Sunday, May 16, 2010

Get Off My Property!

Today I’d like to talk to you about intellectual property. No, I don’t mean the law school definition of intellectual property. I’m not here to go on about copyrighting or anything of that sort. I’m talking about who has ownership and creative authority when it comes to works of fiction. I’m talking about Anakin Skywalker, Dumbledore, and Donnie Darko, and all those characters, great and small, who have found a place in our hearts and minds. My thesis is that these people do not belong to the George Lucas’s and J.K. Rowling’s of the world. They belong to us, the fans.


This is a line of thought I’ve been pondering for a long time, but Mike’s nostalgic blog entry from last month really inspired me to actually write it down. The gears had been turning for some time, but the spark that really set me off was when J.K. Rowling declared publicly that Dumbledore was gay. To appease the sensitive among us, I’ll first clarify that I don’t care what anyone’s sexual preference is, and I’m in no way homophobic. What bothered me about this revelation was that, after publishing seven lengthy books, Rowling had the audacity to simply declare something about one of Harry Potter’s major characters as fact.
I imagine a press conference room, full of blinking flashbulbs, with Rowling stepping up to the podium with a serious expression on her face, finally delivering the shocking news as reporters scribble furiously. As word disseminates to the masses, people clasp their hands over their mouths gasping, and old women descend onto their fainting couches. Once the shock has died down, people tear the familiar books down from the shelves and scan furiously through them for every subtle morsel of homoeroticism they can find.
It’s a publicity stunt.

This is big news, people!

I’m not here to propose that Dumbledore was or was not gay. You know why? Because there are seven widely beloved books full of fine material through which you can form your OWN opinion. The evidence is there if you want to find it, but if like me, you did not suspect anything in particular, Rowling’s declaration was rather jarring. Dumbledore? I’ve been through seven* years at Hogwarts with you. Why did you never tell me? Suddenly, Rowling has tried to change my fundamental understanding of a beloved character. I have formed a relationship with this character, and suddenly the rug has been pulled out from under my feet.
Bullshit. Dumbledore isn’t yours to mess with any more Rowling. You concluded your series. I saw “The End” right there in black ink. Based on my experiences with them, those Characters are MINE now- And yours, dear reader, and every individuals. The story is too big now for the exclusive control of the author.

*yes I know, technically only six.


It is the beauty of books that so much is left to our imaginations. With a few words to guide us, we paint a picture with our minds- Perhaps a landscape, or a face, or the exact sound of a person’s voice. In a similar way, movies provide room for our imagination to abound via their brevity. Two hour blocks are far too short a time for many of us to spend in our favorite fictional worlds. Well crafted alternate realities, rich in culture and detail, provide an expansive playground for our imaginations. Star Wars is a prime example. Because the original trilogy, the basis upon which all else was made, is only six or seven hours of entertainment, we spend endless time simply thinking about it afterwards. What if I was a Jedi? Or maybe a smuggler, running jobs for gangsters with an alien copilot? On and on we ponder, and from this an extended universe is liable to spring. People write novels, make TV shows, and even fan fiction. An entire universe comes to life, founded firmly on the bedrock of the original material. This unshakable source is the basis of our happy little worlds.
And then they go and change it on us. Sorry everyone, Han Solo is softer than you thought. It turns out Greedo shot first in the cantina. Also, apparently Anakin Skywalker never redeemed himself, because his “force ghost” at the end of Episode VI is him as a young man. I wish it could go back to the way it used to be, but sorry, George Lucas said so.

Wait a minute... who's that guy on the left?

Again: Bullshit.
Sorry George, but the authority left your hands long ago. The saga lives in the hearts of thousands of fans. Many years ago you provided us with the raw materials, but from them we have built more than just movies, we’ve made a facet of our own cultural identity. It’s a slice of Americana, and it is ours to own; ours to decide what to do with.


Donnie Darko has been called the first real “cult” hit of my generation. I think anyone in their early twenties has probably watched this at least a half dozen times in college. With an eerie atmosphere, a dash of time travel, emotional isolation, and nice dollop of anarchist rebellion, Darko draws you in fast. There is love, perversion, science, philosophy, a dysfunctional family, and tons of other intrigue. At the end, the unusual plot and ambiguous themes leave you asking what the hell just happened, but even if you don’t understand, you have been drawn in so totally that you want to watch again and again until you can really wrap your brain around it. Because of this, infinite dorm room discussions have been carried out into the wee hours over the meaning of this movie.
Hey, aren't you the guy from Prince of Persia!?

Unfortunately, “official” explanations of the film tend to be way more disappointing than the amazing theories you and your roommates cooked up at 3AM that night sophomore year. It boils down to something like Donnie is experiencing an alternate universe in which he has super powers. Really? That’s what it’s all about?

Know Thyself

The solution to the inevitable disappointment of “official” explanations is to simply never ever provide one. I mentioned earlier that sometimes stories get bigger than their creators, and I would posit that the best stories tap in to things which are fundamentally human. The undercurrents of society, life, death, sex, god, love, hate, and the entire human experience are present in all of us, even if only at a subconscious level. I believe it is possible for people who are uniquely attuned to these things to write brilliant pieces of fiction, without even necessarily being able to understand why they made the story the way they did. Some might call it accidental genius, but I think it’s more closely related to letting the human condition flow through you. To anyone who has ever sat in the back of an English class during a discussion of symbolism and thought “the author didn’t do that intentionally!” you may be right, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Let’s look at the Matrix Trilogy. While most people find the sequels to be inferior films, there can be no doubt that the entire series is packed to the gills with kung-fu-grade thematic punch. Religion, philosophy, the dichotomy of man and machine, and the relationship of creator and creature underpin everything that happens in these movies- and every overly-verbose monologue delivered by that Colonel Sanders looking guy. Like our friend Donnie Darko, Neo and the gang have had us up all night talking about what it is to be human, and where our place is in the world of the spiritual.

