Auteur theory, fandom, and reboots: Why there can (and maybe should) be more than one take on a franchise
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Or, 'How dare that director with a distinctive style take on that franchise?! Those are my characters...!'
Years ago, when I watched Neill Blomkamp's 7-minute Halo short film, Landfall, knowing that he was set to direct the feature-length movie, I thought it was decent, but too gritty and not epic enough for Halo. (In fact, I thought that co-producer Peter Jackson should have directed it himself; which would still be a great idea, if a Halo movie ever happens.)
Of course, Blomkamp then dropped out of directing the movie (a decision which he recently explained to Empire), and then went on to direct the Oscar-nominated District 9, and then this year's Elysium.
Rewatching his Halo short film, then, having since seen District 9 and trailers for Elysium, is a different experience. I appreciated it much more with this perspective, since I saw it as Neill Blomkamp's take on Halo, rather than something which is trying to be the definitive take on Halo (if there even is such a thing). Blomkamp's take on Halo very much fits his style: gritty, intense, immediate sci-fi action.
Blomkamp himself comments on this to Empire:
"The problem with me for things like that is that essentially I want to be an artist, I want to be left alone to my own devices. The older I get, the more inheriting someone else's ideas seems less appealing.
It's from two places. The first thing is that the fans expect something, and the fans deserve something. If a fan has been playing Halo for 10 years, they deserve that version of Halo. Whatever that idea of it is that they have in their mind, they deserve it, and I'm not sure that I can provide it. I can provide my version of Halo, which would be a grittier, more messed up version. There were parts of Halo that were difficult for me to wrap my head around, when I was trying to develop the film."
In fact, rewatching the short film and reading this triggered an epiphany. As Steve Carell's Gru from the Despicable Me films would say, “Light...bulb!”*
Neill Blomkamp's humility in acknowledging the subjective side of fandom and that his take on the franchise wouldn't have been for everyone is admirable, but perhaps fans as well as filmmakers could learn from this approach.
As a fan, it's arguably better to look at a film in a franchise made by a particular director as that director's take on the franchise, rather than, 'How dare they ruin my beloved franchise?'
Because directors can be fans too, and not all fans appreciate the source material in exactly the same way.
And that's part of the beauty of storytelling: there's richness and texture and nuance to a good story. That's not to downplay the importance of a good throughline; one clear, simple, entertaining core to the story. Rather, it's to embrace the fact that the bigger picture is tempered by the details.
And thus, different fans can appreciate different details of the storytelling. It be a character, a moment of quirky humour, or simply the ambience evoked. So, naturally, when one of these fans gets the chance to tell their own stories in that universe, they'll tend to emphasise the aspects that most appeal to them.
That's why many fans would probably enjoy the latest instalments of their favourite franchises more if they looked at each one as somebody else's take on their franchise, rather than simply complaining that it's not their take on the franchise.
For instance, some Transformers fans might enjoy the live-action movies more if they saw them as Michael Bay's Transformers. Of course, some people just plain hate Michael Bay's directorial style, but then again, writing off colour saturation, low-angle hero shots, and explosions per se is like hating waffles, cheese, and danish pastries for being awesome...
If it seems like a director with a consistent, distinctive style (that is, an auteur) is simply imposing a style that doesn't suit an existing franchise, it's understandable for fans to be upset.
If, however, it's simply the case that they're a fan, responding to the elements that appeal to them (which may well happen to be in keeping with the stylistic and thematic concerns that already characterise their work), that's fine.
Unless it goes against the core of what the story's about (and even that can sometimes be arguable), it's perfectly valid to explore different facets to a story or world.
Especially in the case of world-building, bringing in new filmmakers (as James Cameron just did to help him write the Avatar sequels, belying his reputation for single-mindedness) can enhance the richness and diversity that's already there. This can work especially well if it's in continuity with the existing canon, creating a dense and vivid and coherent world; but also in terms of reboots.
The continuity approach often works best where there's a key over-arching creative force (such as a showrunner on a TV show); whereas the reboot approach often works best in exploring the nuances of a myth, where different takes on a character or story can enhance the overall mythology—alternate universes, as it were—and there's no reason why they can't all (or at least mostly) be awesome.
Of course, the more recent iterations of a franchise (particularly if they lead to direct sequels) are often the most prevalent in the public consciousness, so it's understandable if some fans feel like their favourite (and perhaps the original) take on the franchise is eclipsed by the the more recent, and in their eyes inferior, versions.
But at least the originals are still there (and often gain awareness from the popularity of the current versions). And just because you don't like a particular take on a franchise, it doesn't mean that other people don't like it.
There's room for diversity in pretty much any given story; the trick is not to see any version as claiming to be the definitive one.
Individual fans can have their own definitive versions of a story, and that's fine; as long as they don't try and tell other people not to like or even prefer other versions of that story.
Of course, there are still some movies that it instinctively seems wrong to remake. Some films are perfect as they are, and there's no /need/ for more.
So, in conclusion, while there are many specific examples that can be drawn out of this, here are some of the more obvious ones:
Star Wars Original Trilogy fans, don't pick on those who like the Prequel Trilogy (and the Sequel Trilogy, when that comes out).
Just because Christopher Nolan rocked his Dark Knight trilogy (and wrapped it up perfectly), doesn't mean that no-one else can deliver a worthwhile take on the character. After it, it happens in comics all the time.
However, Back to the Future should never be remade. Unless were as a stage musical, bringing back Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Alan Silvestri. But the sequels are awesome too.
* Incidentally, it's difficult to imagine a take on Despicable Me that would be quite as winning as the over-the-top tone, gleefully embracing its own ridiculousness, that directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin went for. Though Terrence Malick's take on it would have been interesting. So, in the context of this article, instead of saying, “Light...bulb!”, Gru would probably utter a pensive voice-over along the lines of, “Musing, I stumbled upon an epiphany. Why must creativity be so controversial? Hoarded, instead of shared?”
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