So I’m reading Frank Beddor’s book, The Looking Glass Wars, based on Lewis Carroll’s famous 1860s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Looking Glass Wars is an interesting and creative book, full of action, and certainly worthy of a book review. But this is not going to be a straight-up book review. It’s a discussion of the ethics of legal fanfiction.
I think of fanfiction as recycled crocheting. You unravel a shawl someone else crocheted. Then you take this yarn of characters, plot points, and setting and you crochet it all over again into a pattern of your own design. Say, into a sweater. Well, who owns the sweater?
I support copyright, of course. But what if the work you are basing your fanfiction on has an expired copyright? Just because something is legal, is it, well, polite? Especially if you take your work into places the creator wouldn’t have dreamt of going?
Back to our analogy, what if the person who crocheted the original shawl was emphatically anti-sweater? You know this because, say, you do some research and read her journal. One entry is a long diatribe against the effect of sweaters on society, especially tacky Christmas sweaters. Another entry is an ode to the shawl as the apotheosis of cold-weather outer garments.
Would it be rude of you, even after the original creator is long buried, to refashion her work into a sweater? Would Miss Manners approve of you wearing your sweater on national television and decrying shawls?
Okay, before I let my analogy run away with me, let me explain how it pertains to The Looking Glass Wars.
In one sense, The Looking Glass Wars is fanfiction. Beddor is using Carroll’s characters and setting. And it’s all perfectly legal because the book is old enough. But the setting and characters, while clearly derived from Alice in Wonderland, differ greatly. The Mad Hatter (renamed Hatter Madigan) is a super-bodyguard in an elite class of milliner-warriors. The Cat is an assassin for the Queen of Hearts. Alyss is the daughter of the good Queen of Hearts, Genevieve. Then the Queen’s cruel sister Redd stages a coup and takes over the queendom.
Alyss (renamed Alice) escapes into Victorian England. No one believes she is a princess of Wonderland. Even her neighbor, Charles Dodgson, finds her stories enchanting but unbelievable.
Yup, Beddor puts Alice’s original creator in this work of fanfiction. Because Charles Dodgson had a famous pen name: Lewis Carroll.
Beddor’s version of Dodgson listens, enraptured, to Alice’s stories of Wonderland, then rewrites them into his own comic version of events. He publishes his “silly” children’s story and presents Alyss with a copy, expecting adoration.
To Alyss, it’s the ultimate version of betrayal. Especially when this bestseller spawns a sequel. So Dodgon comes off looking like a plagiarist, a profiteer, or at best a well-meaning but pathetic character who makes Alyss/Alice doubt her own identity.
Let me emphasize that, because the cross-accusations possible in this book are dizzying.
The creator gives the creation an identity crisis.
The creation accuses the creator of a combination of plagiarism and falsifying storylines.
And yet, what has Dodgson done in this book but become a writer of fanfiction? He has taken someone else’s stories, characters, and settings, and reworked them to suit his taste. Just as Beddor himself has done.
Which means one writer of fanfiction (Beddor) accuses the source of his fanfiction (Carroll) of creating bad fanfiction (Alice in Wonderland) of what is in reality Lewis’s own original work.
And it’s not an implied accusation. The Looking Glass Wars opens on the scene where Dodgson presents his newly published book to Alyss:
The grinning Cheshire cat. The mad tea party. He’d transformed her memories of a world alive with hope and possibility and danger into make-believe, the foolish stuff of children. He was just another in a long line of unbelievers and this—this stupid, nonsensical book—was how he made fun of her. She had never felt more betrayed in all her life.
The Alice screams at him. “You’re the cruelest man I ever met in all my life, Mr. Dodgson!”
I think readers like to imagine what would happen were an artist to meet his art. But this may be the first time the creation accuses the creator of getting it all wrong, and then bullies him right out of his own story.
In a strange way, the author Beddor becomes Redd, the evil Queen of Hearts. Redd overthrows the Wonderland we all know and rewrites the rules to suit her own taste. So does Beddor. His Wonderland is grittier, bloodier. Familiar characters have twisted motives and angles and backgrounds. They are older. They delve into romance, revenge, and PTSD. Our author Beddor has done far more than write a work of fanfiction – he has staged his own little coup.
Who rules Wonderland now?
And while, by copyright law, it’s all perfectly legal, I have to wonder what our dear departed Lewis Carroll would say.
And Beddor goes even further by inserting Lewis Carroll himself into the story. How would I feel, I wonder, were someone to take my characters and change them so dramatically the only way to justify it was for one of them to shout at me, “You got it all wrong!”
It’s this issue that makes me uncomfortable. All fanfictions change something in the original work. Many honor the original creator even as they change elements. Looking Glass Wars goes for the jugular, not only wildly changing the plot, but depicting the original author as a fool.
If it sounds like I’m condemning Beddor, the jury is still out. I enjoy legal fanfiction pieces, from the musical Wicked to Jane Austen spinoffs. Most indicting, I myself take tales, characters, and settings I didn’t originate and “improve” them. My first book, Waking Beauty, changes the classic tale of the Sleeping Beauty just as much as Beddor changes Carroll’s story
Is there a difference?
I suppose one difference is enough people have told the story of Sleeping Beauty over the years that the bare bones of the tale belong to no one. We can still clearly trace Alice and Wonderland to Lewis Carroll, even if the copyright no longer pertains.
So maybe the bigger question is, at what point is a tale old enough or big enough that it belongs to everyone (not just legally, but creatively)?
And secondary to that, can a storyteller get his own story wrong?
Your discussion, please.