Columns > Published on August 13th, 2015

David Thomson's 'Suspects' and the Questionable Validity of Fan Fiction

First of all, let’s get out of the way what fan fiction is not: it is not commissioned or embraced by the official owners of an intellectual property, whether that’s corporate entity or creator. This is a necessary definition because it is an evolving concept, what with the Internet providing a platform for the proliferation of material that in the past would have sat on someone’s desktop or, more than likely, stayed in the back of their brain. Whereas it used to be considered amateurish, unauthorized and often scorned, now it’s condoned by certain parties and crafted with a slick veneer. Some allow fan fiction, such as J.K. Rowling or Orson Scott Card, and some may even profit from the work of others, such as with Kindle Worlds. These derivations, however, are still not accepted as “canon”, as part of the official story, and therefore do not “count”.

What fan fiction is in 2015, therefore, can be a lot of things. Some thinly veiled “original” works, such as the Twilight-inspired Fifty Shades of Grey, find success as independent entities, but others thrive on name brand, such as with three recent instances: Max Landis’s Twitter proposal for Ghostbusters 3 that, amongst other things, would have revealed Slimer’s origin; Neil Blomkamp’s conceptual artwork for an action-packed Aliens sequel posted to his Instagram; and Joseph Kahn’s 14-minute-long grim n’ gritty Power/Rangers fan film. While Landis was overshadowed by the eventual all-female, Paul Feig-directed reboot, the other two instances have made a big impact: the former got Blomkamp the job actually writing and directing an Aliens film (whether or not the content of the art makes it to the finished film) while the latter has received millions of views on YouTube and courted legal action from owner Saban.

Fans see their devotion to a property as entitling them to demanding what direction it continues on toward, or simply that it continues at all.

What sets these apart from is professionalism and intention. Both Blomkamp and Kahn are established filmmakers with multiple projects under their belts. While Blomkamp’s art was actually a pitch he put up hoping to garner attention, Kahn’s film (produced by Adi Shankar as a part of his “bootleg universe”, including The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, Venom: Truth in Journalism, and now James Bond: In Service of Nothing) was intended as a critique of sorts, subverting the tendency of fan fiction to dirty up a property by adding more “adult” content such as sex, violence, etc. Their reasoning was beyond simple wish fulfillment, which is the category most fan fiction falls under.

Shankar, however, is capturing the zeitgeist of fandom that sees the lines blurring between fan fiction and Hollywood productions. Although he will still continue to make “traditional movies,” as he calls them, the executive producer of The Grey and Lone Survivor said in a March 4 interview with Comic Book Resources that “Just because a movie is in theaters, I don’t look at it as greater than something on television, or more prestigious than something on YouTube.” This philosophy reflects the idea of ownership, that fans see their devotion to a property as entitling them to demanding what direction it continues on toward, or simply that it continues at all.

Certainly that’s what Blomkamp has communicated, confirming what many had suspected, that his movie is a direct sequel to Aliens, effectively retconning Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection out of existence. Although he has subsequently backpedaled his comments, clarifying that he doesn’t intend to undo those movies, it’s unclear how that’s even possible considering the presence of Hicks (dead since Alien 3) and Weyland-Yutani (bought out by Wal-Mart before Alien: Resurrection) in the possible narrative. Regardless, it’s clear that fidelity to continuity is low on his priorities, and that the first two movies being his favorites trump the contributions of others.

This isn’t the first time, though, that established artists have taken stabs at IPs not of their creation. Take Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a post-colonial reevaluation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre that expands on the “Madwoman in the Attic” character Bertha Mason. Then there’s Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Family, started with his 1972 and 1973 novels Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, that not only envision the “real” stories the pulp adventures were based on but connect the two men, along with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, together as sharing a bloodline enhanced by the Wold Cottage Meteorite that struck the village of Wold Newton, Yorkshire, England on December 13, 1795. Certainly this influenced Alan Moore’s comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that started in 1999, in which major Victorian literary characters team up, forming a shared universe.

Although these “parallel novels” fall under variations of pastiche, fair use and public domain, they’re still technically fan fiction. There’s nothing that separates Rhys, Farmer and Moore from my own X-Men 3 script I wrote for fun back in 2005 except quality. There is, however, a chance that some 15-year-old has written an Internet-breaking, paradigm-shifting My Little Pony novella. On the flip side, there have been plenty of legitimate, as in monetarily galvanized, continuations of franchises independent of the originator that have been of questionable virtue (Terminator 3 onward without James Cameron; Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing…, a sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; the fourth season of Community), so where is the line drawn?

