Posted tagged ‘film’

Propriety and Myth

May 10, 2009

wolverine copies

In both of our previous two posts, we’ve hit tangentially on this potential dichotomy of value systems: one overwhelmingly commercial, the other grounded in communities. This distinction no doubt over-simplifies the relationship between commercial interactions and, well, any other type of interaction, but it nevertheless seems fairly intuitive and good area for further exploration.

As a starting point for this investigation, I want to talk about the phenomenon of comic books being adapted into blockbuster movies. Even discounting the long-running Superman and Batman television shows, there is a relatively long history of interaction between these art forms. The first of the Superman movies came out in 1978 and the most recent in 2006. Tim Burton’s Batman arrived in 1989 and spawned a decade’s worth of sequels, varying in artistic merit, up though last years The Dark Night. The Batman franchise also spun off a Catwoman flick. The X-Men trilogy began in 2000 and has now spun of the first of several sub-franchises with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which has itself spun off the recently-announced Deadpool movie. In addition to these, several “more serious” comic works have been brought to the big screen in recent years, including Frank Miller’s Sin City and Alan Moore‘s From Hell, V For Vendetta and The Watchmen. Now there are plans to adapt more contemporary and less-widely-known (but terrific) comic narratives such as Y: The Last Man.

The proliferation of these movies speaks to the fact that Hollywood has tapped into an expansive universe of characters and narratives that lots of people are eager to see retold. On the other hand, there is a certain tension that arises with the release of almost any of these movies wherein fans of the comic book complain that the movie has strayed too far from the spirit of the original work. Sometimes, the charge is often that the movie has sapped the original story of is more complexities, its moral ambiguities, is darker elements. Other times, the much-caricatured comic book enthusiast is just outraged that the details of a familiar story have been thoroughly mixed up. In either case, there is a sense that in trying to appeal to the widest possible audience, the movie-makers have abandoned artistic integrity in favor of commercial success.

It seems safe to say that there is a sense of betrayal here. But betrayal of what? A comics fan might say it’s a betrayal of the authors’ original vision – a betrayal of the work itself somehow. I would argue instead that it is the perceived betrayal of the relationship between the original work and the audience. The pinch of this betrayal is the loss of authority suffered by the specific system of meanings the reader took from the original text.

The entertainment company buys rights to produce a story and invests a significant amount of money in producing a version of that story. In order to encourage substantial profits on that investment, there will be a marketing campaign to support the film, which will establish (accurately or not) this iteration as an authoritative version within the narrative tradition from which it draws its original appeal.

In the case of comics, these stories present an easy invitation to comparison with classical mythologies. Not having done much reading on mythology or literary theory, I’m not really equipped to make the argument as to similarities and difference between the way communities tend to interact with these two types of narratives. Certainly one might point out that the processes of production are entirely different; particularly relevant for this conversation, the fact that comics originated in a commercial context while classical mythologies did not. However, I do think one could reasonably argue that the larger-than-life content found in both classical mythology and comics are prime material for popular re-imaginings. A singular mythic narrative (classical or comic) diverges exponentially into personal, non-commercial understandings.

And yet, when this media company purchases rights to the original story, it receives both legal permission to produce a cultural product, but also some sort of official legitimacy in presenting this commercial narrative as the authoritative version. The longstanding relationship of the fan base with the original narrative grants those fans no such official authority. This is a clear instance of the conflict between commercial and non-commercial value systems in cultural production. Both systems require an investment in the narrative, either commercial or emotional, but only one of those investments receives legal sanction in terms of the control of that narrative.

This question of who can grant “rights” to popular mythologies is key to understanding the break between commercial and community-based value systems. Can a commercial exchange somehow grant a corporation the right to produce an “authoritative” Superman narrative, or do the countless pre-existing personal relationships with this character and his narrative setting negate any claims to such authority, regardless of the legal legitimacy that copyright provides?