Projecting Tomorrow: An Interview with James Chapman and Nicholas J. Cull (Part Three)

 

Henry: War of the Worlds is an interesting case study of the ways that the Cold War impacted science fiction, especially because we can draw clear comparisons to what the story meant at the time Wells wrote it and about the ways Steven Spielberg re-imagined it in the wake of 9/11. So, what do these comparisons suggest about the specificity of the discourse on alien invasion in 1950s America?

James: Wells’s novel is an invasion narrative with allegorical overtones – it shows a complacent imperial superpower what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of violent colonization by a technologically superior enemy. It’s a story that has been mobilised at times of geopolitical tension: Orson Welles’s (in)famous radio broadcast of 1938 came immediately after the Munich Agreement, the 1953 film was made at the height of the Cold War, and, as you say, the 2005 Spielberg film reconfigured the basic story in the context of the War on Terror.

We use the 1953 film, produced by George Pal, as the focus of our case study. This is a case where my understanding of the film was really enhanced by doing the archival research. The archive reveals two particular points of interest. The first is the extent to which the film emphasized Christianity. Now, Wells was an atheist, and the book includes a very unsympathetic charactrization of a Church of England cleric who is both deranged and a coward. In the film, however, Pastor Collins becomes a heroic character, who dies while trying to make peace with the invaders, while the resolution – in which the Martians are eventually destroyed by the common cold bug – is specifically attributed to Divine intervention.

The various treatments and scripts in the Paramount archives show how this element was built up in successive drafts. This is consistent with American Cold War propaganda, which equated the United States with Christianity in opposition to the godless Communists. So, this aspect of the production locates the film of War of the Worlds in the context of US Cold War propaganda, and might prompt us to compare it to other 1950s alien-invasion films such as Invaders from Mars or The Thing.

However, the other point which came out from the archival research, was that the Pentagon, which liaised with Hollywood in providing stock footage and military personnel, refused to co-operate with this particular film. The reason they advanced was that the film showed the US military as unable to repel an alien (for which read Communist) invasion. In the film even the atom bomb is ineffective against the Martians. The Pentagon wasn’t happy about this aspect of the film and refused to co-operate. Instead Paramount had to turn to the Arizona National Guard! So, in this regard, the film is not quite the ‘official’ Cold War propaganda that I had thought – and it was only researching the production history that revealed this aspecy of the film.

 

Henry: Stanley Kubrick is currently being celebrated by an exhibition at the LACMA and he remains a figure who has enormous cultural prestige even now, yet in the case of several of his films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and A.I. (which was made by Spielberg after his death), he worked in SF which has struggled for cultural legitimacy. How might we understand the status attached to these films, given the tendency of critics to otherwise dismiss SF films as brainless entertainment?

 



James: Again this is an example of how the archive illuminates our understanding of the films. The origin of 2001 was Kubrick’s desire to make “the proverbially ‘really good’ science fiction movie” – to which end he invited Arthur C. Clarke to collaborate on the project. Having Clarke on board attached a degree of cultural prestige – like H.G. Wells before he was a well-known author, but also one whose work had a strong scientific basis (the ‘science’ aspect of science fiction, if you like). It was another case of a problematic relationship between a film-maker and an SF author, as they ended up with rather different ambitions for the film. But I don’t think that Kubrick was all that bothered about the low cultural status attached to science fiction. For Kubrick 2001 was really an exploration of existential themes that just happened to be an SF movie. Incidentally, it was while doing the research for 2001, during the course of which he read hundreds of books and articles about science, technology and space travel, that Kubrick came across the article that prompted his interest in ‘A.I.’ – or Artificial Intelligence.

Henry: You provide some rich insights into the ways that Civil Rights era discourses shaped the making of the Planet of the Apes film series. To what degree do you see the recent remakes of these films retaining or moving away from these themes as they try to make these stories relevant for contemporary viewers?

James: This is a case of how SF responds to the social and political contexts in which it is produced. The first Planet of the Apes in 1968 was quite explicitly about the Civil Rights movement and the relationships between different ethnic groups, if you like, which draws a clear parallel between race and socio-economic status. And the later films in the series, especially Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, make this theme even more explicit. But race doesn’t seem quite such an important theme in the more recent films. That’s not to say that the issue is no longer important, but rather that the film-makers are now responding to a different set of concerns. I enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes – it’s a sort of ‘alternative history’ of the Apes films – though I didn’t feel that it had quite the same polemical edge as the original film series between 1968 and 1973.

Nick: My sense was that the 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes was hitting slightly different marks, especially issues around the ethics of bioengineering, and a warning against exploitation whether on class or race lines is still apposite. The Tim Burton take in 2001 seemed rather more in the line of a tribute than a piece with something to say about its own times except ‘we’re running low on ideas.’

Henry: You have no doubt seen the announcement of plans to begin production on a new set of Star Wars films, now that George Lucas is handing over the control of his empire to a new generation of filmmakers. Your analysis of Star Wars explores the ways that Lucas built this saga as much on borrowings of other films and on the core structures of myths and fairy stories rather than on any speculation about real world concerns. He would have described this project as one designed to create “timeless” entertainment. To what degree do you see Star Wars as of its time and to what degree does returning to the franchise now require some fundamental rethinking of its core premises?

Nick: The initial success of Star Wars was absolutely of its time – America was tired of cynicism, Vietnam, Watergate and so forth and looking to escape back to innocence. Lucas gave them their cinematic past in pastiche form and a moral and redemptive message. While I think Lucas intended his own revisiting of the saga in the prequel trilogy to make new points about the vulnerability of democracy and a noble individual to corruption, the new films were really more about Star Wars than anything else. Their performance was not tied to their suitability for the moment in which they appeared but rather the quality (or otherwise) of the effects and story. I think the saga is a powerful enough property to generate into own bubble of relevance which is a kind of timelessness at least as long as people remember enjoying the films. Star Wars has created its own reality and obscured its own source material. Storm Trooper means Star Wars not Nazi Germany to most Americans under fifty.

James: I’d suggest that most, if not all, film genres eventually become self-referential. The main points of reference for the original Star Wars were other movies – as Nick’s chapter so brilliantly brings out. For the prequel films the points of reference were not so much other movies as previous Star Wars movies – they feed upon our own memories of Star Wars.

Henry: You describe Lucas as struggling consciously with the racial politics of the adventure genre titles that inform his project, making a series of compromises across the development of the original film in terms of its treatment of race and gender. How do these behind-the-scenes stories help us to understand the ongoing controversy around how Star Wars deals with race and gender?

Nick: I was startled by the extent to which Lucas initially saw Star Wars as a way to get progressive ideas about diversity before an audience. He toyed with the idea of an all Japanese cast, a black Han Solo and a Eurasian Princess Leia (which would have made his later twin sub plot a harder sell) but backed away from these ideas as production got underway. He said he couldn’t make Star Wars and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at the same time. His aliens became a device through which he could still have ‘fun’ with difference and notions of the exotic or the savage without worrying about disgruntled Sand People or Wookies picketing Mann’s Chinese Theatre on opening night. I think it is correct to ask questions about the racial politics of Star Wars not so much to question whether George Lucas is a bigot (which I do not think he is) but rather to use Star Wars as a mirror to a society that plainly has mixed feelings about diversity and female empowerment.

Henry: Robocop is another of your case study films which is undergoing a remake at the current time. You link the original to debates around big business and the current state of urban America under the Reagan administration. What aspects of this story do you think remains relevant in the era of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party?

Nick: I certainly do see RoboCop as one of the great movies editorializing on business in the 1980s – right up there with Wall Street. I’ll be fascinated to see how the new RoboCop tackles these subjects. Certainly corporate ethics and privatization remain live issues. It was always interesting to me that RoboCop still needed to imagine that the #1 guy at the corporation was good. I wonder if that will still be the case. Of course RoboCop is an anti-corporate allegory told by a corporation, so they will probably fudge the issue and not have Murphy marching into Congress and demanding the reinstatement of the Glass Stiegel Act or restraints on Wall Street.

Henry: You end the book with a comparison between Science Fiction Cinema and television. So, what do you see as the most important differences in the ways that the genre has fared on the small screen? If you were writing this book on science fiction television, which programs would yield the richest analysis and why?

Nick: There is a symbiotic relationship between SF film and TV. A number of the films we look at can be seen as outgrowths of TV – Quatermass is the most obvious; some use TV expertise – like 2001: A Space Odyssey; some have leant their technology to TV; many have TV spin-offs or imitators – Logan’s Run and Planet of the Apes are cases in point. I think TV tends by its nature to bring everything home, turning everything into a cyclical family drama, whereas film tends to stretch everything to the horizon and emphasize linearity and personal transformation. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses for SF subjects. I think that there is an intimacy of engagement possible for the audience of a television show which is much harder to create with a one-off film.

As you’ve documented, Henry, at its best television becomes truly imbedded in people’s lives. This is the power of Star Trek or Doctor Who. James and I have both written about Doctor Who elsewhere and there is more to be said. I’ve written a little about the television programs of Gerry Anderson, Thunderbirds and so forth, which have been underserved in the literature thus far. I am fascinated by the imagined future in Anderson’s output, with global governance and institutions: post war optimism traced to the horizon.

James: It’s a fascinating question – and one where technological change is important. I’d suggest that in the early days of TV – when most drama was produced live in the studio – TV had the edge over film because the technological limitations meant that it had to focus on ideas and characterization. Hence The Quatermass Experiment and its sequels, arguably, work better on TV than in their cinema remakes. There’s also a symbiosis between the form of SF literature and early TV.