For anyone curious about the deeper themes in The Matrix, the Animatrix is an essential supplement.

In a master stroke of NOT meddling, and in the first move which I will applaud in this entry, Matrix creators the Wachowski brothers chose to withhold any “official” explanation of their tale. Instead, on the DVD commentary, they invite a panel of philosophers to discuss the meaning of the films. This was a brilliant decision. In this way, the story is still allowed to grow in whatever direction we are most happy with. If someone were to offer an explanation that disagrees with your own, you can easily dismiss it as a mere opinion. The Wachowskis have opened up a well for us from which we may drink in vast amounts of thematic speculation and pondering. If they were to have given their own definitive explanation, they would have replaced the well with a sippy cup.

So What am I Getting At?

There is in fact a point to this long ramble. Actually, there are two.
First, I believe it is important for authors, filmmakers, and other purveyors of fiction to leave their works be. Do not return to change things, and do not undermine the world you have created for the fans. Stories can grow beyond the scope of the creators control, and indeed, even beyond their understanding. After a point, their opinion is no longer more valid than anyone else’s, which leads me to point number two: Decide for yourself whose version you wish to believe. You must acknowledge that if you have found value and meaning in a story, no one can take that away from you.
Humans are story tellers, and through stories we find meaning and understanding in the real world. When you find a piece of fiction that resonates in your soul, take comfort in knowing that it is yours to own, and no one else can change your story.


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Blogger ♥x-Sydney said...

Brilliant. I really like your writing style, and you make a good point! I'd love to share this post on Facebook, can you make that happen?

Thanks for being brilliant, entertaining, funny and just plain made of awesome.

May 16, 2010 at 11:50 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Sometimes I think Rowling decided Dumbledore was gay just because she was tired of answering "when are Dumbledore and McGonagall gonna get together?!11!!!" at every single book signing and Q&A and chat...

But I still don't get why Dumbledore being gay pisses people off. Being mad at the publicity stunt is one thing. But saying that it disrupts the character or the story -- when nothing in the story has anything to do with who Dumbledore is pining after, dating, or sleeping with -- that I don't get. How are the series and character better if Dumbledore is straight? How are they worse if Dumbledore is gay? If the reader's not homophobic, then I just don't get how it's even an issue.

(Again, I ask all this as a separate issue from the publicity-stunt-ness of the revelation itself.)

May 17, 2010 at 8:31 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Sydney, Thanks a lot! Great to know someone has enjoyed this! As of now we don't have any social network buttons built in to the blog, but if you'd like to post a URL to your facebook, you can use:
for this article, or
for our general blog.

Rebecca, I totally agree that his sexual preference has no relevance to the story, which is why it should simply be left alone and not addressed. Homosexuality is a hot-button issue, and announcing that he is gay is sure to generate buzz, hence my assertion that it's a publicity stunt.
A friend of mine actually offered another angle that I hadn't thought of, which is that this was Rowling's way of making a stand for the gay community. That's a possibility, but I guess we can't know her true motivations for certain. Either way, I still don't like her just declaring things about the characters.

May 17, 2010 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

RE: Dumbledore...

I think it's universally agreed that his sexual orientation has no baring on the story at all. Dan's point is that, given this fact, there was really no reason for Rowling to make a big publicity hubub about Dumbledore being gay. Because gay rights is such a hot topic, she knew that she was forever changing how people read her books. If it was actually important to the story, she would/should have included it in her writing instead of trying to shoehorn it in after they were all finished.

The issue isn't "Dumbledore is gay". I'm pretty sure Dan would be making the same argument if Rowling released a statement declaring "Ron Weasley is the reincarnation of Buddha" instead. It just reeks of a publicity stunt to sell more books so people can search for 'evidence' of these new claims.

(Note: I've only read one or two of the Harry Potter books, and my knowledge of Rowling's personality is limited, so my opinion is solely based on how this situation looks on the surface. I've also never seen Donnie Darko, so I guess the only thing I can really comment on with any authority is the Star Wars stuff!)

May 17, 2010 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

Well I hear Dumbledore is really a CIA spy who's so deep undercover that there are no clues about it in the text. And he schedules all of his contacts with headquarters to coincide with Harry doing something a lot more interesting so none of the readers will be paying attention.

May 17, 2010 at 11:58 AM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Fair enough, Dan. I wasn't totally clear on it.

I think she was overwhelmed by the midichlorians, personally.

May 17, 2010 at 12:16 PM  
Blogger llogg said...

Your argument is that the creator should have less input into the creation than the audience? Nonsense. While I hate the "new trilogy" Star Wars with the heat of a thousand suns for ruining the mythology I had built up in my head, I cannot fault Lucas for telling his side of it. In the end, since it's all fiction, what you choose to accept as the "truth" about any of it is completely up to you. I choose to ignore the second and third Matrix films because the story I had composed in my head is far more fulfilling to me.

May 30, 2010 at 12:17 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Hi llogg, I've just now seen your comment.

"Your argument is that the creator should have less input into the creation than the audience? Nonsense."

That's not what I meant at all. I encourage creators to not _retroactively_ mettle in their own works, but ultimately conclude with: "Decide for yourself whose version you wish to believe. You must acknowledge that if you have found value and meaning in a story, no one can take that away from you." --Which is essentially what you were saying about your choice to ignore the latter matrix films. I think we are on the same page.


August 10, 2010 at 4:06 PM  

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