Who Owns a Fictional Character?

For decades, fans and critics begged for Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, to write another a novel.

In 2015, they finally got their wish. Kind of.

And, as always, you should be careful what you wish for.

In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch, the thoughtful, kind, moralistic patriarch of the Finch family is revealed to be a bigot that defends Jim Crow and once even attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting. In a review for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani sums it up thusly: “The depiction of Atticus in Watchmanmakes for disturbing reading, and for Mockingbird fans, it’s especially disorienting.”

For millions of readers and activists, this was not just disorienting, but jarring, even shocking. A character that was not just a man, but a symbol, is now shown to be a white supremacist, no different from thousands of others in 1950s Alabama.

While originally touted as a sequel, Go Set a Watchman is actually a first draft of what would become Too Kill a Mockingbird. The seeds of what the Pulitzer Prize-winning work would become are there, but they’re far from polished. And while some believe “the new book will demonstrate how editors are the unsung heroes of publishing,” for me it raises a much more fascinating, existential question: who truly owns a fictional character?

Obviously I don’t mean this in a legal sense since individuals and companies that own trademarks and copyrights can do what they please, but rather in an artistic sense. Is Atticus the property of her creator, meaning that Lee, if she had been so inclined, could have done whatever she wanted with him, including evolving or changing his personality to the point that it may detract from the first novel? Or do characters, once they are released into the world, belong to the collective populous, particularly those that have such a deep and lasting impact as Atticus Finch?

When George Lucas created the original Star Wars trilogy, he was hailed as a genius. Then, he made three prequels and released special editions of the original films, causing fans and former acolytes to proclaim that he had not only ruined the new films, but also the old ones (“Han shot first”), and therefore, their childhoods in the process. Now, Disney has scrapped his ideas for the sequels, in favor of new plots and scripts that they are developing on their own, as well as a slew of other films related to the galaxy far, far away. Isn’t it a bit surreal that so many of us believe J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, and other know this universe and these characters better than their creator, their god?

Christopher Nolan was seen as infallible after Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but became the enemy in various pockets of the internet when his final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, began with the hero taking eight years off, something that the “real” Batman (we won’t even discuss the ending). After getting it so right the first two times, Nolan was now being told he didn’t understand the character at all. But every good filmmaker brings his own vision to the screen and Nolan certainly had his reasons for making that choice, even if very few diehards agreed with him.

The Godfather has grappled with this issue both in print and on screen. A decade ago, Random House commissioned the writing of two new novels in The Godfather saga, both written by Mark Weingardner, that supposedly took place within the storylines of the three films, but there were continuity errors galore and instead of improving and enhancing the world of the Corleones, it made it worse. Another book, The Family Corleone, focuses on the years not covered in the original novel, and was written by Ed Falco based on a screenplay by original Godfather author Mario Puzo. There have long been rumors of Paramount developing another Godfather film (perhaps a prequel) for years, some with Francis Ford Copolla, some without. Some fans believe that a new film should ignore Part III or somehow redeem it.

It’s not just fans that struggle to cede control to the people that first brought their beloved characters to the screen. What about actors? They are expected to transform a two-dimensional character on paper into a believable, fully formed individual. In the best cases, this is a collaborative effort between writer and performer, but do actors have a right to dictate a character’s direction and motivation or is that reserved only for the writer?

For seven seasons, Richard Schiff was Toby Ziegler, the prickly, brilliant communications director on The West Wing. In the final season — long after series creator Aaron Sorkin had departed — a plot involved a major deviation for the character when it was revealed he had leaked national security secrets, a story line that Schiff admitted he hated. “Toby would never in 10 million years have betrayed the president in that fashion.” Indeed it would seem that the man that did that was a vastly different character than the one that yelled at the president in the Oval Office late in season two, and Schiff even said that “Sorkin would’ve talked it over to see how it bounced off of the character I was creating with him but these people didn’t consider that important.”

A writer may not take an actor’s feelings into account, but it can be a two-way street.

In 2008, Katherine Heigl of Grey’s Anatomy removed her name from Emmy consideration, a year after winning the award, because she “did not feel that [she] was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination,” a clear shot at the writers that gave her a reduced storyline that season. But is that a decision that should be up to Heigl alone? An actor is only as good as the material that is provided, so a nomination is validation for everyone that works on the show, not just the performer, and her character does not solely belong to her. It’s no surprise, then, that Heigl left the show less than two years later on far from good terms.

Ideally, both creator and consumer are pleased with the finished product, but sometimes artists need to push boundaries and explore new territory, disrupting the delicate balance that they achieved, sometimes simply for the sake of disruption.

Many fans will undoubtedly feel anger at Harper Lee for changing what many see as the core characteristics of Atticus Finch, just as I had been upset with Mark Weingardner for his treatment of Michael Corleone and Joel Schumacher’s handling of Batman, but none of us, neither author nor fan, can lay undisputed claim to the ownership of a character, even one that has been an American icon for the past half-century.


Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business InsiderThe CauldronMedium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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