Until the mid-twentieth century much of the best SF literature was in the form of short stories rather than novels – this transferred very easily to SF anthology series such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. That’s not a form of TV drama we have today. Since c.2000, however, there’s been a vast technological and aesthetic change in the style of TV science fiction. One of the consequences of digital technology in both the film and TV industries has been to blur the distinction between the two media. A lot of TV today looks like film – and vice versa. Certainly TV science fiction has become more ‘cinematic’ – look at the revisioning of Battlestar Galactica or the new Doctor Who. The visual effects are as good as cinema, while the TV series have adopted the strategy of ‘story arcs’ that lends them an epic dimension – like the longer stories you can tell in film.

Nick mentions that we’ve both written, independently, on Doctor Who, and there’s certainly more to be said there – and with its spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. It works both as a narrative of British power and as an exploration of Anglo-American relations – themes we cover in the SF Cinema book. I don’t know whether we’ll go on to write a companion volume on US and UK television science fiction, but if we do there’s plenty of scope. The Twilight Zone is a key text, certainly, not least because it employed a number of SF authors to write scripts. The Invaders is an interesting riff on the invasion narrative, a 1950s Cold War paranoia text but made in the 1960s. V is a cult classic – paranoia reconfigured for the 1980s.

In Britain series such as Survivors and Blake’s 7 demonstrate again a very dystopian vision of the future. There were also faithful, authentic adaptations of SF literature like The Day of the Triffids and The Invisible Man in the 1980s. Back in the US, series like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk clearly have things to say about the relationship between science and humanity. I’ve already mentioned Battlestar Galactica but there are plenty of other examples too: Space: Above and Beyond, Farscape, Firefly, the various Star Trek spin offs. That’s the beauty of science fiction – the universe is infinite!

For those who would like to read what Chapman and Cull have had to say about Doctor Who, Here you go:

Nick Cull, ‘Bigger on the Inside: Doctor Who as British cultural history.’ For Graham Roberts and Philip M. Taylor (eds.), The Historian, Television and Television History (University of Luton Press, 2001), pp. 95-111

Nick Cull. ‘Tardis at the OK Coral,’ in John R. Cook and Peter Wright (eds), British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker’s Guide, (London, I. B. Tauris, 2006), pp. 52-70

Chapman’s WhoWatching blog: http://whowatching.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/review-the-name-of-the-doctor/

 

Nick Cull is professor of communication at University of Southern California.  He is a historian whose research focuses on the interface between politics and the mass media.  In addition to well-known books on the history of propaganda he has published widely on popular cinema and television including shorter pieces on Doctor Who, Gerry Anderson and The Exorcist.

James Chapman is professor of film at University of Leicester in the UK.  He is a historian who has specialized in popular film and television.  His work has included book length studies of James Bond, Doctor Who, British Adventure Serials, British Comic Books and British propaganda in the Second World War.  His previous collaboration with Nick Cull was a book on Imperialism in US and British popular cinema.

Projecting Tomorrow: An Interview with James Chapman and Nicholas J. Cull (Part Two)

Henry: As you suggest in your introduction, “futuristic narratives and images of SF cinema are determined by the circumstances of their production.” What relationship do you posit between the ebb and flow of visibility for science fiction films and the evolution of the American and British film industries?

Nick: When we wrote that line we were thinking mainly about the way in which the historical circumstance can be channeled into SF, which is so wonderfully open to addressing contemporaneous issues by allegory (or hyperbole), but I think it can be applied to the film industries or ‘industrial context’ if you will. Cinema is a business and there are clear business cycles at work. While we found that the reputation of SF as a high risk genre which seldom delivered on its promise to producers was exaggerated – we ran into more examples of bland returns than out-and-out ruination – it does seem to have inhibited production somewhat. Production runs in cycles as if producers on both sides feel sure that SF will pay off, take a risk with a high budget film, fail to realize expectations and then back off in disappointment for a couple of seasons.

2001 breaks the cycle and ushers in a SF boom which has yet to end. The successes are so spectacular that they carry the genre over the bumps. The boom made it economically feasible to develop dedicated technologies to create even better films – the story of Industrial Light and Magic is a case in point – and these technologies seem to have been best displayed in a genre which allows or even requires images of the fantastic.

I think SF has now evolved into the quintessential film genre which sells itself based on taking images to new places. There are industrial reasons reinforcing this trend, not the least being that if you make your money from exhibiting something on the big screen you need to seek out stories that are actually enhanced by that treatment. Not every genre lends itself. I doubt there will ever be a British social realist film or the sort done by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh shot in IMAX, though insights from that approach can take SF to new places, witness Attack the Block.

James: The market is also relevant here. Take Things to Come: one of the top ten films at the UK box office in 1936, but the British market alone was insufficient to recoup the costs of production and the film didn’t do much business in the United States. Another theme that crops up several times, is that, while Britain no longer has a large film production industry, it does have excellent studio and technical facilities. Hence big Hollywood-backed films like 2001 and Star Wars were shot in British studios with largely British crews. And there are other examples – Alien, Judge Dredd – that we didn’t have space to include.

 



Henry: A central emphasis here is in the ways that science fiction responds to popular debates around political and technological change. It’s a cliché that Hollywood had little interest in delivering “messages,” yet historically, science fiction was a genre which sought to explore “ideas,” especially concerns about the future. How did these two impulses work themselves out through the production process? Do you see science fiction cinema as the triumph of entertainment over speculation or do most of the films you discuss make conscious statements around the core themes which SF has explored?

Nick: As I said when thinking about the literary/cinematic transition, I think that messages and ideas can have a hard time in Hollywood and often find themselves being forced out by images. This said, the messages that survive the process are all the more potent. Avatar may have been all about what James Cameron can do with digital 3-D it made important points about indigenous rights and the environment along the way.

James: There’ve been some honourable and well-intentioned attempts to build SF films around ideas or messages – Things to Come stands out – though I think that in general, and this is true of popular cinema as a whole and not just SF, audiences tend to be turned off by overt political or social messages and prefer their ideas served up within a framework of entertainment and spectacle. Nick’s chapter on Star Wars, to take just one example, shows how this film was able to address a range of contemporary issues within a framework of myth and archetypes that resonated with audiences at the time and since. Here, as elsewhere, 2001 is the watershed film – perhaps the only ideas-driven SF film that was also a huge popular success.

Henry: You devote a chapter to the little known 1930s film, Just Imagine, and among other things, note that it is not altogether clear how much Hollywood or audiences understood this to be a science fiction film given its strong ties to the musical comedy as a genre. What signs do we have about the role which these genre expectations played in shaping the production and reception of Just Imagine?

 

Nick: Neither the producers nor audience of Just Imagine had much idea what was going on generically. First of all the production team were a re-assembly of the group who had worked on the studio’s boy-meets-girl hit Sunny Side Up and all their credentials were in musical comedy; secondly the critics who saw the film had trouble finding terminology to describe the film. They tended towards terms like ‘Fantasy’ and drew parallels with The Thief of Baghdad rather than Metropolis. Finally there was the question of law suits as sundry writers claimed that elements we now think of as common points of the genre such as space flight to Mars were original to them. Courts were unimpressed.

Henry: Things to Come is one of those rare cases where a literary SF writer — in this case, H.G. Wells — played an active role in shaping the production of a science fiction film. What can you tell us about the nature of this collaboration and was it seen as a success by the parties involved?

James: It’s a fascinating, and complex, story. This one film exemplifies perfectly the tension between ideas and spectacle that runs throughout the history of SF cinema. Wells was contracted by Alexander Korda, Britain’s most flamboyant film producer, and the closest that the British industry ever had to one of the Hollywood ‘movie moguls’, to develop a screenplay from his book The Shape of Things to Come. Wells was interested because, unlike many writers, he believed in the potential of cinema as a medium for exploring ideas and presenting his views to a wider public.

From Korda’s perspective, Wells was a ‘name’ whose involvement attached a degree of intellectual prestige to the film. But there were two problems. The first was that Wells tried to exercise control over all aspects of the production, even to the extent of dictating memos on what the costumes should look like – which Korda was not prepared to allow. The second problem was that The Shape of Things to Come – an imaginative ‘history of the future’ – is not a very cinematic book: no central characters, for example, or big set pieces. So a new story had to be fashioned.

Some aspects of Wells’s vision were lost in the process. For example, the book is critical of organised religion, but the British Board of Film Censors frowned upon any criticism of the Church as an institution – so that theme goes by the wayside. And Wells’s book posits the notion that a well-intentioned technocratic dictatorship – he calls it the ‘Puritan Tyranny’ – would be beneficial for solving the problems of the world. Again this is significantly downplayed in the film.

So there were a lot of compromises. The collaboration is perhaps best described as one of creative tensions. Publically Wells spoke warmly of Korda and his collaboration with director William Cameron Menzies (an American, incidentally, referring back to our previous discussion of Anglo-American contexts). But privately he was profoundly disappointed by the finished film and was scathing about Menzies, whom he described as “incompetent”. In the end, Things to Come is one of those cases where the finished film reveals traces of the problematic production. For Wells it was about the ideas, for Korda it was about the spectacle – but the two are not really reconciled into a wholly satisfying experience.

 

 

Nick Cull is professor of communication at University of Southern California.  He is a historian whose research focuses on the interface between politics and the mass media.  In addition to well-known books on the history of propaganda he has published widely on popular cinema and television including shorter pieces on Doctor Who, Gerry Anderson and The Exorcist.

James Chapman is professor of film at University of Leicester in the UK.  He is a historian who has specialized in popular film and television.  His work has included book length studies of James Bond, Doctor Who, British Adventure Serials, British Comic Books and British propaganda in the Second World War.  His previous collaboration with Nick Cull was a book on Imperialism in US and British popular cinema.

