Back when Dark Horse still published manga in the 32-page newsstand-comics format, two of the titles I encountered regularly from their lineup was Urusei Yatsura and a still-ongoing favorite of mine, Blade of the Immortal. Both had been reformatted and retouched to read left-to-right, as opposed to the original right-to-left orientation in the Japanese printings.
When at the time I mentioned this casually to a fellow fan of a few more years' experience than I, I got a seething earful from him about what horrible butchery this was and how it totally ruined the original artwork and I should boycott the publishers and mail them dead cats because blah blah creative integrity blah blah artistic intentions glib blurb. I quickly learned not to bring up the subject with him again.
Note that I'm not pooh-poohing his position per se, just the fulminating vehemence with which he delivered it. In fact, at the time, I mostly agreed with him. I thought dubbing anime into English was an abomination, too, and for many of the same reasons he cited: wasn't it a violation of the creator's intentions to essentially rework a significant component of his product?
I've run into variations on this argument over the years, and they all revolve around the same question: Do creators always deserve the final say in how their product is delivered to an audience? Or are there circumstances where others know better, and might even be able to improve on what they've been given?
You don't even have to go dig up the fan edits of The Phantom Menace to support this point. I suspect plenty of examples can be found even further back than that, from an editor's work on the original manuscript of a novel (admittedly, a consensual project) to the re-editing of a film by its producers or a studio head to make it watchable (admittedly, the exception rather than the rule).
There are always going to be instances where someone in the audience, or someone in the boardroom, knows better and can prove it. The problem, again, is that those things are either a) exceptions to the rule or b) left of the fundamental point being made. The first isn't hard: look at Sid Sheinberg's butchery of Ridley Scott's Legend and Terry Gilliam's Brazil during his time as head of Universal. That both movies were arguably flawed to begin with (if also maverick and adventurous) didn't make his meddling any less ugly, even if he had the authority to do so and could justify the changes on the grounds of making the films more marketable.
The second issue is more complicated. A creator's intentions need primacy of respect, even when we think he is wrong, because we have no way of knowing in advance how his intentions can prove themselves over time.
This is not about any one work being protected or improved, but rather the whole approach to such a thing. I may grind my teeth over the way George Lucas tinkered with (shilling for tampered with) his own work, but until he sold off his interest in them they were his films to do with as he saw fit. My response to that was to withhold my money, which for me is a fair exchange. I don't get the version of the movie I loved, and he doesn't get my green.
I'm obliged to let Lucas — and every other filmmaker, author, and creator — do as they please, even if I don't like the results, because that in turn grants me the right to create as I see fit. Freedom of creativity, like freedom of speech, means giving other people the right to shoot themselves in the foot. It also means being given the freedom to lambast someone else for making a mess of their best work.
The closest thing I've seen to a proper counter-argument is one I myself entertained a while ago. The sheer cultural significance of Star Wars, in its original state, ought to be reason enough not to mess with it. I agree with that in principle, but I know there's no way to put a gun to George's head and force him to do that without doing damage to the very freedom that allowed him to create the original in the first place, warts and all in his own eyes.
These days I see the most incisive criticism of this behavior done by way of fan edits or fanfiction, which is fascinating to watch — it's an entirely new methodology for the conversation between creators and audiences. I would be foolish to suggest fanfic or fan edits are evils to be eradicated. What I don't doubt, though, is that the first and last word falls with the creator — for better or worse. If artistic freedom means the freedom to offend, that also includes offending the audience's expectations about a particular artist's intentions, because that also includes the freedom to not be hidebound by such things either.
Again, the whole point of this is that audiences can and should respond in their own way. The feedback loop between the audience and the creator is shorter than ever, and sometimes this produces reactions we wouldn't get in an earlier time. When Mass Effect 3's original ending inspired such ire amongs players, the company that made the game hurried out a follow-up to quell their concerns. It's almost the opposite of the Lucas effect: instead of a creator following his own impulses to the bitter end, we have a creator working overtime to please its audience (albeit one which has far more of a say, with its dollars, in the life or death of the franchise in question). I haven't played the game, so my viewpoint is necessarily limited, but I do have to wonder how this will seem when we look back on it outside of the heat of the moment.
Is it a good idea to always assume the audience — or its most vocal proponents — knows best? It's good to hear them out, and there are almost certainly cases where they will be able to see something the original creator cannot. But we need to leave room for the reverse to be true as well — that there are things only the creator can see, and that not everything can be made better via a group focus poll. If we want something changed, and their final word is No, we should not assume it is because they hate us.
Let me circle back to the thing that started this whole discussion: the reformatting of Blade of the Immortal (among other manga titles) to make the more marketable in the U.S. In every case I can think of that I have been privy to, this has been done with the explicit consent of the Japanese licensor. In fact, some of them have insisted on it.
I realize now there is a slight difference between this example and the one I actually drew. I've complained myself about bad translations, for instance, ruining the one legitimate chance English-speaking audiences might have to appreciate a work in their lifetimes. Those things are not a direct parallel with the scenarios I have outlined above. Even if a creator gives his consent to have his work modified for another audience, he can't always predict the results, and he's well within his right to protest the poor treatment of his work when converted to another venue. But if nothing else, there is a common thread: the creator has to be free to make his own mistakes with his work, even if we are unhappy with the results.
If we can't let our artists be free to make mistakes of aesthetics with their own work, then we stand to not let them be free to make happy discoveries either.
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