14 November 2016 ¦ Juliet Conway.
Recently a child showed me his favourite book; a written version of The Angry Birds Movie, which is already a film based, of course, on the popular App. When asked what he thought of the book, his reply was ‘it was good’, but ‘the birds weren’t the same as the game’. As a literature student I should probably balk at the idea that his favourite literature is the account of a pixelated bird, but instead he got me thinking. In a world where fiction is communicated in so many forms, which one is given precedence when contradictions occur?
What can and can’t be considered canonical in a fictional paradigm is a debate growing in complexity as new media forms gain popularity. One of the earliest recorded uses of the word canon (to describe material officially accepted as part of a fictional world) was in relation to the Sherlock Holmes series. In the absence of modern media forms, defining the Sherlock canon was simple. Stories written by Conan Doyle were considered canonical, while those penned in imitation by others were not – essentially ‘canonical’ was synonymous with the phrase ‘created by the original writer’. A century later, this simplicity no longer exists; in part because the number of avenues for fiction to be told have proliferated. When it is not always the original story form which gains fame, defining canon becomes complicated. I’d be surprised, for example, if most people knew The Phantom of The Opera was originally a novel. Or that a play of The King’s Speech was penned before the screenplay. Is art in its original form always granted authority over what it influences, or does popularity supersede stated authorial intention? Is it what an artist creates first or last that has most weight? They are questions famously addressed in the context of literature in Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ and Foucault’s ‘What is an Author’. Yet with the increasing popularity of media forms beyond the novel, these debates grow increasingly complex.
Living with a die-hard Harry Potter fan, I’ve discovered how far the Potter Universe expands beyond the original series. The canon works on a hierarchical basis. First come the seven novels, then the five spin-off books, followed by Pottermore, the films, the video games and finally fan-fiction. Anything on the list (excluding fan-fiction) may be considered canonical, unless it contradicts a ‘higher’ form. Yet this neat structure was thrown into disarray by the publication of The Cursed Child script in Summer 2016, which caused controversy by seemingly undermining aspects of the original canon. Despite J.K.Rowling being a co-writer, many fans have discredited the play as an inauthentic part of the ‘Potterverse’ – a problematic decision to reconcile with Pottermore’s claim that the script is ‘officially the eighth story’ in the series. It is clear that if The Cursed Child is to be excluded from the Potter canon it is only because fans prefer it that way.
This deliberately constructed canon is reminiscent of Harper Lee’s publication of Go Set a Watchman. Published 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel was initially pitched as a sequel. Yet in the uproar of disappointment, centred on the inconsistent characterisation of Atticus Finch (transformed from progressive hero to, as Alice Vincent describes, a ‘racist bigot’) it is now commonly described as a draft. Approached objectively there is little to support ignoring Watchman in favour of Mockingbird when it was written first, published most recently and depicts the characters later in life. Yet as an Atticus fan, I sympathise with the desire to keep the original novel untainted by the new one. When artists re-imagine their own works, does what is and isn’t canonical boil down to public reception?
Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones series perfectly illustrates the slippery and subjective nature of the canon concept. Fielding created the character of Bridget Jones (ironically already an imitation of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett) to appear in a column in The Independent. The publication of the books secured a film deal, producing two blockbusters, both sharing the titles of the books. Although deviating from their plots, with no irreconcilable contradictions, the books and films could co-exist as part of Bridget’s story. Yet as the film’s popularity succeeded the books, this changed. The third film, Bridget Jones’ Baby, came out before Fielding finished her novel of the same name. Though sharing a title, the plots differ in ways which cannot be ignored, namely in the death of a different major character. What does that mean for the canon? Even if we are to forget Austen’s inspiration there are now two Bridget Jones’ universes for the audience to choose from. While the film has been reviewed positively, the book has been deemed a lesser alternative. As Zoe Williams scathingly describes: ‘this literary version was phoned in, a hazy half-world’. As Bridget’s commercial character has gained fame, the control of her author has diminished so that Fielding’s attempts to write her own character are hailed feeble imitations of Bridget’s ‘reality’.
So who owns Bridget Jones? Fielding? Austen? The screenwriters? The viewers? The readers? Although these questions of authorship and authority have always existed, new media forms undoubtedly add to the complexity of canonicity. Each rewrite and remediation of a canon provides new stages on which authors and audiences alike might develop their art and their fictional worlds.
I’m an Edinburgh girl through and through and am currently in my seventh year at the University. I have just started a PhD researching the flirt figure in American fiction from 1870-1920, which is about as ditzy as it sounds. When I’m not examining how to flirt guides, I love looking at how academic ideas can be translated for audiences outside of University.
Article edited by Bridget Moynihan and Ruby Katz.