Deviation has to serve a greater purpose, either to criticize problematic aspects of an original work or as a platform for a greater message.

These three were already acclaimed writers with unique publications under their belts, so they had nothing to prove. The separation is their motivation to explore and deconstruct classics through a contemporary perspective. The postmodernist Wide Sargasso Sea tackles themes of racial inequality and the harshness of displacement and assimilation along with power dynamics between the sexes. Farmer’s portfolio explores sexual and religious themes through reconceptualizions of popular characters while also playing upon metatextual tropes of characters growing bigger than their creators. Moore’s series of graphic novels, meanwhile, reveal the undercurrent of kink and compromise beneath the façade of a society of manners. These authors elevate mere fan fiction by creating semiotic discourse, spurred on by their own fascination and impulse to examine the original works and the people and cultures that spawned them. Rather than simply play in someone else’s toy box, they’ve taken the dolls apart and put them back together again with different heads, arms where legs should be and dresses on backwards.

But those are all examples of remixed literary fiction, with even the pulps garnering respectability in the intervening years, if only due to public saturation. More comparable to Landis, Blomkamp and Kahn is Suspects, a little-known 1985 novel by film scholar David Thomson. Formatted as a succession of 85 biographies of notable film characters, the entries are accompanied by commentary from a mysterious author that gradually paints a grander picture of disillusioned dreams and the specter of death. Careful attention and intricate knowledge of film make for a rewarding experience as Thomson fills in character backgrounds through clever reverse engineering and then continues their stories (assuming they survived the final reel) up to the point of their deaths. Lives intersect as destinies collide by chance and ripple effects are created that add new perspective to the movies that are all so familiar. Although a few later sequels, like 1990’s The Two Jakes and The Godfather: Part III, nullify these encyclopedic entries, it’s still fun to see a noted intellectual intertwine intertexual film analysis with creative experimentation.

The beauty of Thomson’s book is not just the excitement of these characters interacting, but in how it functions as a secret history of the 20th century. These tragic tales of the rich and famous collide, working as an exegesis and lament of wealth, power and fame, especially of the city that birthed the movies. Amidst the Easter Eggs, including Jack Torrance being from Bedford Falls and Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond having had an affair with Chinatown’s  Noah Cross, deeper truths are revealed about the parallels in these stories and what that means about the eras of their creation.

There’s also a running theme of the effect of fiction itself on how people interact with the world. Jack Torrance’s urge to tell stories but disconnect from real people stems from his binge watching movies as a child (and it’s strongly implied that the manuscript he was working on at the Overlook Hotel is the first draft of Suspects, a kind of mise-en-abîme that is picked up by the reticent narrator). Chinatown is a movie based on real-life events, as is It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca, established as half truths that the characters fear have besmirched their good names and identities. This, in fact, covers little cheats like the aforementioned Torrance manuscript (was it not just “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” over and over?), Bedford Falls being in Nebraska instead of New York, or the fact that private detective Philip Marlowe takes part in the events of 1946’s The Big Sleep and 1973’s The Long Goodbye without consideration for the passage of time or Bogart and Gould not looking or acting alike (not to mention the amount of doppelgangers that would exist in this world).

Why Thomson may be patient zero for the 21st century fan-as-artist is his forcible application of real-world logic, cynicism and over-explanation. There are no happy endings for these film icons, even the ones that had previously ridden off into the sunset with smiles on their faces, and consequently they are robbed of mystique. These modern examples, however, have taken Thomson’s lead with the benefit of the breadth and depth of the digital world. The ease with which a website, blog or social media account can be created to spread ideas is mind-boggling, as is the hunger of fans and their willingness to access said material. The examples cited above were once few and far between, but to avoid limitations of budget and subject matter they were for the most part confined to the page. Today, however, any technological barrier can be answered with crowd funding, and the element of transgression that was once fresh and different is now old hat. 

But the commonality that can justify, and should be the goal of, fan fiction is the willingness to appropriate the source material as a device to tell a new story that shines harsh light on its roots. There should also be irreverence, as most fan fiction too often treats the original as sacred text, or any deviation (such as slash fiction or Mary Sues) as the author’s own projections fulfilling personal needs regardless of consistency with character or story. Deviation has to serve a greater purpose, either to criticize problematic aspects of an original work or as a platform for a greater message that reveals something about the audience. Anything else is just unhealthy navel gazing that leads to creative bankruptcy.

About the author

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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