Open Source Universes

Will Harry Potter ever eclipse Luke Skywalker as a cultural icon? That’s the question being asked over at a post on IO9 and it sparked my interest enough that I wanted to weigh in with my own thoughts.

It’s trendy in nerd circles to hate on George Lucas. You decry the plastic acting, overly video game-y appearance of the prequels while pointing out the purity of the original trilogy and sign off with a flourish by declaring solemnly that your favorite film of the original trilogy was Empire. This statement earns you massive nerd cred, as your fellow nerds nod approvingly and also voice their support for Empire‘s obvious superiority. This is all a testament to the sadly fallen state of the once-beloved creator who lost his artistic drive and his vision as success blinded him.

It’s like Harvey said: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

It’s also like Bane said: “Peace has cost you your strength! Victory has defeated you!”

It’s amazing to me how many times I can quote Batman characters to make a point.

Here’s the thing about George Lucas, though, and something that almost nobody gives him respect for: he was one of the very, very, very few creators who not only allowed people to play in his universe, he encouraged it. Do you think it’s a coincidence that there’s a huge body of “Expanded Universe” material for Star Wars? Or that it just so happens that some Expanded Universe material ends up finding its way back into the movies, like blue hottie Jedi Knight Aayla Secura?

George let people write novels in his universe. He let a whole slew of other authors take his playground and define it in new ways. Things that we take for granted as Star Wars fans, like “Coruscant” were created and imported into the canon. There aren’t many creators with the courage to do this. I’m a creative-type myself and the idea of letting control of my story slip out of my hands is something that fills me with terror. And I’m just talking about some little novel I’ve been plugging away at, not a multi-million dollar franchise.

There are a lot of creators that don’t allow this level of freedom. Ann McAffrey didn’t. J.K. Rowling doesn’t. You’re either not allowed to play in the universe at all (seriously, McAffrey hated fan fiction) or you are allowed to play, but only under strict supervision (which is the current state of things for Harry Potter fan fiction).

My point is not to be an apologist for George Lucas, although I think he gets a very unfair rap these days from overly vehement fans (seriously, some of the dialogue in Empire is pretty terrible, you guys). The comparison between Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter shows the importance of allowing fans to play with your work. Rather than dilute or diminish your copyright (the usual argument against this sort of thing), unimpeded fan-love is what takes your intellectual property and turns it from a franchise into a cultural touchstone, a part of our modern mythology.

Is Harry Potter big? Absolutely; I’m sure, all things added up, it’s made more money than Star Wars. Harry Potter is a phenomenon. Or at least it was. With no inkling of new books on the horizon, how long will the fan base sustain its love? How many times can you revisit the universe you love without injections of new life from the creator?

Star Wars fans know what this is like: it was roughly fifteen years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menanace. What kept the torch burning for all those fans when it looked like the movies were done? It was the Expanded Universe. It was the novels. It was the culture that was allowed and even encouraged to grow around the love of this thing.

I’m not saying creators don’t have a right to control their work. They absolutely do. But I think any creative person should look very closely at George Lucas and Star Wars and keep in mind what happens when you allow the fans free access. They won’t fuck you over. Fans will protect you. They will take your baby and love it and cherish it and help it grow into something so far beyond your wildest dreams. That’s the lesson to be learned from Star Wars.

Star Wars first appeared in 1977. It’s 36 years old as I write this. Harry Potter is roughly half its age, having debuted in 1997. Will Harry be as iconic as Luke Skywalker in another fifteen years?

I’m not so sure. I’d like to think so, but if nobody is ever allowed to return to Harry’s world and tell stories around Harry and beyond Harry, if Rowling never allows another scribe to dip his or her pen in the Hogwarts ink . . . I don’t see how it will be allowed to grow. Certainly, we’ll still remember it, just like we remember the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia and all those many other beloved stories. But will they grow with us? Will they persist through the generations? I’m not so sure.

For all his other mistakes he might have made as a creator, I think George Lucas knocked this one out of the park and in the end, this might just be the only decision that ever really mattered.

One thought on “Open Source Universes”

  1. I wonder if it makes a difference just how you let people interact with and expand your universe. Do only officially recognized novels with a stamp of approval count? What about allowing videogame adaptations to extend the canon? Can anyone really stop fan-fiction from happening and becoming popular? George R R Martin absolutely hates fan-fiction, but I can think of a really interesting one that I’ve enjoyed reading. What about derivative works? Can we chalk the entire fantasy genre up to being an extension to Tolkien’s vision?

    If you ask me, creators don’t have to give permission. I don’t think the permission is theirs to give. If the setting is rich enough and it speaks to something in people, then creative fans won’t be able to resist the urge to expand on the property. Harry Potter definitely has that quality, and I think it will live on (whether Rowling says it can or not!)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s