When Canon & Commentary Collide: What Is “Part of the Story”?

This entry is part of the “Spoiled By Supplements” blog series.

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Image by geralt on Pixabay

Some people care about this topic more than others. For myself, I prefer to know what is part of the story and what is mere speculation, fan fiction, or notes on things that didn’t go anywhere. My time is both finite and valuable, so I want to know what is necessary and what is supplemental. These kinds of things can be interesting to know about, like reading a movie script to learn what was originally intended, see how it was actually executed on screen, and understand why it was cut or redone. These kinds of “alternate realities” are intriguing from an academic point of view. And a lot of artistic creation involves a lot of people, so seeing how the final product differs or adheres to the original vision and why it changed or stayed the same is pretty neat.

But how “final” is that final product? In an age where it’s easier and easier to make changes, from releasing Special Editions with CGI edits, changing a character’s design due to fan outcry, or redoing the CGI of an entire movie after it was released in theaters, it becomes harder and harder to call something “finished.”

One of the earliest times I ran into this idea of being able to change something even after it was published was when I read R.A. Salvatore’s Legend of Drizzt series. Chronologically, the Dark Elf Trilogy takes place first, but it was written after the Icewind Dale Trilogy, where the character of Drizzt was introduced. But I read the Dark Elf Trilogy first, and when I started the Icewind Dale Trilogy, I noticed that the story of how Drizzt obtained the statue of the Astral panther Guenhwyvar is different. There are many similarities, such as how they met and that the drow wizard Masoj owns the figurine that summons the panther to the Material Plane. However, in the original text of The Crystal Shard (Book 1 of the Icewind Dale Trilogy) it states that Drizzt finds the wizard alone and assassinates him from behind. In Homeland (Book 1 of the Dark Elf Trilogy), Drizzt faces the Masoj in combat after trying to bargain with him for the figurine. The end result is the same, but the details vary. The latter version is the one accepted as “what really happened,” probably in part because it helps further distinguish Drizzt from his sly, assassin brethren.

Images from Amazon

There are plenty of times where later editions of popular books will have changes made to them, either to correct typos or making adjustments. Sometimes there are “Author’s Preferred Text” versions that are released later as well, such as in the case of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Most of these changes are minor, but some can be pretty significant. With books, it seems like whatever version the author says they prefer seems to be accepted as the “best” or “canon” text. There usually isn’t a lot of fanfare about it, and while it might take a little digging to find out which edition or version they prefer, people are welcome to read and purchase whatever they like. It’s treated as a personal preference, like wanting a hardback copy rather than the paperback. But since most of the changes are minor and the substance of the text is intact, it usually doesn’t cause an issue.

Unless, of course, you’re J.K. Rowling or George Lucas.

With J.K. Rowling, the problem is not so much that new editions of the Harry Potter books were released with changes made that people didn’t like. The problem seems to be that for many years the author has been telling readers and fans that stuff was present in the background of the stories that either aren’t in the main texts, or are so subtle that the majority of people don’t realize they’re present (which leaves their existence up for debate). Things like Dumbledore being gay or that there were Hogwarts students of different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Image from Amazon

To be clear, I firmly believe that stories, especially fantasy and science fiction, are fertile grounds for diverse casts. I also don’t believe that characters should be tossed in as flat, token representations of diversity, or that we need giant neon signs pointing at a character to say, “Look! This is a minority character! See how woke and diverse I am being!” That kind of defeats the purpose of normalizing it. In the DreamWorks TV show Voltron: Legendary Defender, there is a diverse cast of characters, including a gay male mentor figure. But it all works together organically. Certain traits are just naturally part of those characters and provides representation without being condescending or preachy. Some people say that Voltron didn’t go far enough with its representation, or that it botched some of the presentation, especially of the gay characters. Despite its flaws and failings, I still think the show did a better job of integrating diversity than some of its contemporaries. But J.K. Rowling has manged to get herself in hot water time and again for mentioning things that are apparently part of the Wizarding World, but the way they are presented after the fact with little to no support from the books she already wrote feels very much like pandering or retconning to suit shifting modern mores.

Image from Star Wars Fandom Wikia

In the case of George Lucas, the CGI changes and edits or additions to the Star Wars movies are being made to the source material itself. This normally wouldn’t be a problem; authors have doing something similar with updated editions for years. What makes this case different is that those of us who do not like those changes can’t get access to high-quality versions of the unaltered originals because the creator doesn’t want those to exist anymore. On the one hand, I understand the desire to go back and “fix” what couldn’t be done originally with the technological, financial, and time constraints. But on the other hand, I don’t understand why those original versions can’t be made available to those who want them. Because… those movies were so ground-breaking; it’s a crime against film history to have those versions destroyed or forgotten. To pretend like they didn’t exist because they weren’t “your vision.” I have no problem with having multiple versions out there, along with a note as to which one the author or creator prefers. But they need to be clearly labeled so newcomers know whether they are getting the original version or an altered version, and they need to be available for those who want them.

The question is, how seriously should we take anything outside of the piece of art itself? Such things certainly form a greater context, a framework to better understand the work. But are they “canon” in the same sense as the work itself, or are they just supplemental material that can be taken or left as the reader or viewer chooses? And what criteria should determine which version is “the finished/final/canon one”?

Do we accept these post-publication statements from J.K. Rowling as canon to Harry Potter? Since she’s the author, it’s entirely possible that all of those elements of diversity are in fact contained in the Wizarding World, and we just didn’t see them because they weren’t in Harry’s line of sight or weren’t relevant enough to include in the plot or descriptions. Do we accept George Lucas’s vision of the original (and even prequel) Star Wars movies and cast off the original versions as lost, irretrievable relics? After all, he did create them and was only unable to make the Special Edition versions at the time because he didn’t have the time, technology, or money to reach that level. Shouldn’t a creator have the final say over how their work is presented to the world? And are any of these changes or additions really that different from the numerous behind-the-scenes commentaries for TV shows, the director’s cuts of films, or the three different Middle-Earth Companion guides I have on my shelves? Perhaps Rowling and Lucas are just easy targets for the ire of fans, since they’re famous and creators of well-loved, best-selling, culturally-influential works.

Nothing is created in a vacuum… but I feel like some of these carry greater weight than others. I personally feel like the contents of seven books outweighs a few author interviews or tweets. And I feel that what is presented on the page or screen should be respected for existing in its own right, even if the final product is not what we (or the creator) wanted or expected, even if it’s not necessarily “final.” New and different editions and versions with changes both minor and major will continue to be released in new formats to new generations. In my opinion, as long as all of these myriad versions are preserved, made available, and clearly labeled so people know exactly which version they are accessing, then perhaps the question is moot or up to one’s personal preference for detail and supplements.

Image by Element5 Digital on Pexels.

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