Peter Jackson, JJ Abrams, and The Sterility of Fanboy Criticism
Imagine if you will a venerated story, enjoyed by adults and children alike for generations, beloved for its imparted mythic wisdom. To call it a “classic” is practically an understatement; the original work was penned by a writer who has long been acknowledged as one of the canonical giants of English letters.
Now imagine that many years after their publication, someone decided to take this literary master’s works and change its medium from the sublime, imagination-fueled world of the strictly written word to one both visual and “live action.” In order to do so, this new so-called “artist” has decided to spice things up for his modern audience, creating not only new scenes, but new characters and storylines.
And talk about long… The original work wasn’t exactly short, mind you, but this new version just goes on and on for hours. And in order to make it longer, the new guy uses some storylines that are actually from entirely different books, just shoved into the middle of the story. He even goes so far as to add unneeded sexual titillation to the tale by creating a ridiculous forbidden romance between a key but non-lead character and an entirely new and improbable character, a sexy, effective killer from the lower classes of their realm.
Clearly, this new guy either has no idea what he’s doing or he has an ego the size of Texas. I mean, if the original author had wanted to make the story that long, he would have written a longer book. If he’d wanted to highlight a forbidden attraction between to characters that aren’t supposed to mix, he would have penned one. If he wanted a hodgepodge of various subplots from completely different books, he would have… well, you get the picture.
Fans of the original work certainly should not have been surprised. Anyone who had seen this new guy’s prior work would have known that this “artist” had no regard for the literary greatness he simultaneously mined and defiled. He was always adding and deleting parts of others’ works just to suit his own whims.
Yeah, that William Shakespeare guy totally butchered Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story about King Lear.
Since its release last week, a certain kind of Internet movie critic has been lining up to criticize Disney’s Maleficent, the mirrored-on-the-wall perspective of the classic villain from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. And because they come from this particular set of critics, the actual criticisms are often levied not against director Robert Stromberg’s finished work so much as they are against the very concept of changing an existing and well-known work of art.
This was entirely predictable, of course. On the Internet in 2014, it’s simply what we do. Because of all the things the Internet does really well, fostering an understanding of art is not one of them.
Every season has its release of music, film, stagecraft, literature and visual arts that revamps a recognizable classic into a new and younger artist’s own image. In some instances, such as Maleficent, the original vaults from which the artist has stolen are quite obvious. In most, however, the theft is either subtler, or — far more likely — the plundered work is one well known to students of the medium but somewhat obscure to the rest of us. Thus do both Frank Zappa and John Coltrane pilfer from lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky, who brazenly swiped from composer Serge Koussevitzky. Reverse that thievery timeline from Koussevitzky and you’ll find you have additional indictments of theft for painter Romare Beardon, poet Langston Hughes and composer Leonard Bernstein — who himself rebooted Shakespeare, who rebooted Albert Brooke, who rebooted Mateo Bandello, who rebooted Richard Tottell, who rebooted Xenophon of Ephesus, who rebooted Ovid, who just put to paper a folk story older than writing itself. (Nihil novi sub sole, indeed.)
It is a peculiar and somewhat new quirk of our own age, then, that new artistic interpretations of existing work have somehow become verboten amongst the Intertubes’ intelligentsia. True, in the past it’s been acceptable (even common) for one to not care for a new artist’s vision, and any new work has always had its detractors as well as its admirers. Heck, the descriptor “I liked the book better” has long been an overused cliché, even as I continue to reach for it. Today’s objections, however, seem to be largely driven by a growing and Internet-fed type of artistic criticism, which for the purposes of this post I will call fanboy criticism.
When a new work today draws heavily from an older piece, subsequent fanboy criticism is based not so much on that work within its own context, but rather on the degree to which it is or is not exactly like the original. In fact, fanboy criticism is not so much artistic evaluation as it is a purity test. Its language is more strident, and more… doctrinal. (Indeed, it is notable that the word fanboy critics use to determine the validity of a work drawn from a source they already know is “canonical.”) This is far more subversive than it appears at first blush, and if heeded potentially more damaging. Artistic creation has always required not only the pilfering but also the willful destruction of what has come before it. Fanboy criticism, therefore, is a new and twisted kind of artistic criticism that ardently demands of an artist the complete cessation of artistic impulse.
