Can Storyworld Theory change the way fans argue about character changes?

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Mar 28, 2018, 1:00 PM EDT (Updated)

In February, a rumor surfaced suggesting that the next actor under consideration for the role of Green Lantern was Tom Cruise. This news upset fans anticipating the introduction of the John Stewart storyline, which stars a black man as Green Lantern. Others questioned Cruise's physical abilities to play the character, as well.

Soon, a handful of fanboys were attacking an Afro-Latina fan over her belief that a black Green Lantern was overdue. "Hal Jordan is the OG," one commenter said, referring to the white character who donned the Green Lantern suit at the beginning of the comic's reign. "Read a comic," was his response when the conversation devolved into insults.

Green Lantern John Stewart

Credit: DC Comics

These days, it seems that so many discussions about transmedia comic adaptations or changing into television, film, games, etc. seems to end badly. No consensus is reached on the topic and the discourse between differing sides and the conversation isn't advanced beyond the start point. Is there another way to reframe discussions to avoid the derailing elements and make these meetings of the fandom minds more productive? After all, pleasing the fandom has some appeal for media makers, the people who adapt comics. Wouldn't they have a stake in seeing the outcomes of productive fan discourse on a character, story, or series?

This idea of reframing the conversation is very appealing, and was the original focus of this article until I interviewed the leading scholar in transmedia narrative theory. Dr. Marie-Laure Ryan usually discusses her research in front of conferences and classrooms. I engaged her with the idea of using the language of her transmedia theory to reframe the fandoms discussion, but ended up in the opposite direction.

Dr. Ryan's published research on transmedia narratives includes Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling (2004), Intermediality and Storytelling (2010), and Storyworlds Across Media (2014) among other papers, presentations, and essays. She has been researching, exploring, and developing her work for years. That research includes exploring and understanding how the storyworld that is created when a writer writes a story is changed/affected when it crosses into another medium. Essentially, what happens to the storyworld when a story goes from comics to film to video, and further? How do those new characters and changes in character fit? Where do the new storylines go? What else needs to be considered?

These questions are just a few that drive Dr. Ryan's research. I asked Dr. Ryan through a series of emails about her theory, and if there could be a way that fans can use her work to discuss adaptations productively. Her answer was a double-edged yes and no.

"Those are very interesting questions that you bring up — do transmedia storyworlds have an inalienable core, which cannot be changed without upsetting (some) fans?" Dr. Ryan began, before answering with another, rhetorical, question. "After how many transformations is a storyworld no longer perceived as the same storyworld?"

She went on, "Since you are familiar with my work you know about the [three] operations of expansion (welcome by fans), modification (which hard-core fans resist), and transposition, which creates a different world with 'alter egos' of the characters of the original world, and is not really practiced in transmedia franchises but frequent in literature (Cf. Jane Austen transpositions). Hardcore fans I suppose would ignore transpositions since it creates a different world. A successful transmedia product is one that both respects core conditions and opens new plot possibilities."

Her reiteration of the three expansions did jog my memory, but I still had the question about the "inalienable core" and pleasing those "hardcore fans."

She answered with examples from a successful transmedia franchise — Star Wars.

Star Wars The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker

Credit: Lucasfilm

"I am not familiar with the two transmedia worlds you mention in your mail, but the two recent Star Wars films have successfully opened their world to new characters while maintaining a link with the past. Now the characters from the past (Mark Hamill, Harrison [Ford]) are dead, but a new generation has taken over. (I don't know what they will do with Carrie Fisher, whose character does not die in the most recent film)."

I can see how the successful franchise is one that is able to expand — see all of the Star Wars YA novels, video games, films, and animated series that each expand the story in a new direction. However, as Dr. Ryan says, they do so while remaining connected to those foundation films and characters that everyone is familiar with. This is what makes fans happy.

Don't change the debate.

So, could fans benefit from learning her theory and using it to discuss adaptations?

Dr. Ryan answered, "I think that there is no 'right' or 'wrong' with fan reactions; whether or not one agrees with them, studying what people say on social media is a great way to do 'reader response' criticism. The problems fans raise are more important than the response they give." She went on to encourage me to study the fan reactions, in what narrative scholars would refer to as reader response.

And there is value in hearing the fans out, even if the discussion gets bogged down in racial insults and does not progress.

Dr. Ryan says, "Studying fan discussions will reveal what is, for fans, the essential, and the secondary features of a storyworld. There will be no universal agreement, but fan discussions make it possible to evaluate narrative features in terms of their importance."

Thus, the challenge becomes analyzing the discourse coming from the fandoms to determine what can be used in the next transmedia expansion. In other words, how can the debate between the Afro-latina seeking representation onscreen, and the fanboys wanting an homage to their "OG" be used to create a successful Green Lantern movie? Dr. Ryan says that a successful expansion is also one that garners fan favor, so listening to both sides of the debate and analyzing the "reader response" is something that studios can benefit from.

In the post-Black Panther era of cinema where fans drove a long-shot film to be the highest grossing superhero movie ever, reader response is something that creators, studios, and financiers in the film world should be listening to. Black Panther broke Hollywood's "rule of thumb" on action films with black leads targeting black audiences, despite years of fans crying out for representation in the cinematic universes of their favorite fandoms. Dr. Ryan's research already shows that expansions of the storyworlds only work for fans if they connect to the original material, while providing something new to the storyworld. By listening to the fans, the makers of the adaptations can figure out what those core elements are, and which expansions will be the least upsetting to the storyworld.

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther

Credit: Marvel Studios

Fandom debates can get really hairy, some downright sexist, racist, and homophobic. It is our first instinct to dismiss this feedback from fans as trolling and move along, or to seek out ways to reframe the argument. However, doing so only cuts creators off from one of the most knowledgeable sources of material about a storyworld, and also a large part of the market the finished film will release to.

So, instead of changing how fandoms discuss the storyworlds, maybe the change should be in how fandoms are discussed overall. Fandom response is valuable information, no matter how negative it may get. The key is to gather up the response from all corners of the fandom and analyze it. Therein lie the answers to the "inalienable core" of a storyworld and the means for the adaptation's success.

Despite the appearance that these discussions are at a stalemate when they devolve into the name-calling, a little analysis will show that in fact, some valuable progress has been made. In other words, while both the Afro-Latina Green Lantern fan and the White fanboys opposing her can't agree on which version of the character to go with for the movie, the racially charged digression of their conversation overshadows one point: No one wants Tom Cruise as Green Lantern.