Projecting Tomorrow: An Interview with James Chapman and Nicholas J. Cull (Part One)

 

The recently published Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Film offers vivid and thoughtful case studies that consider the production and reception of key British and American science fiction movies, including Just Imagine (1930), Things to Come (1936), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Quatermass Experiment and its sequels (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Hellstrom Chronicles (1971), Logan’s Run (1976), Star Wars (1977), RoboCop (1987), and Avatar (2009). I very much enjoyed the background that Chapman and Cull provided on these films. Even though I was familiar with each of these films already, I managed to learn something new in every chapter. The authors did a masterful job  in the selection of examples — a mix of the essential and the surprising — which nevertheless manage to cover many of the key periods in the genre’s evolution on the screen.  They make a strong case for why SF films need to be considered in their own right and not simply as an extension of the literary version of the genre.  Chapman and Cull are long-time SF fans, but they also bring the skills of an archival historian and expertise in global politics to bear on these rich case studies.   All told, I suspect this book is going to be well received by fans and academics alike.

I have gotten to know Cull, who is a colleague of mine here at the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, through hallway and breakroom conversations about our mutual interests in Doctor Who and a range of other cult media properties, and I was delighted to have some interplay with Chapman when he visited USC a year or so back. I am therefore happy this week to be able to share with you an interview with the two authors who hits at some of the key themes running through Projecting Tomorrow.

 

Henry: Let me ask you a question you pose early in your introduction: “Why has SF literature been so poorly served by the cinema?” Perhaps, we can broaden out from that and ask what you see as the relationship between science fiction literature and film. Why do the differences in the media and their audiences result in differences in emphasis and focus?

Nick: This is an excellent question. My sense is that SF literature has tended to serve divergent objectives to SF film. I am taken by the British novelist/critic Kingsley Amis’s observation fifty years ago that the idea is the hero in literary science fiction. My corollary to that is that the image is the hero in SF cinema. Cinema by its nature emphasizes image over ideas and all the more so as the technology to generate ever more spectacular images has increased.

James: I think there’s also a sense in which SF literature has always been a slightly niche interest – popular with its readership, yes, but generally not best-seller levels of popular. SF cinema, in contrast, is now a mainstream genre that has to serve the needs of the general cinema-going audience as well as genre fans. Hence the charge from SF readers that cinema by and large doesn’t do SF very well – that the need to attract a broad audience (because of the expense of the films) leads to a diluting of the ‘ideas’ aspect of SF in literature. One of the themes we track in the book is the process through which SF went from being a marginal genre in cinema to becoming, from the 1970s, a major production trend.

 



Henry: What criteria led to the selection of the case studies you focus upon in Projecting Tomorrow?


Nick: We chose films that could both represent the SF cinema tradition on both sides of the Atlantic and illuminate a range of historical issues. We needed films that had a good supply of archive material to which we could apply our historical research methods, and all the better if that material had hitherto escaped scholarly analysis. We wanted the milestones to be present but also some surprise entries too. There were some hard choices. We doubted there was anything really new to say about Blade Runner so that proposed chapter was dropped. I was keen to write about Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers but was unable to locate sufficient archive material for a historical approach. It was during that search that I found the treasure trove of material from Verhoeven’s RoboCop and decided to write about that instead. One of the Star Trek films and Jurassic Park were also late casualties from the proposal. There are some surprise inclusions too. We both find the combination of genres a fascinating phenomenon and hence included The Hellstrom Chronicle, which grafts elements of SF onto the documentary genre and managed to spawn a couple of SF projects in the process.

James: The selection of case studies was a real problem for this book, as SF is such a broad genre in style and treatment, and there are so many different kinds of stories. We wanted to have broad chronological coverage: the ‘oldest’ film is from 1930 (Just Imagine) and the most recent is 2009 (Avatar). It would have been possible to write a dozen case studies focusing on a single decade – the 1950s, for example, or the 1970s, both very rich periods for SF cinema – but we felt this would have been less ambitious and would not have enabled us to show how the genre, and its thematic concerns, have changed and evolved over time. Beyond that, Nick and I are both historians by training, and we wanted examples where there was an interesting story behind the film to tell. Logan’s Run, for example, is a case where the production history is in certain ways more interesting than the finished film: George Pal had wanted to make it in the late 1960s as a sort of ‘James Bond in Tomorrowland’ but for various reasons it didn’t happen then, and when it was finally made, in the mid 1970s, the treatment was more serious (and perhaps portentous). Some films selected themselves: we could not NOT have milestones like Things to Come and 2001: A Space Odyssey – and in the latter case the Stanley Kubrick Archive had recently been opened to researchers and so there were new primary sources available. I wanted to include Dark Star, a sort of spoof response to 2001, but there wasn’t much in the way of archive sources and the background to the film is quite well known – and in any event we already had plenty of other case studies from the 1970s. In the end, although we had to leave out some important films, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (I’d simply refer readers to Barry Keith Grant’s excellent study of this film in the British Film Institute’s ‘Film Classics’ series), this meant we could find space for some forgotten films, such as Just Imagine, and for some that are probably less familiar to US audiences, such as The Quatermass Experiment.

Henry: You have made a conscious choice here to include British as well as American exemplars of science fiction. How would you characterize the relationship between the two? In what ways do they intercept each other? How are the two traditions different?

Nick: British and American SF and culture more widely are thoroughly intertwined. The sad truth is that US corporate culture tends to homogenize so I think it helps to have the UK bubbling along across the pond as a kind of parallel universe in which different responses can emerge and save the creative gene pool from in-breeding. SF cinema has seen some great examples of this Anglo-America cross fertilization process. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a terrific example of that. If I had to essentialize the difference between the two approaches, I’d say that Britain is a little more backward looking (anticipating Steam Punk) and the US has been more comfortable with a benign military presence. Today the two traditions have become so interlinked that it is very difficult to disengage them, but they seem to be good for each other.

James: The Anglo-American relationship was also something we’d explored in our first book together, Projecting Empire, where we found there were strong parallels in the representation of imperialism in Hollywood and British cinema. In that book we have two case studies by Nick, on Gunga Din and The Man Who Would Be King, showing how a British author, Rudyard Kipling, met the ideological needs of American film-makers. The equivalent of Kipling for science fiction is H.G. Wells, a British author widely adapted, including by Hollywood – and again we have two case studies of Wellesian films.
If I were to generalize about the different traditions of US and UK science fiction – and this is a gross over-simplification, as there are numerous exceptions – it would be that by and large American SF movies have held to a generally optimistic view of the future whereas British SF, certainly since the Second World War, has been more pessimistic. This might reflect the contrasting fortunes of the two nations since the mid-twentieth century – American films expressing the optimism and confidence of the newly emergent superpower, British films coming to terms with the slow decline of a former imperial power. But, as I said, this is an over-simplification. Planet of the Apes, for example, has a very dystopian ending (though later films in the series are more optimistic in suggesting the possibility of peaceful future co-existence), whereas Doctor Who (albeit from television) is an example of British SF with a generally positive outlook on the future.

Nick Cull is professor of communication at University of Southern California.  He is a historian whose research focuses on the interface between politics and the mass media.  In addition to well-known books on the history of propaganda he has published widely on popular cinema and television including shorter pieces on Doctor Who, Gerry Anderson and The Exorcist.

James Chapman is professor of film at University of Leicester in the UK.  He is a historian who has specialized in popular film and television.  His work has included book length studies of James Bond, Doctor Who, British Adventure Serials, British Comic Books and British propaganda in the Second World War.  His previous collaboration with Nick Cull was a book on Imperialism in US and British popular cinema.

How to Watch Television: The Walking Dead

Today, I want to showcase the launch of an exciting new book, How to Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell. The editors recognized a gap in the field of television studies between the kinds of essays we ask our students to write (often close readings focused on specific episodes) and the kinds of exemplars we provide them from scholarly publications (often theory-dense, focused on making much larger arguments, and making moves which it is hard for undergrads or early graduate students to match). Contributors, myself among them, were asked to focus on specific episodes of specific programs, to do a close analysis with limited amounts of fancy theoretical footwork, and to demonstrate the value of a particular analytic approach to understanding how television works. Thompson and Mittell brought together a who’s who of contemporary television studies writers and encouraged them to write about a broad array of programs. You can get a sense of the project as a whole by reading the table of contents. I have only read a few of the essays so far, having just recently gotten my author’s copy, but so far, the book more than lives up to its promise.

