If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then perhaps Shakespeare didn’t roll over in his grave and groan when Dreamworks retold his classic play Twelfth Night in the form of a high school romantic comedy. Questions of authenticity and originality have been on the forefront of literary concern with works like Fifty Shades of Grey gaining a widespread fan base outside of its initially niche market of middle-aged housewives. Its popularity has little to do with its roots as an AU, or “alternate universe” Twilight fan fiction, originally published on the web and then picked up for publication. This is not the first instance of fan fiction being published reputably. Sherlock Holmes, a beloved character created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, became public domain and immediately short stories and books appeared using the famous the sleuth as a main or side character. People can publish books like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes where an author would crossover two worlds of fiction for a greater depth of plot. More recently, an RPF, or “real person fiction”, written by a teenage girl about her imaginary adventures with the band One Direction was picked for publication. Obviously some names must be changed and certain details blurred, but that does not change the story’s origins.
Fan fiction is not just limited to the page as many works have been adapted and re-adapted for the big or small screen. Sherlock Holmes was recently reset in the modern era by the BBC, and CBS quickly followed with their hit show, Elementary. Is it a lack of imagination that leads us to reuse old plot devices or perhaps a simple fascination with untold stories that drives people to retell a story previously told? As far back as Ancient Greece, people have been using well-known stories for their own creative ends. Sophocles brought Oedipus to life on stage, but not a single audience member would have entered the theatre without any knowledge of the Oedipus story. They attended for the same reason people watch the fifth remake of Pride and Prejudice. A timeless story fascinates its audience to the point of inspiration.
Authors are allowed to publish novel “remixes” like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies using a great deal of the original works text and adding passages of their own. Works like this are not derivative. They are extensions of a pre-existing, already created universe manipulated to meet a new artist’s needs. Some works have elements of fan fiction but cannot be classified as such since the original artist has given permission for alterations. This occurs in the adaptation of book to film. The Lord of the Rings films are not fan fiction. They may have previously nonexistent elements that someone has arbitrarily decided to include, but these changes are also the casualties caused by the transfer from one medium to another.
Fan fiction, and fan works, pervade the modern entertainment spheres. New books retelling fairy tales and re-imagining classic novels are being written every day with varying degrees of success. I have The Eyre Affair and Death Comes to Pemberley patiently waiting on my Kindle for a rainy day and even though neither Austen nor Brontë had a hand in the crafting of these novels, I’m still pretty excited to read them.
- Chauncey Baker