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Art in Adaptation

Fanfiction on the big screen

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Art in Adaptation

Editor’s note: “Art in Adaptation” is a bi-weekly column exploring the changes between original works and adaptations as well as their effects on popular culture. 

Fanfiction is one of the pinnacles of fandom culture. It offers new alternatives to consuming written media, and it fosters consistent interaction in online communal spaces. But what is it really?

Fanfiction is fan-written literature based on preexisting people or media and is usually read and written on the internet. Everything from miscellaneous media to celebrities have fanfictions written about them. Through the emergence of websites like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own (AO3), fanfiction has never been more accessible than it is now. 

Fanfiction is one of the ultimate forms of community bonding within many fandoms, but now that fanfiction has become more lucrative, what does that mean for the original source materials and the fandoms they cater to? What happens when fanfiction becomes published, or even adapted onto the big screen? 

It is hard to pinpoint the exact origins of fanfiction and what constitutes “fan” writing. I spoke with Tom Foster, a professor who incorporates fanfiction analysis into his English courses, to discuss the distinctions between retelling original stories and fanfiction.

“There’s a tendency to define fanfiction as being outside commercial structures,” Foster said. “It’s a spin on the idea that it is amateur writing. There's not actually a sharp distinction between fanfiction and reboots, except that reboots are at one extreme end of the spectrum. Reboots are typically less about adding something new to the original story and are more about trying to make an older work relevant to new, younger audiences. In that sense, they do have some of that reparative kind of impulse that fanfiction has.”

Our human instinct to discuss similar interests with others is the main reason why fanfiction exists. While there have been debates on how creative fan literature can really be, there is no such debate on the influence that fanfiction has on fandom culture online.

“Fanfiction just adds more opportunity to explore the world of [existing] characters you love,” Sydney Porter, a former fanfiction writer and fourth-year student, said. “For some, it’s a great opportunity to write a story without having to start from scratch. You are given resources you can build off of and it’s extremely useful. For people who are reading it, fanfiction is a good way to explore [a series] a bit more and find a good sense of community.”

The fanfiction community seems like the antithesis of commercialized media. For many, fanfiction is one of the only ways you can provide representation within a preexisting piece of media. Fans often write storylines that include marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQIA+ community, who are frequently absent from popular media. 

“What I like about fanfiction is that it has a kind of simultaneous respect and productive lack of respect for the original,” Foster said. “The real value of fanfiction is that it's willing to push the limits of the original in ways that commercial producers typically are not.” 

The adaptation of fanfiction to more “official” and published forms of media has had a polarizing effect online. A lot of critics are unable to understand how fanfiction could be adapted on-screen when it is so heavily influenced by another original work. The book and film series “Fifty Shades of Grey,” notoriously known for its origins as a Twilight fanfiction, is a prime example of how divisive fanfiction’s transition to traditional media has been in online communities.

“Fanfiction is genuine writing,” Porter said. “It’s just when you [adapt or] publish them, you have to make extreme distortions for it to be accepted. If you don’t make big distortions, you’re kind of just called a thief. But, really, we as human beings like to just build on each other’s ideas.”

Some argue that the recent trend in adapting fanfiction into published work ruins the sense of community that fandoms espouse. Part of the appeal of fanfiction is that anyone with internet access can read and write these stories for free. When these works are translated to the screen, some argue that it takes away from the original purpose of fanfiction.

“I’m a little less bothered by the shift from amateur to professional,” Foster said. “A lot of critics see [fanfiction] adaptations as a real qualitative change and loss — that it’s no longer fanfiction. I’m a little more interested in shared authorship and collaborative models for literary production of the aesthetics of rewriting. Fanfiction adaptations can be just commodification and selling out, but that’s a big division in opinion between the fan writing community and academics like myself.”

There are a lot of stereotypes against fanfiction writers and the quality of their work. “After,” a book and movie series authored by Anna Todd and based on fanfiction of former One Direction member Harry Styles, was criticized for this — it was solely written from Todd’s phone. The idea that you can write about real-life people and their personas, seemingly without consequence, brings up an ethical dilemma in itself. 

“When it comes to fictional characters, they are made up and an idea that is put out there,” Porter said. “A real human being starts to get a little weirder because that’s not just a concept anymore. The issue with writing fanfiction about real people is that the distortion is a lot more severe and starts to get warped into people thinking they really know Harry Styles.”

The discourse around fanfiction is endless and is unlikely to end anytime soon, and likely neither will the popularity of fanfiction itself. It is not an inherently new phenomenon to dislike works that play on tropes and concepts of older forms of media.

“Fanfiction is not really new,” Foster said. “There’s a long history [in literature] that is in relation to fan writing and fanfiction going back centuries to the beginning of the novel. Even though they’re not called fanfiction, how important is it to actually name it? Well, it’s significant that it gets named, [but] it really only starts to matter once people recognize it and name it as such. But the impulses are much older.”

As Hollywood tries to develop more methods that appeal to younger audiences, fanfiction will continue its rise in popular media. While many people like to think that fanfiction is a taboo part of fandom culture, it is the glue that holds it together. These film adaptations would not have come into existence without the massive support that the original fanfiction material had. 

“A lot of fanfiction stereotypes are right, but that’s not necessarily bad,” Porter said. “A lot of fanfiction writers are young girls or members of the queer community. These are typically kids that are figuring things out, and if this is the platform where they want to explore how relationships work and scenarios play out, then I think it’s great.”

Reach columnist Kimberly Quiocho at Twitter: @kimberlyquiocho

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