I. TV Form: Aesthetics and Style

1. Homicide: Realism – Bambi L. Haggins

2. House: Narrative Complexity – Amanda D. Lotz

3. Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation – Christine Becker

4. Mad Men: Visual Style – Jeremy G. Butler

5. Nip/Tuck: Popular Music – Ben Aslinger

6. Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television – Jason Mittell

7. The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling – Sean O’Sullivan

8. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!: Metacomedy – Jeffrey Sconce

II. TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics

9. 24: Challenging Stereotypes – Evelyn Alsultany

10. The Amazing Race: Global Othering – Jonathan Gray

11. The Cosby Show: Representing Race – Christine Acham

12. The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings – Quinn Miller

13. Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences – Hector Amaya

14. Glee/House Hunters International: Gay Narratives – Ron Becker

15. Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism – Elana Levine

16. Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing – Susan J. Douglas

III. TV Politics: Democracy, Nation, and the Public Interest

17. 30 Days: Social Engagement – Geoffrey Baym and Colby Gottert

18. America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor – Laurie Ouellette

19. Family Guy: Undermining Satire – Nick Marx

20. Fox & Friends: Political Talk – Jeffrey P. Jones

21. M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy – Noel Murray

22. Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum – Heather Hendershot

23. Star Trek: Serialized Ideology – Roberta Pearson

24. The Wonder Years: Televised Nostalgia – Daniel Marcus

IV. TV Industry: Industrial Practices and Structures

25. Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News – Anne Helen Petersen

26. I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer – Miranda J. Banks

27. Modern Family: Product Placement – Kevin Sandler

28. Monday Night Football: Brand Identity – Victoria E. Johnson

29. NYPD Blue: Content Regulation – Jennifer Holt

30. Onion News Network: Flow – Ethan Thompson

31. The Prisoner: Cult TV Remakes – Matt Hills

32. The Twilight Zone: Landmark Television – Derek Kompare

V. TV Practices: Medium, Technology, and Everyday Life

33. Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video – David Gurney

34. Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content – Suzanne Scott

35. Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste – Michael Z. Newman

36. Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technologies – Louisa Stein

37. It’s Fun to Eat: Forgotten Television – Dana Polan

38. One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling – Abigail De Kosnik

39. Samurai Champloo: Transnational Viewing – Jiwon Ahn

40. The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics – Henry Jenkins

You can order it at the NYU Press website, along with previewing the introduction or requesting a review copy for faculty thinking about adopting it in a class. You can also order it on Amazon. Or please request it at an independent bookstore near you, if you’ve got one.

Thompson and Mitell have shrewdly offered those of us who have blogs the chance to share our own essays from the collection with the idea of helping to build up the buzz around this promising release.  Spreadability at work! So, I am happy to share today my musings about The Walking Dead, written after the end of Season 1. (Don’t get me started about the speed of academic publishing: by normal standards, this one had a pretty rapid turnaround, but we still lag behind any other mode of publication. This is why I so value sites like Flow,In Media Res, and Antenna.)

 

The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics

Henry Jenkins

Abstract: One of the key ways that television connects to other media is by adapting pre-existing properties from films, comics, and other formats. Henry Jenkins uses one of the most popular of such recent adaptations, The Walking Dead, to highlight the perils and possibilities of adaptations, and how tapping into pre-existing fanbases can pose challenges to television producers.

The comic book industry now functions as Hollywood’s research and development department, with a growing number of media properties inspired by graphic novels, including not only superhero films (Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, Thor) and both live-action and animated television series (Smallville, The Bold and the Brave), but also films from many other genres (A History of Violence, American Splendor, 20 Days of Night, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World). There are many possible explanations for Hollywood’s comic book fixation:

 

1. DC and Marvel are owned by Warner Brothers and Disney, respectively, who cherry pick what they think will satisfy mass audience interests.

 

2. Comics-based stories are to contemporary cinema what magazine short stories were to Classical Hollywood—more or less presold material.

 

3. Hardcore comics readers fall into a highly desired demographic—teen and twentysomething males—who have abandoned television in recent years for other media.

 

4. Comic books are a visual medium, offering something like a storyboard establishing basic iconography and visual practices to moving image media.

 

5. Digital special effects have caught up to comic’s most cosmic storytelling, allowing special effects houses to expand their technical capacities.

 

6. Contemporary television and comics involve a complex mix of the episodic and the serial, deploying long-form storytelling differently from most films or novels.

 

7. The streamlined structure of comics offer emotional intensification closely aligned with contemporary screen practices.

 

Despite such claims, comic adaptations often radically depart from elements popular with their original comics-reading audience. Mainstream comics readership has been in sharp decline for several decades: today’s top-selling title reaches fewer than a hundred thousand readers per month—a drop in the bucket compared with the audiences required for cable success, let alone broadcast networks. Some graphic novels have moved from specialty shops to chain bookstores, attracting a “crossover” readership, including more women and more “casual” fans. Adapting a comic for film or television often involves building on that “crossover” potential rather than addressing hardcore fans, stripping away encrusted mythology.

AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010-present) is a notable exception, establishing its reputation as “faithful” to the spirit if not the letter of the original, even while introducing its original characters, themes, and story world to a new audience. Robert Kirkman’s comic series was a key example of the crossover readership graphic novels can find at mainstream bookstores. Kirkman has freely acknowledged his debts to George Romero’s Living Dead films, while others note strong parallels with 28 Days Later. The Walking Dead’s success with crossover readers and Kirkman’s reliance on formulas from other commercially successful franchises in the genre explain why producers felt they could remain “true” to the comics while reaching a more expansive viewership.

Using “Wildfire,” the fifth episode from The Walking Dead’s first season, I will explore what aspects of the comic reached television, what changes occurred, and why hardcore fans accepted some changes and not others. As a longtime Walking Dead reader, I am well situated to explore fan response to shifts in the original continuity.

To understand what The Walking Dead meant to comics readers, one might well start with its extensive letter column. Here, dedicated fans ask questions and offer opinions about every major plot development. Kirkman established a deeply personal relationship with his fans, sharing behind the scenes information about his efforts to get the series optioned and then developed for television, responding to reader controversies, and discussing the comic’s core premises and genre conventions (“the rules”). Kirkman summarized his goals in the first Walking Dead graphic novel:

With The Walking Dead, I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events CHANGE them…. You guys are going to get to see Rick change and mature to the point that when you look back on this book you won’t even recognize him….I hope to show you reflections of your friends, your neighbors, your families, and yourselves, and what their reactions are to the extreme situations on this book… This is more about watching Rick survive than it is about watching Zombies pop around the corner and scare you…..The idea behind The Walking Dead is to stay with the character, in this case, Rick Grimes for as long as is humanly possible….The Walking Dead will be the zombie movie that never ends.[1]

If, as Robin Wood formulated, the horror genre examines how normality is threatened by the monstrous, Kirkman’s focus is less on the monstrous and more on human costs.[2] The comic’s artwork (originally by Tony Moore but mostly by Charlie Adlard) offers gorehounds detailed renderings of rotting faces (lovingly recreated for the television series by makeup artist Greg Nicotero) and blood splattering as humans and zombies battle, but it is also focused on melodramatic moments, as human characters struggle to maintain normality in the face of the monstrous. This merger of horror and melodrama may explain why, despite its gore, The Walking Dead comics appeal almost as much to female readers as it does to the men who constitute the core comics market. Early on, some fans criticized the comic’s shambling “pace,” going several issues without zombie encounters. However, once they got a taste of Kirkman’s storytelling, many realized how these scenes contributed to the reader’s deeper investment in the characters’ plights.

Given his intimate and ongoing relationship with readers, Kirkman’s participation as an executive producer on the television adaptation was key for establishing credibility with his long-term readers. Series publicity tapped Kirkman’s street cred alongside AMC’s own reputation for groundbreaking, character-focused television dramas (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) and the reputations of executive producers Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption) and Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator franchise) with filmgoers, establishing an aura of exceptionality.

The Walking Dead was a key discussion topic at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, a gathering of more than 200,000 influential fans. Posters, specifically produced for the convention, compared the television characters with their comic book counterparts. The trade room display reconstructed an iconic comic location, a farmhouse where a family had killed themselves rather than change into zombies. Both tactics reaffirmed that the series was closely based on the comics. And Kirkman was front and center, promising fans the series would capture the essence of his long-articulated vision. If the producers won the hearts of the hardcore fans, they might count on them to actively rally viewers for the series premiere. Thanks, in part, to the fan support in spreading the word and building enthusiasm, The Walking Dead broke all ratings records for basic cable for its debut episode and broke them again with the launch of Season 2.

By the time The Walking Dead reached the air, Kirkman had produced and published 12 full-length graphic novels, representing more than 70 issues. Yet, the first season of the television series only covered the first six issues. On the one hand, this expansive narrative offered a rich roadmap. On the other, it threatened to lock the producers down too much, making it hard for the series to grow on its own terms. Speaking at the Paleyfest in Los Angeles after season one, Kirkman acknowledged that exploring different paths through the material allowed him to explore roads not taken in his own creative process.

The challenge was to give veteran fans recognizable versions of the established characters and iconic moments. Fans must be able to follow the story structure in broad outlines, even as the producers were changing major and minor plot points, adding new themes and character moments. The audience anticipated that any changes would be consistent with Kirkman’s oft-articulated “ground rules” and yet the producers wanted the freedom to take the story in some new directions. The Walking Dead had built its reputation for surprising its readers in every issue—any character could die at any moment and taboos could be shattered without blinking an eye. How could the television series have that same impact if the most dedicated fans already knew what was going to happen next?

“Wildfire” was perhaps season one’s most emotionally powerful episode, where many core themes came into sharpest focus. It was based upon the final chapter of the first graphic novel, which set the tone for the rest of the comics series. The episode includes several memorable moments from the comics, specifically the death of two major characters (Amy and Jim), yet also several shifts that hinted at how dramatically the producers had revised things. Fans embraced some of these changes, while others violated their collective sense of the franchise.

As “Wildfire” opens, the protagonists are recovering from a traumatic and abrupt zombie attack that killed several recurring characters and forced the survivors to confront the vulnerability of their encampment, preparing them to seek a new “home” elsewhere, a recurring quest in the comics. The attack’s basic outline remains consistent with the graphic novel. For example, Amy gets caught by surprise when she separates from the others, while Jim gets chomped in the ensuing battle. The brutal attack disrupts a much more peaceful “fish fry” scene, which provides an excuse for characters to reveal bits of their backstory. The ruthless battle shows how each character has begun to acquire self-defense and survival skills.

