Up for Interpretation

Intellectual property sounds like a dirty phrase in the literature industry. It reeks of corporate work-shopping, of finding the least-offensive, most roundabout way of saying something that only barely carries meaning. It’s an important phrase to remember, though, especially in a world where companies aren’t simply looking for good books to be published; rather they’re looking for a book that can be built into a franchise.

In the post-Harry Potter, post-Twilight era, the bar has been substantially raised for writers of pop literature. They not only need to consider the value of their work in terms of the writing, but how easily it is adapted into a film, video game, etc. So how much ownership does an author has over his or her own work? Though it is certainly considered the author’s “intellectual property,” when a director or game designer makes drastic or unwanted changes to the story in its adapted medium, how much right does the author have to try and stop them? After all, it’s been said that an author loses ownership of a piece as soon as it’s published. However, there is a striking difference between the type of ownership an audience takes of a work and the same thing in the hands of a film’s director.

Take, for example, the fate of Clive Barker and his novella The Hellbound Heart. While Barker wrote and directed the movie adaptation himself and was closely involved with the creation of the sequel, he abandoned the franchise’s film adaptation afterward, wanting nothing to do with the direction the studio was taking the story. To date, there have been six sequels to the original film without any of the original author’s influence. Because of this, the only characters that carry over from movie to movie (the cenobites) have veered far off course. While they began as neutral arbiters, an interested third party that stood somehow aside from the main action of the plot, they have turned into the stereotypical demonic villain, characters without any dimension or sympathy from the audience. To get an idea of how jarring this transition is for a fan of the first two films, imagine if Warner Bros. produced an extra sequel to the Harry Potter movies in which Harry and Ron move to Portland, Oregon and become detectives with a wise-cracking, talking cat.

This is obviously not the way Barker had intended to continue the series, and it seems more than a little unfair that the creators of the film series have the right to derail Barker’s characters and misinform the views of the audience in blatant disregard of his wishes. Now, anyone who approaches the novel or the first two movies and who has seen the sequels will have a completely different view of the characters than the one that Barker intended and wrote. But does he have the right to stop an unwanted adaptation of his work?

After selling the license of the film adaptation to a company, perhaps not. But he does have the power to take his property back. Barker is currently working on a book titled The Scarlet Gospels, the aim being to refute the existence of films three-through-eight and bring the series back under his control. He has also said that he plans on ending the series with this novel, that it will be a grand send-off for his iconic villain “Pinhead” (a name, developed in the later films, that Barker objects to because it “makes him sound stupid,” another slight he plans to remedy in the new book).

Through this, we see that it is entirely possible for an author to take back ownership of their characters. However, film is a medium that, by its very nature, reaches a far greater audience than literature. Even those who have never seen the movies are influenced through the trailers and tv-spots. Whether or not Barker will be successful in reclaiming his characters remains to be seen.

Large-scale publishing in the modern world is a dangerous game. With the advent of multi-media presentation strategies, and the ease with which fans can discuss the work with each other over the web, the book has become much more of an interactive experience. In some ways, the author of today owns less of his or her work than ever before. No matter the genre or nature of the work, today’s author needs to be prepared to allow the audience’s interpretation of the character to take precedence, even though this may contradict their own writing. It may not be a good development in terms of an author’s relationship with his or her work, but it is reality and a writer in the modern world needs to be prepared for it.

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