Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Dialogue About Auteur Theory and Adaptations

Inspired by the philosophical dialogues of Plato

Usny: Phil, you've heard of "auteur theory", right?

Phil: Uhhh, yeah, the notion that a work of fiction represents or should represent its creator's creative vision, yes?

Usny: Right. It originates from film critics that cite how the distinctive styles of directors like Hitchcock and Kurosawa permeate throughout their films resulting in a work that is uniquely theirs.

Phil: Yeah, like how all of M. Night Shyamalan's films have crazy twists and all of Joss Whedon's TV shows end up cancelled.

Usny: Ye-yeah. Creators make media by taking the visions and themes they have in mind and they transmit them out through a more or less uniquely creative lens to the rest of the world. As the audience, we receive these transmissions and try to interpret them as best we can given our knowledge and experience. This means that every audience member's experience of a given work is different.

Phil: Obviously. That's why some people can love Sword Art Online for the great animation and depiction of the societies that form in MMORPGs and others can hate it for its poor characterization and clumsy story-telling. One show can't fully satisfy everyone; that's why the term "target audience" exists

Let's use your transmission analogy. Imagine two parallel lines; the one of the left represents a spectrum of different types of creators and the one of the right represents the different kinds of audiences. Using The Avengers as an example, Josh Whedon transmits it from his position on the creator spectrum and it propagates out until it reaches the audience spectrum. Ideally, the first point where the wave-front encounters the audience should be its target audience (i.e. comic book fans) because that's were it should be most resonant. What ends up happening is that the wave also reaches other audiences along the spectrum and it may or may not resonate with them as well. Here we get phenomena like grown men liking Precure even though the target audience is little girls.

Usny: It's interesting that you brought up The Avengers. Adaptations tend to be in unique and often awkward positions when it comes to what their target audience is.

Phil: Well, The Avengers is less of an adaptation than things like The Lord of the Rings and Bakemonogatari which pull directly from the source material instead of having their own canon world line like the Marvel movies.

Usny: True, but it still does a pretty good job of following what I consider the three rules of adaptation.

Phil: Don't give it to Fox or DEEN?

Usny: That should be one, but no. I think the three rules should be:

* The adaptation should not require knowing the source material.

* It should reward knowing the source material.

* It should never punish knowing the source material.

Phil: You stole those from a friend.

Usny: Indeed, but they're very applicable and emphasize the thin ice that people who make adaptions find themselves on.

Phil: Wait a second, according to these rules, Fate/stay night is a bad anime because it punishes fans of the visual novel by promising what they liked about the source, but then delivering something lame.

Usny: I'm a little confused why this is news to you.

Phil: And that second rule just seems superfluous.

Usny: It's perfectly possible for something that violates one of the rules to still be good, they just guarantee that an adaptation that conforms to all three rules will be good. The Dark Knight arguably breaks the third rule because fans who expected a more traditional interpretation of Batman were sorely disappointed. Likewise, the setting and apparent danger in Girls und Panzer can be off-putting if you are not familiar with information that is provided in the source material. Luckily, they put a lot of it in the recap and OVA episodes.

Phil: I'd say that the Monogatari anime series also break the first rule. There are lots of references and plot developments that don't really makes sense unless you know what happens in Kizumonogatari.

Usny: I guess, but I feel like it's reasonably easy to infer what happens in Kizumonogatari from the way the references are framed. I can't blame the adaptations of Nekomonogatari White and Kabukimonogatari for drawing from Kizumonogatari because that is just the way the novels were written. In that sense, they still conform to the three rules if you narrow judgement to the corresponding arcs in the novel.

Phil: The people that came into the Monogatari series through the anime are still left hanging due to SHAFT dropping the ball on releasing Kizumonogatari so hard. It's got to be at the center of the earth by now. From the point of view of anime purists who do not want to read the novels to catch up, SHAFT made a dumb decision by taking so long to adapt the story that is chronologically first.

Usny: Personally, I couldn't wait for the movie anymore and decided to read the fan translation of Kizumonogatari. It's only 18 chapters long.

Phil: Good for you. You want to tell me how wrong the fight scene between Gilgamesh and Rider is in the Fate/Zero anime?

Usny: I'm just saying, if they consider themselves huge fans, they may have to cross the media gap to continue experience the franchise. It's just a quirk of adaptations and franchises that span different kinds of media. It is in the producers' financial interests to branch out into different kinds of media. Like it or not, the burden of consuming media lies on the fan.

Phil: How dare The Man get in the way of my Chinese girl cartoons.

Usny: I know. Life is just so hard in the tiny-ass niche that is the American anime fandom.
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