And though the criticism for his Maleficent was figuratively (and in some cases probably literally) written before the armies of Salon and Salon-Wanna-Be bloggers had a chance to even see it, Stromberg was at least somewhat shielded by choosing to rework a story beloved mostly by girls rather than boys. (As a general rule, fanboy critics skew heavily toward focusing on male-targeted material.) Compared to their reactions to Peter Jackson and JJ Abrams, fanboy critics practically threw Stromberg a parade.
Jackson, of course, has reworked the classic tomes of JRR Tolkien for the big screen and — too his credit — created something entirely his own while doing so; because of this fanboy critics have had it in for him ever since. There are various specific reasons given for their wrath, but almost all of them stem from Jackson making deviations from the novels from which he mined source material. The one I see most often about Lord of the Rings, in fact, is that Jackson had the audacity to edit some scene or character out of the final production. (This criticism despite the fact that, by my recollection, the entire trilogy goes on longer than most presidential administrations.) And the fanboy criticism of Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy has shown that if fanboys do not want change by edit, neither do they want change by expansion. In short, fanboy critics want absolutely zero artistic contribution that hasn’t already been provided by Tolkien.
Whatever fanboy critics issues are with Jackson, they are at least on somewhat steadier footing than they are with Abrams. Jackson, after all, used as his source material the works of a man now widely considered one of the premiere British novelists on the 20th century. Abrams, on the other hand, has thus far earned his place among the fanboy critics’ pantheon of History’s Greatest Monsters by reimagining Star Trek, a multi-media franchise whose clam to artistic greatness is somewhat flimsier.
Trek — and I say this as a huge, unabashed, and life-long fan — consists of several television series whose actual individual episodes, despite their occasional bursts of greatness, have largely not stood the test of time. It is also as a series of films that, aside from the second of each “generation,” have alternately been either fine but forgettable or downright terrible. Hell, from a non-fanboy viewpoint you could have not loved either of Abrams’ films and still easily agreed that they were in the top-four of the franchise. When seen in that comparative light, it is somewhat difficult to understand the vitriol constantly leveled at Abrams — until, of course, one views that vitriol through the lens of fanboy criticism.
More than Jackson, Abrams’ Trek rebuilt a previous set of works with his own vision. Indeed, all of Abrams stories that I have seen have been, largely, small bits of a single work, in the same way that all of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are unique bits of a whole. While Roddenberry’s vision was essentially centered on the idea that history’s purpose is to move forward in a regular progression toward a better world (or galaxy) for all, Abrams’ works are all about cosmic destiny. His signature TV series — Alias, Lost, and Fringe — all swirl around his idea that certain Great-with-a-capital-G people are ineffably connected to both one another and pivotal moments in history. Each of Abrams stories is designed to essentially tell that story. Give someone amnesia, send them back through time, fling them to parallel universe, kill them, even eliminate them from the fabric of history so that they never existed, and some unseen Hand that moves the very levers of the Universe will find a way to make sure those people still meet and shape history in the way they were always destined.
This is, of course, the central story of each of Abrams’ Star Trek movies. Abrams’ favorite missive was more obvious in the first; it was pretty much spelled out by the Leonard Nimoy Spock character. The second movie, however, makes less sense if you are unaware of Abrams’ history. The movie operates in a separate timeline (or, if you prefer, alternate universe) where literally every person has a different history than they had in the original works leading into the film. Despite this, Abrams (for better or worse) makes the piece his own: The Enterprise meets, partners with, and eventually opposes Khan Noonien Singh. The stakes of the ensuing conflict are high, as a potential despot has acquired a technological edge that might allow victory over the current democratic state. The ensuing battle is won largely through the yin and yang strengths of the ship’s two ranking officers, who have a classic male-hero love relationship. The victory requires a knowing self-sacrifice from one, which eventually sends the other to seek a “scientifically explained” yet still wholly divine resurrection. As with all of Abrams’ work, the central message in Into Darkness is that no matter how advanced our science and technology have become — even when it can allow us to remake time and the universe itself — those who are Great cannot escape the nooses Destiny fashions for them.
