Last night, while talking about the new Star Wars film a friend of mine mentioned that she hadn’t seen and wouldn’t watch The Force Awakens or the Last Jedi. I can understand this if her reasoning was that she wasn’t a fan of Star Wars or Sci-fi but when I asked why she stated “I hate Disney.” Now that is a pretty strong statement. To hate something, anything is a definitive position so I wanted to know more about how she had gotten to this point.
When I asked, she explained that Disney was a cynical money making machine that takes any property it can get its hands on an rape it for every penny. The properties she was most update about and used as examples were Winnie the Pooh and Robin Hood. Getting to the core of it she felt that Disney was responsible for taking elements of British Culture and repackaging it or Americanising it and then selling it back to the younger generation.
During the discussion, she asked, why can’t anything be kept sacred and just have the purest form be given to each generation? I have my own opinions on this and as I drove home I thought about it more and why I’m actually ok with Disney and how they treat properties. I am a fan of the Marvel movies and have enjoyed all of them, to varying degrees. However, despite some missteps one of the things that I think Disney has always been spot on is the characterisations and adaptations of the main characters. They have evolved the characters but kept their soul.
As I do with most things I broke it down into different elements, which I have highlighted below. These are probably commons sense but they are worth repeating.
Evolve or die, but keep the essence
When my friend mentioned the fact that Disney had ‘raped’ the Winnie the Pooh books and that the A.A. Milne estate should not have sold the books, something very important struck me. I haven’t read the Winnie the pooh books since I was a kid. Also, that I am more familiar with the Disney version than the original, not that I think they are that different. Is this a bad thing? No, the fact is that is if the Disney version did not exist then the original would probably be lost to time apart from the few that pass the stories or books down the generations. However, that would not last forever.
The fact that several generations have had newer, glossier versions has meant that they have been introduced to the characters old and new from Hundred-acre wood. Each iteration a slightly updated version, keeping it relevant. The Key however, and this is what Disney have cracked, is keeping the essence of the character. Pooh Bear is not the only character that has survived through evolution.
To provide an example of both sides of the coin let’s look at a couple of other characters. The best one I can think of in recent years is Sherlock Holmes. I don’t think any other character has benefitted from evolution. The original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are great and worth being read, more on that later, but a stuffy Victorian detective is not an easy sell to a modern audience. So over time you have had different versions, each providing something new to the mythos while bringing the old to a new audience. In the 80’s we had Spielberg’s ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ and Disney’s ‘Basil the great mouse detective’, I’m a fan of each and it was the former that introduced me to the original stories.
However, the most successful evolution of the character has come more recently with the BBC series Sherlock. The essence of the character has been maintained but they have moved the setting to modern London. This has stood head and shoulders over the American versions (Sherlock Holmes movies and the Holmes TV series) not because its British but because it has better writing and acting. This version has reignited interest in the character and the concept of the great detective.
Let’s look at the other side of the coin and a character born in the same period, Tarzan. The film released in 2016, The Legend of Tarzan looked glossy and well-made but it was a flop. Having seen it I can understand why. While the special effects and acting were all good, the story was so A to B simple that it may have engrossed an audience in the 1930’s but something more needs to be done for a modern audience. I would even go so far as to state that the Disney version (1999) is a better version and story. So, the character of Tarzan is little known by younger people and if is at risk being considered an anachronism and being cast aside. This is tragic as the character and concept are fantastic and in the hands a good writer and director I can imagine a modern telling making an interesting social commentary on nature vs. nurture, what it is to have mixed heritage and / or how the modern social class structure treats people.
The point is, that without these modern versions the character of Sherlock Holmes would become irrelevant, just as Tarzan is at risk of being. In this fickle world if you’re not relevant then you get taken over by other characters that are. This means that some amazing parts of culture past get lost and forgotten. I could add in a list here of so many great characters that have fallen by the wayside because they either failed to adapt or evolve (think The Shadow vs Batman or Alan Quartermaine vs. Indiana Jones).
Grant Morrison provided a Limbo world for such characters in the DC universe. Introduced in Animal Man #25 and then expanded upon in Final Crisis. This concept is further explored in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. These forgotten characters are all in there, waiting to be rediscovered and given a new glossy coat, ready for a brand-new audience.