Yet, a central emotional incident, Andrea’s prolonged watch over her dead sister Amy’s body, occupied only two panels of Kirkman’s original comic. There, Andrea tells Dale, “I can’t let her come back like that,” capturing the dread of a loved one transforming into the undead. The television series used this line as a starting point for a much more elaborated character study, built across several episodes as the two sisters, a decade-plus apart in age in this version (though not in the original), offer each other physical and emotional support. The two sisters talk in a boat about the family tradition of fishing and how their father responded to their different needs. Andrea plans to give Amy a birthday present, telling Dale that she was never there for her sister’s birthdays growing up. The image of Andrea unwrapping the present and hanging the fishing lure around her dead sister’s neck represents the melodramatic payoff fans expect from The Walking Dead in whatever medium. The expansion of this incident into a prolonged melodramatic sequence has to do both with issues of modality (the range of subtle facial expressions available to a performer working in live action as opposed to the compression required to convey the same emotional effect through static images) and AMC’s branding as  network known for “complex narratives,” “mature themes,” and “quality acting.”

 “Wildfire” shows Andrea protecting Amy’s body as the others seek to convince her to allow her sister to be buried, We hear the sounds of picks thrashing through the skulls of other zombies in the background and watch bodies being prepared to burn. And, finally, Amy returns to life for a few seconds. Andrea looks intently into Amy’s eyes, looking for any signs of human memory and consciousness, stroking her sister’s face as Amy’s gasps turn into animalistic grunts. The producers play with these ambiguities through their use of makeup: Amy is more human-looking compared to the other zombies, where the focus is on their bones, teeth and muscle rather than their eyes, flesh and hair. In the end, Andrea shoots her sister with the pistol she’s been clutching, an act of mercy rather than violence.

Much of the sequence is shot in tight close-ups, focusing attention all the more closely on the character’s reactions. This is the first time the television series has shown us humans transition into zombies. Several issues after this point in the story (issue 11), the comic revisits this theme with a troubling story of Hershel, a father who has kept his zombie daughter chained and locked in a barn, unable to accept the irreversibility of her fate (an incident which was enacted on screen near the climax of the series’s second season). Here, Andrea’s willingness to dispatch Amy is a sign of her determination to live.

The comic explores Jim’s death, by contrast, in more depth. Jim’s family had been lost in a previous zombie attack: Jim was able to escape because the zombies were so distracted eating his other family members. The book’s Jim is a loner who has not forged intimate bonds with the others, but who aggressively defends the camp during the zombie attack. In the comic, Jim is so overwrought with guilt and anger that he smashes one zombie’s skull to a pulp. In the television series, this action is shifted onto an abused wife who undergoes a cathartic breakdown while preparing her dead husband for burial. On the one hand, this shift gave a powerful payoff for a new subplot built on the comic’s discussion of how the zombie attacks had shifted traditional gender politics and on the other, it allowed a tighter focus on Jim’s slow acceptance of the prospect of becoming a zombie.

In both media, Jim initially hides the reality of being bitten from the other campers. Finally, he breaks down when someone notices his wounds. While the producers used the comic as a visual reference for this iconic moment, there are also substantial differences in the staging, including the shift of the bite from Jim’s arm to his stomach and the ways the other campers manhandle him to reveal the bite.

Jim’s story conveys the dread with which a bitten human begins preparing for a transformation into a zombie. In both the comic and the television series, Jim asks to be left, propped up against a tree so that he might rejoin his family when the inevitable change comes. Here, again, the television series elaborates on these basic plot details, prolonging his transformation to show the conflicting attitudes of the other campers to his choice. The television series is far more explicit than the comic about parallels with contemporary debates about the right of the terminally ill to control the terms of their own death.

In both sets of changes highlighted here, the television series remains true to the spirit of the original comic if not to the letter—especially in its focus on the processes of mourning and loss and the consequences of violence, both often overlooked in traditional horror narratives. Both represent elaborations and extensions of elements from the original book. And both link these personal narratives with the community’s collective experience, as in the scene where many from the camp say goodbye to Jim as he lies against a tree awaiting his fate. Some offer him comfort, others walk past unable to speak.

On the other hand, two other “Wildfire” plotlines represent more decisive breaks with the comics—the confrontation between Shane and Rick and the introduction of the Center for Disease Control. Rick had been cut off from his wife and son when Shane, his best friend, helped them escape, while Rick was lying comatose in the hospital. Believing Rick dead, Laurie and Shane couple until Rick finds his way back to his family. In Kirkman’s original, Dale warns Rick that Shane made advances on Laurie. In the television series, Rick has no idea of the potential infidelity, but the audience knows that Shane and Laurie have made love. In the graphic novel, the two men go out to the woods to have it out. In the final panels of the first graphic novel, Shane attempts to kill Rick and is shot in the head by Rick’s 8-year-old son, Carl. The boy collapses in his father’s arms and says, “It’s not the same as killing the dead ones, Daddy.” Rick responds, “It never should be, Son. It never should be.”

In “Wildfire,” tension mounts throughout the episode as the two men clash over what the group should do next. Both turn to Laurie for moral support, which she is unable to offer, instead saying, “Neither one of you were entirely wrong.” In the television version, Shane initially mistakes Rick for a deer in the woods until he has his friend in his gun sights and then finds himself unable to draw down. Dale, rather than Carl, comes upon the two men, ending Shane’s moral dilemma. When he returns from the woods, Shane seems ready to accept Rick’s leadership. Shane’s survival represents a decisive shift from the original, though by the season’s end, its ramifications were not clear. Perhaps this is a case where Kirkman saw unrealized potentials that, given a chance, he wanted to mine more deeply.

But, in removing Carl from the scene, the television producers could be accused of pulling punches, given how central the sequence of the young boy shooting the adult male (and its refusal to engage in sentimental constructions of childhood innocence) had been in the comic’s initial reception. Carl’s repeated brushes with violence, and his willingness to take action when adults hesitate, is a recurring motif throughout the books. If the comics often shocked readers by abruptly killing off long established characters, here the producers surprised some viewers by refusing to kill a character whose death represented an early turning point in the comics.

The visit to the Center for Disease Control, which is introduced in the closing scenes of “Wildfire” and becomes the focus for the season’s final episode, “TS-19,” has no direct counterpart in the comic book series. One of the hard and fast rules Kirkman established in the comics was that he was never going to provide a rational explanation for how the zombie outbreak occurred. As Kirkman argues in an early letter column:

 

As far as the explanation for the zombies go, I think that aside from the zombies being in the book, this is a fairly realistic story, and that’s what makes it work. The people do real things, and it’s all very down to Earth… almost normal. ANY explanation would be borderline science fiction… and it would disrupt the normalness. In my mind, the story has moved on. I’m more interested in what happens next then what happened before that caused it all.[3]

One reason Kirkman has Rick in a coma at the comic series start is so that the audience is not exposed to the inevitable theorizing which would surround a society coping with such a catastrophe. ( A web series, produced for the launch of the second season, further explored what had happened when Rick was in his coma, offering a range of contradictory possible explanations for the zombie epidemic.)

Many fans were anxious about the introduction of the CDC subplot, which implied a medical explanation. At the same time, the closing scenes at the CDC also represent the first time we’ve cut away from Rick or the other members of his party to see another perspective on the unfolding events (in this case, that of a exhausted and suicidal scientist). For both reasons, many fans saw this subplot as another dramatic break with the spirit of the comic.

And it came at an unfortunate moment—at the end of the abbreviated first season, as the last taste before an almost year-long hiatus. If the series’ publicity and presentation had largely reassured long time readers that the series would follow the established “rules,” these final developments cost the producers some hard-won credibility, especially when coupled with news that the production company had fired most of the staff writers who worked on the first season, that AMC was reducing the budget per episode for the series, and that producer Frank Darbout was also leaving under duress.

By this point, The Walking Dead was the biggest ratings success in AMC’s history, leaving many comics fans to worry whether their support was still necessary for the series’ success. It would not be the first time that a series acknowledged a cult audience’s support only long enough to expand its following, and then pivoted to focus on the new viewers who constituted the bulk of its rating points.

As this Walking Dead example suggests, there is no easy path for adapting this material for the small screen. There are strong connections between the ways seriality works in comics and television, but also significant differences that make a one-to-one mapping less desirable than it might seem. Television producers want to leave their own marks on the material by exploring new paths to occasionally surprise their loyal fans. The challenge is how to make these adjustments consistent not with the details of the original stories, but with their “ground rules,” the underlying logic, and one good place to look to watch this informal “contract” between reader and creators take shape is through the letter columns published in the back of the comics. It is through this process that the producers can help figure out what they owe to the comics and to their readers.

Further Reading

Gordon, Ian, Mark Jancovich, and Matthew P. McAllister, eds.  Film and Comic Books 

(Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi, 2007)

Jones, Matthew T.  Found in Translation:  Structural and Cognitive Aspects of the Adaptation of Comic Art to Film (Saarbrücken:  VDM Verlag, 2009)

Pustz, Matthew. Comic Book Culture: Fan Boys and True Believers (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2000).

 


[1] Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone By (New York: Image, 2006).

[2] Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Bill Nichols (ed.) Movies and Methods vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 195-220.

[3] Robert Kirkman, “Letter Hacks,” The Walking Dead 8, July 2004.

 

 

Guerrilla Marketing: An Interview with Michael Serazio (Part Two)

You make an interesting argument here that today’s guerrilla advertising represents the reverse of the culture jamming practices of the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. if culture jamming or adbusting involved the highjacking of Madison Avenue practices for an alternative politics, then today’s branding often involves the highjacking of an oppositional stance/style for branding purposes. Explain.

