At the end of my podcast with Kirsten Dietrich about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a topic of discussion came up that I would like to mull about a bit longer in this post. We talked about whether the Harry Potter movies, even if they are maybe not the best possible translation of the books into moving pictures (I still think that a TV series might have made for a better, if more expensive, adaptation), have become the definitive visual representation of the seven novels, not least because the author J. K. Rowling was very involved in the production and casting from the very beginning.
Translations from one medium into another usually involve several changes in the ur-text to fit and, indeed, adapt it to the new medium. In this way, they generally create a new universe related to but not congruent to the universe of the ur-text. In one of the videos on the Extended Edition of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, the screenwriters and some Tolkien experts broach this topic when they talk about adapting Tolkien’s novel. I think it is Brian Sibley who points out that, in the future, there will be two important Rings texts: Tolkien and Tolkien as interpreted by Jackson.1
In the case of Harry Potter, because the author was so heavily involved in the adaptation process, the two universes are almost alike. The films, although they differ from the books in some ways, have almost become part of the Harry Potter canon (and indeed are seen this way by the fans of the HP universe) and have succeeded in creating the definitive visual representations of characters and some events in the books because they have Rowling’s seal of approval. This has even been enforced legally, as Kirsten points out in the podcast. When Sabine Wilharm, the illustrator who created the covers for the Harry Potter books in Germany, created additional paintings that show other scenes from the books, Warner Bros. sued the commissioning publisher. The same brute force has been applied to creators of fan sites.
Ownership of and control over an intellectual property is the foundation of succesful franchising. While it does goes to silly extremes sometimes (as mentioned above), it’s a key ingredient to make the franchise work and fit together. For the process of adapting source material into film while controlling that source material at the same time (as Rowling did), this still seems to me to be a relatively new mainstream concept that I would trace back to the creation of Marvel Studios in 1996. I’ve read enough “development hell” stories to believe that adaptations, for example of comics, used to be handled differently. The IP owner would sell their license and the studio would go and adapt it, sometimes screwing up, sometimes not, but always with very little input from the IP’s originators.
The early films produced with Marvel Studios in tow, such as Sam Raimis Spider-Man films and Bryan Singers X-Men films, already had a certain amount of faithfulness to the source material “in spirit” that earlier incarnations had not achieved (or so, I gather, fans believe), similar to Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien. By setting up the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), however, the former comic book publisher has added another layer to the cake: harnessing the process of filmmaking, which involves hundreds of people in contrast to the few involved in creating a comic book, to produce a number of films that tie in to create one cinematic universe that, while not corresponding one-on-one to its source material, is canonic in its own right. In effect, they too are creating definitive cinematic versions of their comic book characters.
I have already expressed my admiration for the Avengers film, the first culmination of the MCU, in this blog one year ago and there is nothing more illuminating about the process than this quote by Marvel president Kevin Feige:
It’s never been done before and that’s kind of the spirit everybody’s taking it in. The other filmmakers aren’t used to getting actors from other movies that other filmmakers have cast, certain plot lines that are connected or certain locations that are connected but I think for the most part, in fact, entirely everyone was on board for it and thinks that its fun. Primarily because we’ve always remained consistent saying that the movie that we are making comes first. All of the connective tissue, all of that stuff is fun and is going to be very important if you want it to be. (Source)
The result might be thought of as a slap in the face to the individual artistic expression of any one director but it’s very effective. Marvel are applying to movies what has been general practice in TV series for ages, even more so since the advent of complicated series with multiple narrative strands such as The X-Files or Lost. They are continuing down this route, rebooting Spider-Man (as they already did with The Incredible Hulk) and, in effect, X-Men to integrate them into their grand scheme. And DC, with their umpteenth version of Superman (Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder) and, probably, Batman in the works, are hard on their heels.
The difference to a TV series, of course, is that there is no real linear plot to the MCU. While the films leading up to The Avengers share a certain timeline, each narrative strand also stands on its own with just a few nods to its sister narratives. If the actors are willing to participate, the films allow for endless tangents and intersections while they, at the same time, stay locked together in one unified and definitive worldtrack2 controlled by Marvel.3
This article only summarises some of the things I have been thinking about lately. I have probably forgotten important ideas and misinterpreted others. I would be very happy to discuss the thoughts sketched out above in more detail with readers of this article. Head to the comments!
1 Jackson very cleverly mediated between his version of Tolkien and the visual interpretations that had come before him by enlisting John Howe and Alan Lee as concept artists. In this way, there is no real “break” between how many fans had always imagined Middle-Earth to look like, including cover illustrations etc. into their imaginations (as one does), and how it looked like in the film. ^
2 I have just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s novel “Anathem” and borrowed this word from the book. ^
3 A multi-faceted adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series with Ron Howard at the helm that, in its concept, shares some ideas with something like the MCU has, unfortunately, just been canned. ^
2 thoughts on “Rowling, Marvel and DC – Controlling the Cinematic Universe”