I knew the story, somewhat.  I watched, enthralled, as Jean Valjean rose above his unfortunate past as Inspector Javert, determined to bring him back to justice, followed hard on his heels.

The songs were splendid, but best of all was the truly poetic song sung by the Police Inspector, Javert.   Stars...  (here in French)  and a video below in English, where someone took Russell Crowe's acting and matched it with Philip Quast's singing: 

I had read bits and pieces of the book over the years, and had not been particularly impressed.  That evening, though, the story of revenge, mercy and redemption caught me.  I bought the book and read it in English and then in French, prepared to love it.

Instead, I was chilled.  The story had a grand scope, there were so many memorable

Image copyright Nyranor at DeviantArt
characters...but it also had a serious disconnect, quite apart from the truly terrible translation from French to English.  The characterizations did not ring true (to me) throughout the story.  Valjean, completely admirable from the moment of his conversion through to his magnanimous gesture to the man who had hunted him down through the years, became a wet rag at the end.  

And the character of Javert, the cop - Why on earth would the man who sang such a magnificent, poetic song in the play be the same fellow in the book who throws himself into the Seine after having been shown mercy?  It did not make sense.  

Looking back over a quarter of a century I realize that the theme of the musical was taken from the book - and then severely edited.  They improved on the book (not a hard thing to do, in my humble opinion) and took a different direction.

That left me, the writer, thinking 'What on earth went wrong?  That shouldn't have happened!  Why would Javert throw himself in the Seine?  He was saved!'  Temporary insanity, brought on by nearly twenty-four hours of combat and captivity, in fear for his life, in the middle of a riot, most likely.  Combat fatigue.  And...dare I say it?...Javert wasn't the brightest bulb on the tree.  Nor was Valjean, based on the way the story ended.

Pooh!  Just for the fun of it, I decided to rewrite the ending.  I enjoyed it, but the characters did not work.  Characters are living things in your mind, and they change until they fit.  I had tremendous energy at that time.  I was also not on the Internet, and I had not yet discovered Facebook and the other distractions that make the writing of a chapter a struggle at times.  I wrote hundreds of pages, scrapped them, rewrote them.  Characters entered - one in particular - took over, and after three years all vestiges of Les Miserables were gone. 

I was laughing about it with a friend not long ago.  She had been in on the original story from its very beginning, and she wasn't shy about saying 'That stinks!' 

"Well," she said, "You started out writing FanFic, and it took on a life of its own.  The original story is gone now."

That made me blink.  FanFic?  Me writing it?  Really?

I had to break out the dictionary to see just what it was.   

<<stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans and often posted on the Internet>>

That much I knew already.  I also knew that Fan Fiction based on a copyrighted book could not itself be copyrighted or sold by the author, since it was a derivative work.  Works in the public domain like Les Miserables, Sherlock Holmes, or the various works by Jane Austen, were fair game.  A visit to DeviantArt trying to research some images led to links to Fan Fiction based on Les Miserables.  Some of it improved a great deal on the story.  But some of it was truly poor.

I was interested to see, though, that almost all of the Les Mis FanFic centered around the Inspector having a change of heart, being fished out of the Seine, nearly drowning but being rescued - or such like - and becoming Jean Valjean's friend.  The disconnect was repaired one way or another.

Was there other FanFic out there?  Indeed there is.

Fifty Shades of Grey originally involved Bella and Edward from the Twilight Saga. E L James removed it from her FanFic site and changed the characters' names when people commented on the sexual nature of the stories.  Stephenie Meyer said that that genre was not for her, but expressed congratulations that James was doing well.

The original story on which the Fan Fiction is based is known as 'The Canon', and departures from it are generally noted.  Changes are called 'revisionist'.  The Seven Percent Solution is Sherlock Holmes Fan Fiction, and it certainly revises and expands on features in the stories.  

"Good heavens!" she gasped.
I stumbled on some Pride and Prejudice Fan Fiction involving Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennett stranded in a little cottage during a downpour and improving the idle hour.  I must confess that I didn't read much of that.  The sight of Lizzie Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy in the throes of illicit and damp passion was a little startling, especially since the story seemed to imply that they had been doing it for quite some time. 

I backed out of the Amazon preview, had a hearty laugh, and went off in search of another Austen novel.  I wonder what Jane would have thought of that one particular FanFic.

Some of it is beautifully written.  This FanFic, for example, involving Javert at the barricade and the fate of Gavroche, the urchin.

A number of the Austen spinoffs are beautifully done.  

And some are purely wretched.  Some, especially dealing with novels written a century or so ago, are full of errors that make any historian cringe.  In a piece of Les Miserables FanFic I was interested to see that the recuperating inspector - Javert - was given a pair of pants sewn for him as well as some freshly knitted socks.  I devoutly hope and pray that the good Inspector found that the trousers (or pantaloons) were a good fit, and that the stockings, reaching to knee height, were not too baggy.

So long as copyright laws are honored and an author has a say in what is said or done about his or her novel, I think it can be a good thing.  It certainly indicates that characters and situations in the original stories are hard to let go.  Or that the story had a problem that needed to be fixed.

...or something.

1 comment:

  1. I often rewrite stories in my head, when they tend to dissatisfy me. Fifty Shades of Grey is one of those - just finished it recently, to put a review on my blog, and was so disappointed by the ending. I can't for the life of me see how people raved about it as much as they did. Other than that, I'm not into fanfic that much, as I'd prefer to read an original story by its first author. It seems there are plenty to choose from in every genre too.

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