 

There have been various examples that have popped up here and there that hint at this hijacking: Adbusters magazine’s apparent popularity with ad professionals; PBR’s marketing manager looking to No Logo for branding ideas; heck, AdAge even named Kalle Lasn one of the “ten most influential players in marketing” in 2011.  Similarly, you see this subversive, counterculture ethos in the work of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the premier ad shop of the last decade.  But I think the intersection goes deeper than these surface ironies and parallels.  There’s something about the aesthetics and philosophy of culture jamming that contemporary advertising finds enticing (especially when trying to speak to youth audiences): It resonates a disaffection with consumer culture; a streetwise sensibility; and so on.  For culture jammers, such stunts and fonts like flash mobs and graffiti art are political tools; for advertisers, they’re just great ways to break through the clutter and grab attention.  More abstractly, culture jammers see branding as an elaborate enterprise in false consciousness that needs to be unmasked toward a more authentic lived experience; guerrilla marketers, on the other, simply see culture jamming techniques as a way of reviving consumers from the “false conscious” of brand competitors.  Think different, in that sense, works equally well as an Apple slogan and a culture-jamming epigram.

 

You cite one advertising executive as saying, “friends are better at target marketing than any database,” a comment that conveys the ways that branding gets interwoven with our interpersonal relationships within current social media practices. What do you see as some of the long-term consequences of this focus on consumer-to-consumer marketing?

 

In a sense, the whole book – and not merely the friend-marketing schemes – is an exploration of how commercial culture can recapture trust amidst rampant consumer cynicism.  That’s what drives guerrilla marketing into the spaces we’re seeing it: pop culture, street culture, social media, and word-of-mouth.  These contexts offer “authenticity,” which advertisers are ever desperate to achieve given their fundamental governmental task is actually the polar opposite: contrivance.  (Sarah Banet-Weiser’s new book offers a sophisticated analysis of this fraught term across wide-ranging contexts in this regard.)  As far as long-term consequences go, I think it’s important to keep in mind the complicity of consumers in this whole process: In other words, being a buzz agent is still just a voluntary thing.  It’s not like these participants are being duped or exploited into participating.  It’s worth accounting for that and asking why shilling friends is acceptable in the first place.  Is it because of some kind of “social capitalism” wherein we already think of ourselves in branding terms and use hip new goods to show we’re in the marketplace vanguard?  The book is, of course, only a study of marketers not consumers, so it’s pure conjecture, but I think understanding that complicity is key to any long-term forecast of these patterns’ effects on our relationships and culture.

 

Both of our new books pose critiques of the concept of “the viral” as they apply to advertising and branding, but we come at the question from opposite directions. What do you see as the core problems with the “viral” model?

 

From my perspective, there’s an implicit (and not necessarily automatically warranted) populism that accompanies the viral model and label.  Viral success seems to “rise up” from the people; it has a kind of grassroots, democratic, or underground ethos about it.  In some cases, this is deserving, as we see when some random, cheap YouTube video blows up and manages to land on as many screens and in front of as many eyeballs as a Hollywood blockbuster which has all the promotional and distribution machinery behind it.  And because viral is supposedly underdog and populist, it’s “authentic,” so advertisers and brands naturally gravitate toward it, which, for me, makes it an intriguing object of study.  Abstractly speaking, that, too, is at the heart of the book’s inquiry and critique: The masquerades and machinations of powerful cultural producers (like advertisers) working through surrogate channels (like viral) that exude that authentic affect in different guises (here, populist).  Again, this is not to invalidate the genuine pluckiness of a “real” viral hit; it’s simply to keep watch on efforts to digitally “astroturf” that success when they show up.

 

While this blog has often treated what I call “transmedia storytelling” or what Jonathan Gray discusses as “paratexts” sympathetically as an extension of the narrative experience, you also rightly argue that it is an extension of the branding process. To what degree do you see, say, alternate reality games as an extension of the new model of consumption you are discussing in this book? Does their commercial motives negate the entertainment value such activities provide?

 

Oh, certainly not – and I should clarify here that I’m by no means taking the position that commercial motives necessarily negate the pleasure or creativity of participatory audiences.  Alternate reality games (or alternate reality marketing, as I call it) are, in a sense, the fullest extension of many of these practices, themes, and media platforms scattered throughout the book.  They feature outdoor mischief (e.g., flash mob-type activities) and culture jamming-worthy hoaxes, seek to inspire buzz and social media productivity from (brand) communities, and, above all, seem to be premised upon “discovery” rather than “interruption” in the unfolding narrative.  And the sympathetic treatments of their related elements (transmedia storytelling, paratexts) are assuredly defensible.  But they are, also, advertising – and, for my purposes here, they’re advertising that tries not to seem like advertising.  And, again, I believe in that self-effacement, much is revealed about today’s cultural conditions.

 

You end the book with the observation that “more media literacy about these guerrilla efforts can’t hurt.” Can you say more about what forms of media literacy would be desirable? What models of media change should govern such efforts? What would consumers/citizens need to know in order to change their fates given the claims about structure and agency you make throughout the book?

 

I suppose I end the book on a lament as much as a diatribe.  I’m not an abject brand-hater and I hope the book doesn’t come off that way.  That said, I certainly do empathize with the myriad critiques of advertising mounted over the years (i.e., its divisive designs on arousing envy, its ability to blind us to the reality of sweatshop labor, its unrealistic representation of women’s bodies, etc.).  The media literacy I aim for is awareness that these commercial forms are (often invisibly) invading spaces that we have not traditionally been accustomed to seeing advertising.  In general, brands don’t address us on conscious, rational terms and, thus, if we’re wooed by them, our subsequent consumer behavior is not necessarily informed as such.  In that sense, I guess, it’s as much a Puritan critique of commercialism as it is, say, Marxist.  Media literacy like this would encourage consumers to think carefully and deeply about that which advertisers seek to self-efface and to (try to) be conscious and rational in the face of guerrilla endeavors that attempt to obfuscate and bypass those tendencies.  The cool sell is an enticing seduction.  But we can – and do – have the agency to be thoughtful about it.

Thanks very much for the opportunity to discuss the book!

Michael Serazio is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication whose research, writing, and teaching interests include popular culture, advertising, politics, and new media.  His first book, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press, 2013), investigates the integration of brands into pop culture content, social patterns, and digital platforms amidst a major transformation of the advertising and media industries.  He has work appearing or forthcoming in Critical Studies in Media CommunicationCommunication Culture & CritiqueTelevision & New Media, and The Journal of Popular Culture, among other scholarly journals.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and also holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of San Francisco and a M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University.  A former staff writer for the Houston Press, his reporting was recognized as a finalist for the Livingston Awards and has written essays on media and culture for The AtlanticThe Wall Street JournalThe Nation, and Bloomberg View.  His webpage can be found at: http://sites.google.com/site/linkedatserazio

Guerrilla Marketing?: An Interview with Michael Serazio (Part One)

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 1 – Revolutionary Advertising: Creating Cultural Movements from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

From time to time, I have been showcasing, through this blog, the books which Karen Tongson and I have been publishing through our newly launched Postmillenial Pop series for New York University Pop. For example, Karen ran an interview last March with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, author of of the series’s first book, Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stage of Empire. This week, I am featuring an exchange with Michael Serazio, the author of another book in the series, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing, and I have arranged to feature an interview with the other writers in the series across the semester.

We were lucky to be able to feature Serazio as one of the speakers on a panel at last April’s Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change conference, see the video above, where he won people over with his soft-spoken yet decisive critiques of current branding and marketing practices. Your Ad Here achieves an admirable balance: it certainly raises very real concerns about the role which branding and marketing plays in contemporary neo-liberal capitalism, calling attention to the hidden forms of coercion often deployed in approaches which seem to be encouraging a more “empowered” or “participatory” model of spectatorship. Yet he also recognizes that the shifting paradigm amounts to more than a rhetorical smokescreen, and so he attempts to better understand the ways that brands are imagining their consumers at a transformative moment in the media landscape. His approach is deeply grounded in the insider discourses shaping Madison Avenue, yet he also can step outside of these self-representations to ask hard questions about what it means to be a consumer in this age of converged and grassroots media.  I was struck as we were readying this book for publication that it was ideally read alongside two other contemporary publications — Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in Brand Culture (see my interview with Banet-Weiser last spring) and our own Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture (co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green). Each of these books comes at a similar set of phenomenon — nonconventional means of spreading and attracting attention to messages — through somewhat different conceptual lens.

You will get a better sense of Serazio’s unique contributions to this debate by reading the two-part interview which follows.

You discuss the range of different terminology the industry sometimes uses to describe these emerging practices, but end up settling on “Guerrilla Marketing.” Why is this the best term to describe the practices you are discussing?

 

Conceptually, I think “guerrilla” marketing best expresses the underlying philosophy of these diverse practices.  To be certain, I’m appropriating and broadening industry lingo here: If you talk to ad folks, they usually only think of guerrilla marketing as the kind of wacky outdoor stunts that I cover in chapter 3 of the book.  But if you look at the logic of branded content, word-of-mouth, and social media strategies, you see consistent patterns of self-effacement: the advertisement trying to blend into its non-commercial surroundings – TV shows and pop songs, interpersonal conversations and online social networks.  Advertising rhetoric has long doted upon militarized metaphors – right down to the fundamental unit of both sales and war: the campaign. 

But when I started reading through Che Guevara’s textbook on guerrilla warfare, I heard parallel echoes of how these emerging marketing tactics were being plotted and justified.  Guerrilla warfare evolved from conventional warfare by having unidentified combatants attack outside clearly demarcated battle zones.  Guerrilla marketing is an evolution from traditional advertising (billboards, 30-spots, Web banners, etc.) by strategizing subtle ad messages outside clearly circumscribed commercial contexts.  Guerrilla warfare forced us rethink the meaning of and rules for war; guerrilla marketing, I would argue, is doing the same for the ad world.