With new iterations of characters not only do we get more relevant versions, more people are made aware of the original source material. The newer versions are a gateway and that is a good thing. In all cases the original and / or the best iterations of things do not go away, they are always there. However, if they are presented to you directly then you need to be given a map.
Consider Winnie the Pooh and Sherlock Holmes again. The original stories for each are really good and should be visited again and again by old and new audiences. Yet, do you think sales of the books of these stories would be as high-without BBC’s Sherlock or Disney’s Winnie the Pooh? Of course not.
As I mentioned above I was introduced to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories after seeing ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’. I now have a wonderful Hardback collection that I dip into now and then. As a kid I don’t think I could have been sold on Sherlock and his detecting solely on someone telling me about them. In order for me to get through the older language and story structure I needed to already be invested in the character. My first taste was free, I had to work to get more and it was worth it.
The same can be said of Winnie the Pooh. The books are great but in the market of so many children’s books why pick up one book about a little bear over another? Well, if your child has seen the Disney version then they will choose Pooh Bear, probably the better choice. If they love those books then hopefully they will pass them on.
More than that it will hopefully open the doors to other literature that they may not have thought about otherwise, as they get older. A.A. Milne might lead to Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Or Conan Doyle might lead to Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming. I am willing to bet that more people reach these other authors and stories via modern films and comics than picking them up directly.
As a final note, regardless of what you think about the 2001 – 2003 Lord of the Rings films it cannot be denied that those films opened a door to both Tolkien and Fantasy Fiction for a whole new generation. Book sales soared and people got hooked. There is a knock-on effect. Without those films, we would not have ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Shannara Chronicles’. You can enjoy these both as books and TV shows.
A further point that my friend made was the absolute glut of merchandise that Disney produce to sell to kids. As well as all the half-hearted cash-in tie ins and spin-offs. Now as a comic book geek, I am very used to this mentality and how to deal with it. While I completely understand her point, there is a truth that must be accepted, Disney is a business and it is supposed to make money. It will produce whatever it can to make money it is up to us as consumers to vote with our money.
I know that I can go into almost any supermarket in the western world and buy some form of Disney merchandise. Does that mean that it’s all top quality and worth having? Not at all. It is therefore up to me to select what I buy and what I buy for my kids. Buy quality and what matters to you. If you want a bath towel with Cinderella or Yoda on, you can. If you don’t want to dilute your version of a character then simply walk on by.
There is no point getting upset about merchandise or add on products, they will always exist. However, you can use them to enhance your pleasure or ignore them. That is up to you.
Change is coming
Before we finish I want to acknowledge that I understand that not all versions of a character are very good or in some cases even appropriate. I have used English and Western characters for my examples because that is what I grew up with and relate to. However, I am very aware that Hollywood and Disney have butchered and converted characters form other cultures into western versions. This has been and still is a weakness of character evolution and adaption in almost all formats.
However, change is coming. There is a wave of young creators that understand that diversity is a part of adaptation and evolution. Several cases of white washing have occurred and been called out by audiences in the last few years. The loudest being for 2017’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. A weak adaptation was affected further by western casting over obvious Asian choices.
We live in a much more diverse and varied world and audiences have started to make their preference known. We are about to enter an era of new diverse characters or old characters evolving to remain relevant. The next version of Sherlock might not be your Dads Sherlock but that doesn’t mean either version is incorrect, just that they are part of an ongoing story of evolution.
The question is who will be at the forefront of this next era of diversity in character evolution or truer adaptation? Time will tell, but lets come back to Disney. In 2018 we have Black Panther (which I am so excited for) with a majority black cast and African setting. Not something we would have got even 10 years ago. Beyond that we have got the live action Aladdin which is casting Middle Eastern and Asian actors to tell this story of Arabian Nights. That’s not to say that we are there yet there is lots of work to be done and it needs to be handled with quality and sincere productions.
I hope for a world in which my 4-year-old daughter has access to the Winnie the Pooh books and the Holmes stories. Yet she also has exciting new characters and new iterations of old characters that have been evolved to meet the desires of future audiences and say something interesting about the world they now inhabit.
The great thing about fiction is that it’s like water. It can be poured into any container, mixed with other things, even change form to fit what you want it to do but you can always take it back to its essence. Disney have poured water into many different containers and diluted it with all kinds of things. In some cases it’s become something amazing other times a stodgy mess – but the pure water will always be there for anyone that wants to take a drink.