|Copyright: Paramount Pictures|
Way back in 1986, the filmmaker John Hughes was putting the finishing touches on his film Pretty In Pink; a cute little story about a teenaged girl named Andie who has to choose between her clingy, but sweet childhood friend Duckie who is in love with her and her “richie”, well-to-do, but sensitive crush Blaine. The film was being put through its paces with focus groups and, like most films, changes were made based on their feedback. It’s a pretty standard practice in the industry, and can be used to great effect to smooth out rough spots in a motion picture.
But the original ending where Andie ultimately picks Duckie for her prom date didn’t play well to teenaged girls. They wanted her to end up with Blaine, played by then teenage heart throb Andrew McCarthy. So the filmmakers went back and re-shot the ending that we now have in the finished film and a couple of years ago the Duckie ending surfaced on a DVD reissue as an special feature.
Not wanting to start a pointless debate on which was the better ending, I wish instead to examine the deteriorated dialogue between artist and audience. As Devin Faraci over at Badass Digest has recently opined, the modern audience has matured quite callously in the past couple of decades and has begun to co-opt the stories we storytellers are trying to tell. Wresting it away in fits of rabid fandom: a growing, vocal audience of dissidents is redefining how stories are told, pressuring artists to change their work for their satisfaction.
I’m talking about Mass Effect 3 and its controversial ending. The Mass Effect series is a video game space opera telling the story of a human military man named Shepard and his battle to save the galaxy. The story itself is engrossingly rich and detailed, with character development rivaling some of the best television shows and films of our time. With each game’s story clocking in at a minimum of 40 hours, the time commitment is greater than a full season of a television series.
For those of us (myself included) who have been with the series for nearly a decade, it was a shock in how brief and broad the ending to the series was. I would venture to say that it was quite vague. Many other gamers felt even more slighted and took drastic action by campaigning for Bioware, the makers of Mass Effect, to go back and alter the ending to be more pleasing to its fanbase. With much ado, Bioware has listened to the criticism and set a dangerous president by acceding to this request, reworking the ending for the “closure” these fans demanded.
As a storyteller I can’t adequately express how this turn of events disappoints and terrifies me. It’s artistic bullying. The audience has surpassed co-opting the author’s work with fan fiction and is now the chief editor of the creative process. Why is this terrible? Well, imagine someone who has no real experience doing what you do telling you how to do your job. Oh, and this person is your customer, your only customer; and if you piss them off then you lose your job and your place in the market. So what do you do? Acquiesce and lose your creative voice or stand firm and lose your audience? In the case of Mass Effect I will say that it’s betrayal on both parts. A loss of trust. The line of communication has been severed and dialogue has become political; polemic.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is George Lucas. In a sense you can call him the consummate artist: holding steadfast to his own vision, never bowing to the vocal pressure of his dissident audience.
He makes his art in the precise way he wants it and his audience still pays for the privilege to see it. Sitting atop his Star Wars media empire (another space opera), Lucas couldn’t give the tiniest damn what you think about the prequels or the “Holy Trilogy”. It’s his canvas. He’ll paint poker playing dogs all the doo-dah day long, and you’ll like it. The truth is we do like it. The theatrical re-releases and home market sales are proof of that despite all of our bitching.
These are the two opposite ends of the communication spectrum. Both cases are dysfunctional, both are cancerous. All art is a vehicle to communicate an idea and to provoke dialogue but here we have communication breakdown. So what’s the answer? I say build a bridge and not a wall. A bridge allows for conversation, but under circumstances that protect both the artist and the audience from being overtaken. It’s a yin and yang thing. Neither part exists without the other, without which it’s either an individual screaming in to the void or the many who will impede the progress of new ideas.
J.K. Rowling achieved a great amount of success by involving her readership in the creation of the Harry Potter book series. She would utilize their feedback creatively, often involving her fans directly in character discussions. But she digested this feedback and channeled it in to her own authorial voice, maintaining its integrity. It’s akin to the creative process in the world of theater where the playwright often collaborates with a company of actors in the revision of a play. They have input, but at the end of the day it’s the author’s play. I believe this is what we should always strive for in our artistic conversation: an interplay and mutual respect for both integral roles and a cautious step back from total destruction of a creative relationship spanning millenia.
This will no doubt lead to the production of more original content and quell the disease of fan fiction.
What do you think?