Is all art fanfiction?

thoughts orangutan

Last time, I talked about fanfic, I said I wasn’t going to go down the “all art is fanfic” route. Last time, I said I didn’t have a vested interest. Last time, I broached the topic, I lit powder keg. Well, *a lot* has changed in the two years since last time, so let’s see if we can have a conversation about this without things getting too explosive 😉

Now firmly in the age of reboots, remakes and retellings, I’ve found myself wondering where is the line between fanfic and art? Let’s look at the definition again:

fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, film, etc.

Disney pillaging its old animations and remaking them shot for shot… seems like fanfic to me. Looting the spoils of Marvel and DC… seems like we could call that fanfic. Buying off creators, like Lucas, and making derivative work… yeah probably fanfic (incidentally, many previous works have been relegated from canon, because of course only massive corporations have permission to make Star Wars stories…). Regardless of whether one likes these franchises or not, one could regard these “new” works as akin to a music cover, because they skirt around legal issues and (mostly) compensate the original creator (again, at the risk of going severely off topic, this does beg the question, why stop there?). Outside of the mainstream, I can see a resurgence of fanfic coming from disgruntled fans and critics, desperate to fix the decimated plotlines and endings for their favourite books/films/shows (*coughs* yes, this is a thinly veiled reference to Game of Thrones… *cough cough*).

game of thrones ending brienne meme

Additionally, art is conversation. I’ve long held the view that originality is overrated, since nothing is technically original to begin with. To return to Disney, I recently watched a few interesting discussions on Youtube about the origins of the Lion King. The gist of the debate is that Osamu Tezuka was inspired by Disney’s Bambi to create Kimba the Lion, which in turn Disney used to launch its own Lion King story (playing up its so-called originality in marketing).

lion king shock

While people have been quick to slam one side or the other, I don’t see this as a black and white issue. If you watch Kimba, you’ll quickly notice the visual and structural differences. Which pulls me away from looking at this as a controversy. Instead, it’s made me think about where we draw the lion (*ahem*) line on what constitutes transformative work. Once you consider whether its satire, if the characters are the same, if the storyline is similar enough, it might be possible to see a huge amount of creativity in fanfic. Not to keep using the same old examples, but there are plenty of success stories for fanfic-turned-mainstream, where all that needed changing before publication were the names.

Okay, so much of what I’ve said is in favour of the view that “all art is fanfic”. And indeed, these days I find myself much more sympathetic to that mindset. But I do still have reservations, because the statement is too much of an oversimplification of art. As much as art can be a response to other art and as much as all art will inevitably draw on its predecessors (as discussed in my piece on “intertextuality vs innovation”), they often diverge so much from the “original” that it can be hard to see the similarity. Take Legend by Marie Lu, inspired by Les Mis. Heck, take Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which reflects on Paradise Lost. These works are so wholly different that I couldn’t reasonably describe them as fanfic. They have grown lives of their own, had adventures and rode off into the sunset. And, who is to even say where the original began? Or from what pieces the multifaceted novel is derived? To me, it is too complex an issue to be satisfied with the “all art is fanfic” refrain. As I’ve said before, if we water down the term “fanfic” it would cease to have much meaning at all. To me, it’s just art, with an asterisk that all artists are likely big ol’ fanboys and fangirls.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with me that all artists are fans? Or do you think that all art is fanfic? I’d love to hear your take!