 

Let’s talk a bit more about the concept of “clutter” that surfaces often in discussions of these advertising practices. On the one hand, these new forms of marketing seek to “cut through the clutter” and grab the consumers attention in a highly media-saturated environment, and on the other, these practices may extend the clutter by tapping into previously unused times and spaces as the focal point for their branding effort. What do you see as the long-term consequences of this struggle over “clutter”?

 

Matthew McAllister had a great line from his mid-1990s book that tracked some of these same ad trends to that point: “Advertising is… geographically imperialistic, looking for new territories that it has not yet conquered.  When it finds such a territory, it fills it with ads – at least until this new place, like traditional media, has so many ads that it becomes cluttered and is no longer effective as an ad medium.”  I think this encapsulates what must be a great (albeit bitter) irony for advertisers: You feel like your work is art; it’s all your competitors’ junk that gets in the way as clutter. 

As to the long-term fate of the various new spaces hosting these promotional forms, I don’t have much faith that either media institutions or advertisers will show commercial restraint if there’s money to be made and eyeballs to be wooed.  I think eventually pop culture texts like music tracks and video games will be as saturated as film and TV when it comes to branded content; journalism, regrettably, seems to be leaning the same direction with the proliferation of “native advertising” sponsored content.  Facebook and Twitter have been trying to navigate this delicate balance of clutter – increasing revenues without annoying users – but here, too, it doesn’t look promising. 

Maybe if audiences wanted to pay for so much of that content and access which they’ve grown accustomed to getting for free, then maybe clutter is not the expected outcome here, but I’m not terribly sanguine on that front either.  The one guerrilla marketing tactic I don’t see over-cluttering its confines is word-of-mouth just because as a medium (i.e., conversation) that remains the “purest,” comparatively, and it’s hard to imagine how that (deliberate external) commercial saturation would look or play out.

 

There seems to be another ongoing tension in discussions of contemporary media between a logic of “personalization” and individualization on the one hand and a logic of “social” or “networked” media on the other. Where do you see the practices you document here as falling on that continuum? Do some of these practices seem more individualized, some more collective?

 

Really interesting question and here I’ll borrow Rob Walker’s line from Buying In on the “fundamental tension of modern life” (that consumer culture seeks to resolve): “We all want to feel like individuals.  We all want to feel like a part of something bigger than our selves.” 

The guerrilla marketing strategies that are showing up in social media probably best exemplify this paradox.  On one hand, brands want to give fans and audiences both the tools for original self-expression and simultaneously furnish the spaces for that networked socialization to take root.  On the other hand, all that clearly needs to be channeled through commercial contexts so as to achieve the “affective economics” that you identified in Convergence Culture

I look at something like the branded avatar creation of, say, MadMenYourself.com, SimpsonizeMe.com, or Office Max’s “Elf Yourself” online campaign as emblematic pursuits in this regard.  The “prosumer” can fashion her identity through the aesthetics of the brand-text (i.e., personalization) and then share it through their social networks (i.e., it’s assumed to be communally useful as well).  But, as I note in a forthcoming article in Television & New Media, these tools and avenues for expression and socialization are ultimately limited to revenue-oriented schemes – in other words, corporations are not furnishing these opportunities for self-discovery and sharing from an expansive set of possibilities.  They’re only allowed to exist if they help further the brand’s bottom line.

Michael Serazio is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication whose research, writing, and teaching interests include popular culture, advertising, politics, and new media.  His first book, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press, 2013), investigates the integration of brands into pop culture content, social patterns, and digital platforms amidst a major transformation of the advertising and media industries.  He has work appearing or forthcoming in Critical Studies in Media CommunicationCommunication Culture & CritiqueTelevision & New Media, and The Journal of Popular Culture, among other scholarly journals.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and also holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of San Francisco and a M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University.  A former staff writer for the Houston Press, his reporting was recognized as a finalist for the Livingston Awards and has written essays on media and culture for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and Bloomberg View.  His webpage can be found at: http://sites.google.com/site/linkedatserazio

Between Storytelling and Surveillance: American Muslim Youth Negotiate Culture, Politics, and Participation

Over the past several years, my Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research group at USC has been doing case studies of innovative groups, organizations, and networks that have been effective at increasing youth engagement and participation within the political process. We’ve been sharing our preliminary research findings here as a series of white papers that have addressed the DREAMer movement to gain greater education and civic rights for undocumented youth, Students for Liberty and the movement of “Second Wave Libertarianism” more generally, and the forms of fan activism associated with the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters. Today, I am proud to be releasing the final report in this series — a study into the political and cultural lives that American Muslim youths have been defining for themselves within the context of post-9/11 America. This report was prepared by Sangita Shresthova, who serves as the Research Director for the MAPP project.

This research has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of the work of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics network. Having released all of our initial case study reports, the team is now turning to drafting a book which looks comparatively across these various examples of participatory politics, and seeks to address larger debates about the role of new media in contemporary political struggles.

The new report, which is shared below, centers on activists and community networks affiliated with the Muslim Youth Group (MYG) at the Islamic Center in Southern California and the Young Leaders Summits program at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), but Shresthova casts a larger net, describing a range of participatory projects through which American Muslims have sought to reshape the ways they are represented through mainstream and grassroots media.

While she is attentive to the new possibilities for voice that these youth have found through new media, she also stresses the substantial risks they face as a consequence of both formal surveillance by governmental agencies (as part of the new security establishment whose scope becomes more alarmingly clear with each new revelation) and informally through the chastising responses they received from older Muslims about the ways they represent their personal and religious identities. As a consequence, the communities she describes here constitute precarious publics, ones that can be empowering or can put participants at risk, perhaps both at the same time.

As we’ve been doing this research, our research team was struck, for example, by the “chilling effect” these youths experienced in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings, as the participants felt a renewed risk of retaliation on the basis of the color of their skin, their national origins, or their faith. We hope you will share our sense that it is urgent for us to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American Muslim and how these youths are battling against prejudices that have surfaced with greater intensity over the decade plus since September 11.

Sangita Shresthova‘s work focuses on the intersection between popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization. She is the Research Director of Henry Jenkins’ Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project. Based at the University of Southern California, MAPP explores innovative youth-driven media-centric civic engagement and studies youth experiences through groups and communities that include Invisible Children, the Harry Potter Alliance, and American Muslim youth networks. Sangita holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures and MSc. degrees from MIT and LSE. Bridging between dance, media and her Czech/Nepali heritage, Sangita is also the founder of Bollynatyam’s Global Bollywood Dance Project. (www.bollynatyam.com)

A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I’ve been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville’s novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don’t have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project’s national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how “learning through remixing” can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative “What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?”

 

Henry Jenkins is Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville’s City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Four)

You make an important observation about the nature of sequels here: “A trade-off between novelty and familiarity occurs: The world is no longer new to the audience, but the burden of exposition is lessened by what has already been revealed of the world.” So, one could argue that the creator of the sequel is freed to do different things than the creator of the original. If this is true, what are some examples of creators who have effectively exploited that freedom to do something interesting?

Contrary to the negative image many people have when it comes to sequels, some sequels are generally considered better than the original works they follow.  In my experience, anyway, people often say they like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) better than Star Wars (1977); The Lord of the Rings certainly builds interestingly on the world introduced in The Hobbit; and Riven (1997) is arguably better than Myst (1993).  In all three cases, the sequel expands the world a great deal, while carrying forth characters and situations established in the original.  Each also builds upon how the world works, extending the world logic from the original work (for example, the rules regarding the functioning of lightsabers, the One Ring, and linking books).

Authors may find it easier to develop an existing world than begin an entirely new one, and expansions can still introduce as much (or more) new world material as the original work.  Practically speaking, this can also have to do with economics; a longer book or a higher-budget movie is more of a financial risk to a publisher or studio, so original works that introduce a world may be more likely to be represented by shorter books and lower-budget movies, while sequels to a successful work will be given more investment (for example, Pitch Black (2000) had a budget of $23 million, while its sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) had a budget of over $100 million).  Whatever the case, world expansion is necessary for a sequel to continue to engage an audience, who wants to revisit the world they like, but at the same time, have new experiences in it.

The Star Trek film this summer was controversial precisely because of its ret-conning practices: it’s restaging and reimagining of the Wrath of Khan narrative seems to have been embraced by some new fans, but at the cost of much gnashing of teeth by veteran fans (myself among them). What does this example tell us about the challenges or opportunities in revising or revisiting familiar worlds within popular media?

 In the case of Star Trek, they wanted to have it both ways; a fresh start, while keeping continuity with what has come before.  Technically speaking, the 2009 film was not a reboot, due to the “alternate timeline” device (complete with “Spock Prime”, with a Nimoy cameo that may have been thrown in to suggest to fans that if Nimoy accepts this film enough to appear in it, then you ought to accept it, too), but most people still consider it a reboot.  Like you, I, too, found this recasting of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy annoying; why not move on to a new set of characters, as the TV shows did, and mostly successfully at that?  And the motive here is not the best, either.

Retconning, even when not taken to the extreme of a reboot, may be done for artistic or narrative reasons (as with Tolkien’s adjusting of The Hobbit so as to fit The Lord of the Rings better, or Lucas’s clean-up and added effects shots in the “Special Edition” re-releases), but when it’s done for purely commercial reasons, it may seem more suspect, since money, not art, is the motive.  Of course, the degree to which retcon occurs also makes a difference; cosmetic changes are more easily accepted than those which change the story or characters too directly or too much.It’s also usually easier to reboot a character-based franchise than a world-based franchise, because the background world is closer to the Primary world to begin with, and reboots are usually concerned with bringing things up-to-date more than anything else; changes in the Batman, Spider-man, and Superman franchises are a good example of this.