This central tenet of Abrams’ vision will, I’ll wager, find its way into the fabric of his upcoming Star Wars reboot. That movie might be fantastic; it might be terrible. In either case, to fanboy critics it won’t matter because it will surely not pass the purity test (JJ Abrams is a very different artist than George Lucas) and the Intertubes will be full of angry screeds declaring betrayal. This despite the fact that Lucas is — let’s face it — hardly the second coming of Shakespeare. As with Trek, I’m a huge Star Wars fan, but let’s be honest with ourselves. The franchise to date is one super-fun movie that pulled off the neat trick of being as highly inventive as it was derivative for its time, followed by a truly great movie, followed by a poor movie, followed by a movie so bad it was painful to watch, followed by two movies that were just okay and featured a lead actor who couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. That’s basically Star Wars in a nutshell. (Well, that and hundreds of pulp mass-market books written for a sixth-grade reading level and roughly a gajillion merchandised items made in third-world countries.)
Now, you might not enjoy Abrams vision, which is fine. Not everyone is fond of cubism, and if you aren’t it can certainly interfere with your enjoyment of viewing, say, Picasso’s Guernica. And that really is okay. Just because an artist makes a statement does not mean that one is required to applaud it. (In truth, I was not particularly satisfied with Star Trek: Into Darkness myself.) But there is a lot of real estate in between the statement that you don’t care for Picasso, and angry screeds that Picasso should not have been allowed to paint — which, when you get down to it, is the central assessment for those that run afoul of fanboy critics.
As I said earlier, all of this has at least the potential to be damaging.
For one thing, I read more and more these days that publishers, movies studios, and television production companies actively seek out fanboy approval before letting their own writers and directors create their own new visions. This doesn’t mean that fanboy movies can’t be great; they can. I think of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series as one of the best and smartest movie trilogies ever made, and I’m a total snob.
But fanboy critics don’t want artists pushing their boundaries, which is what art requires. Fanboy critics instead want the same thing repackaged over and over, even if that thing was poor and uninspired to begin with. This means that for mediums such as movies where investment capital is required, artistic progression is becoming even more rare than it was even ten years ago, and that’s saying something. In fact, it occurs to me as I write this that the Platonic Ideal of a fanboy critic’s movie is Gus Van Sant’s Psycho: an almost-exact replica of an existing work, except with current box-office-draw actors, costumes closer to modern fashions and better special effects to make it feel more fresh.
The problem, of course, is that you can only faithfully re-make the same work of art so many times before what you mistakenly took for “freshness” begins to smell rancid.
 My very favorite fanboy criticism piece on Jackson was Salon’s review of The Desolation of Smaug, which rather hilariously and begrudgingly declared it OK if somewhat offensive, in that while writing a script populated by dragons, hobbits, dwarves and elves, Jackson “made stuff up.”
(And the fact that the Hildebrandts rely heavily on depicting all female characters as having a nine-inch waists while improbably sporting a DDD cup size probably doesn’t hurt their fanboy critic cred either.)
 As I write this, I know people here are going to object. But I like the Heir to the Empire series (or whatever), some people are probably saying. And again, that’s fine. It really is. I like a lot of books that are brain candy, too. I’m sure a lot of Start Wars books have fun plot lines with characters you really enjoy. Nothing wrong with that.
But let’s not kid ourselves about these books and the people who write them. They really are written for a sixth-grade reading level, and they’re written that way quite purposefully. Star Wars is, first and foremost, a merchandising operation, and if Lucas Arts is going to publish a mass market paperback they want you and that sixth grader to be a potential customer.
Also, there’s a reason why Timothy Zhan and Jude Watson aren’t writing the next Remains of the Day, Wolf Hall or Telegraph Avenue. Likewise, there’s a reason Lucas Arts doesn’t approach the Ishiguros, Mantels and Chabons of the world to pen its next paperback Jedi Twins trilogy — and it ain’t because Lucas Arts just can’t scrounge up enough money to hire them.
 Although I suppose it does bear noting that of all the comic-based blockbuster writer-directors, Nolan is the only one I’ve never seen talk about how he worked with fan-blogs when writing his scripts. Instead, I seem to remember reading that he bounced ideas off of other writers.