But in more world-centered franchises, like Star Trek and Star Wars, you don’t need to have the same characters present all the time (Star Trek shows remained on TV 1987 to 2005 without relying on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy); it’s the world, with all its designs, devices, locations, and logic, that keeps the audience engaged.  So one can only hope that Abrams doesn’t reboot Star Wars.

 

While as the book jacket informs us, you reference more than 1400 imaginary worlds across the book, certain worlds keep recurring, among them Oz, Middle-earth, and the worlds associated with Star Wars. What makes these worlds especially rich for your analysis?

Certain worlds are larger and better developed, so when it comes to discussions of infrastructures, internarrative theory, sequence elements, and so forth, there’s just more to work with and examine in larger worlds.  Their infrastructures have thousands of pieces, and some are still growing.  The worlds of Oz, Middle-earth, and Star Wars are also very influential ones, and ones that helped forge the imaginary world tradition.  And, when using them for examples, they are also worlds that the readers of the book will likely already be familiar with, and which require less explanation.  But there are so many interesting ones that are less known, and deserve more attention (like Defontenay’s Star and Dewdney’s Planiverse), and I try to highlight some of these in the book as well.

You revisit the familiar debate between interactivity and storytelling (or narratology and ludology as it is sometimes framed in game studies), which seems to be unresolvable. But, you suggest that there are ways to reconcile competing claims for game play and world building/exploring. Can you elaborate a bit? How might this focus on immersion offer us a way of reframing these core issues in Game Studies (which is a field where you have made many contributions already)?

Video games and the experiencing of imaginary worlds both involve such activities as world exploration and the learning of a set of intrinsic rules and how things work, and in many cases, piecing together a backstory and seeing how actions relate to consequences.  So interactivity is perhaps more compatible with the experiencing of a world than it is with the telling of a story.  It’s the difference between causality and a causal chain of events.  You can have causality built into a world, so that one kind of action results in a particular result, but due to choices made or chance, you don’t always get the same sequence of events.  A fixed causal chain of events, like that found in a novel, stays the same and doesn’t change.  But a world can accommodate either.

The interactivity vs. storytelling debate is really a question of the author saying either “You choose” (interaction) or “I choose” (storytelling) regarding the events experienced; it can be all of one or all of the other, or some of each to varying degrees; and even when the author says “You choose”, you are still choosing from a set of options chosen by the author.  So it’s not just a question of how many choices you make, but how many options there are per choice.  Immersion, however, is a different issue, I think, which does not always rely on choice (such as immersive novels), unless you want to count “Continue reading” and “Stop reading” as two options you are constantly asked to choose between.  And it isn’t just immersion, but what happens after it as well (that is, absorption, saturation, and overflow, which are discussed in detail in chapter one).  By focusing on worlds and the experience of them, video games studies will be better able to make comparisons between game experiences, and describe them in a more world-based fashion.

 

Your term, “deinteractivation” may be somewhat awkward, but it also provides the best explanation I’ve seen for why it has been so difficult to translate games into other kinds of media experiences — for example, films or comics. Defiance represents an interesting recent experiment. To what degree do you think it has been successful at creating a world that bridges between games and television?

 

Although long, I believe “deinteractivation” is a morphologically-sound coinage, related as it is to words like “deactivation” and “interact”, and no more clumsy than the words one finds in polysynthetic languages like Ainu, Chukchi, or Yupik. Hopefully its etymology is clear enough to indicate that it means the removal of interactivity, something that occurs when a world or narrative makes a transmedial move from an interactive medium to a noninteractive medium.  (As a form of adaptation, it is something we will see more of as video games make transmedial moves into other media.)

In the case of Defiance, where both the TV show and the game were developed together, I would say that the world appears to have been designed with both media in mind already, rather than beginning as a game that was later adapted into a TV series.  But it will be interesting to see which survives longer, the game or the show, and how they influence each other.

Also, the fact that the game is an MMORPG means that it is more interactive than a stand-alone game, but also more vulnerable to the ravages of time; while a stand-alone game, just like a TV show, could be experienced in its entirety at some future date, an MMORPG can really only be experienced as it was during the time it is being run; once it ends, it’s over, and it cannot be re-experienced.  It may be too soon to know whether it successfully bridges the two medium, or creates a solid fan community around the show/game experience (will other media venues follow?)

Perhaps we can get some idea from the text on the Defiance website: “Players of the Defiance game will have the chance to cross over into the show in a new and bigger way: By seeing their avatar recreated as a character in the second season!” First, this conflates players and their avatars, and second, the avatar will be “recreated” as a character; so it appears all interactivity has been lost during these two removes.  One can imaging other ways an MMORPG and a TV show could be linked; for example, a TV show could be made from the events of the MMORPG as they occur, or perhaps the storyline of the TV show could be adjusted based on the events of the MMORPG (the game events could provide the ever-changing background for the TV characters’ lives; if a revolution is stirred up in the MMORPG, it occurs in the background of the TV show, affecting the characters, and so on).  If nothing else though, and despite the outcome, Defiance is an interesting experiment, its name perhaps referring to its attitude toward standard television fare.

Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  [mark.wolf@cuw.edu]

Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Three)

As you note, audiences often police the continuity of their favorite franchises, holding the creators accountable to seemingly impossible standards of consistency and coherence. What might your book tell us about the things that motivate this high level of fan investment in continuity?

Tolkien’s concept of “Secondary Belief” sums it up best.  It’s not so much a “suspension of disbelief”, as Coleridge supposed, but rather belief in the secondary world we are experiencing, that makes it compelling.  When one imagines the world, it needs a certain degree of consistency and coherence to produce secondary belief, and this is certainly not an impossible standard to achieve.  Once it is achieved, however, fans will attempt, and often work quite hard at, explaining away any consistencies that do occur; but of course these will be smaller ones that do not destroy secondary belief.

So how much consistency and coherence is enough?  And, of course, the amount of world detail is important as well; that’s why I argue that completeness (or, really, the illusion of completeness) is also necessary.  You can make a tiny world with very little invention or detail, and it will be consistent and coherent, but there won’t be enough there to evoke a sense of travelling to another place.  And the quality of the details matters as well; you can have huge amounts of detail, but still have an uninteresting world which no one will care about.

So if fans are making demands on a world and policing its continuity, it is a good sign, for it shows that they care about it enough to complain; world-makers should accept that as a compliment.  And world-makers should try to be clear as to what is canonical, and also try to be as consistent as possible; while this may hamper the growth of a world, I think it should be seen as a challenge to be met, and which can be met.  There are always ways of expanding a world that do not disrupt its consistency.

 You trace the origins of many of today’s fictional worlds back to the traveler’s tales of the ancient and medieval worlds. What might we learn about contemporary fantasy and science fiction stories if we were to know more — as you clearly do — about those earlier traditions? What changes when we move from a world where there are unknown spaces within the real physical world to one where we have to map radical difference elsewhere — in space, underneath the sea, at the center of the Earth? Are we still dealing with the consequences of that shift?

 

First, so many things have been done earlier than we realize.  Charles Ischir Defontenay’s novel Star (Psi Cassiopeia): The Marvelous History of One of the Worlds of Outer Space (1854), for example, is certainly ahead of its time in the world-building it does, with its alien cultures, world details, and story arc.  Second, it’s important to know your audience.  The Age of Exploration encouraged worlds to find new locations, and they did, but one can still find more traditional island worlds (like Isla Nublar in Jurassic Park (1990)).

The main difference is that today, audiences are geographically more savvy, and less likely to accept information that goes against what they already know.  A fictional island in the Pacific Ocean still works, since no one knows them all (or even how many there are; according to Wikipedia, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 of them).  But fictional U.S. states are much harder to believe in (at least for an American audience), because most people know them all.

Today, this extends even beyond the earth; most people know the planets of the solar system, making new planets in our solar system more difficult to propose, and conditions on these planets are well-known enough that earth-like civilizations on Jupiter or Pluto, for example, will be thought unrealistic.  Likewise, future settings set too close to our own soon become just alternate realities (for example, the worlds of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)).  General audiences have more scientific and cultural knowledge as well, so means of traveling to worlds, and the workings of the worlds as well, are under greater scrutiny.

Just compare the original appearances of the Star Trek galaxy to its later additions, and you can see changes in what is considered acceptable.  So the level of the general knowledge of the audience (and not merely geographical knowledge) have propelled world-makers to a higher degree of sophistication, detail, and consistency, while the greater (and increasing) number of secondary worlds has also established traditions and conventions which also shape expectations.

 

In my own work on transmedia storytelling, I keep coming back to the idea that most transmedial extensions are designed to serve one of three tasks: explore the world, expand the timeline, or flesh out secondary characters. As I read your discussion of different ways of structuring our encounters with worlds, you suggest a range of different devices — including maps, timelines, and genealogies — but they seem to me to fall back on the same basic functions. Would you agree?

Those three things you mention coincide nicely with the three basic infrastructures that I discuss in chapter three; that is, maps, timelines, and genealogies, which correspond the three basic things you need to have a world (space, time, and characters).  Along with these three, other infrastructures (nature, culture, language, mythology, philosophy, and of course, narrative) also have the basic function of organizing world information into a coherent form, by providing  contexts for, and connections between, pieces of world data.  And, these are the structures that all new world information is attached to, and that determine what new material can be added.  So, in that sense, they have a similar function.  Ancillary works can extend a single infrastructure without adding narrative content; a dictionary for an invented language, for example.  This would be an example of a transmedial extension of a world that does not deal with maps, timelines, or characters (although it may provide etymologies for place-names and character-names), but it would still serve the function of organizing world data into a structure.

Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  [mark.wolf@cuw.edu]