As I throttle down for Thanksgiving week and a much-anticipated break from this busy semester (which I regret has allowed so little time for blogging), viruses are much on my mind: I await with some nervousness the onset of one of those academic-calendar colds that conveniently hold off until I’m done teaching. But other kinds of replicative infection are creeping into my life, today in the form of the Alphabet Meme, passed on to me by Chris Cagle of Category D, who caught it from Thom at Film of the Year. (I never realized how similar blogging and sex are: evidently when you link to someone, you link to everyone he or she has linked to.) Anyway, the goal of the exercise is a 26-item list of “Best Films,” corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. I’ll be forthright in acknowledging that my list has nothing to do with “bestness” and everything to do with love — simply put, the movies that mean the most to me. I’m a little too conscious of and skeptical about canonicity to nominate best-ofs; what is canon, anyway, but a kind of ubervirus, replicating within our taste hierarchies and the IPOs of cultural capital? The primary difference between irrational, irreducible favoritism and the stolid edifice of “the best that has been thought and said” (or in this case, filmed) is, it seems to me, one of authorship: the former is idiosyncratic, individual, owned, while the latter circulates unmoored in a kind of terrible immanence, its promiscuous power deriving precisely from its anonymity.

Or maybe I’m just feeling defensive. The list below, larded with science fiction and pop pleasures, nakedly exposes me as a cinematic philistine, a clear case of arrested development. How I reconcile this with my own day job of reproducing the canon (teaching Citizen Kane and Il Conformista semester after semester), I don’t know. But with turkey and stuffing on the horizon, I choose to leave the soul-searching to another day.

Before sharing my list, I believe I’m supposed to spread the meme to five other victims, er, friends. Let’s see: how about valued contributors Michael Duffy and MDR; Dan North at Spectacular Attractions; Nina Busse of Ephemeral Traces; and Tim Burke of Easily Distracted?


Battle Beyond the Stars
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Die Hard
The Exorcist
Forbidden Planet
Groundhog Day
Harold and Maude
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Jacob’s Ladder
King Kong (1933)
Logan’s Run
Miracle Mile
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Parallax View
The Quiet Earth
Run Lola Run
Superman (1978)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Ugetsu Monogatari
The Vanishing
The Wizard of Oz
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes
Young Frankenstein

Cartographers of (Fictional) Worlds, Unite!

J. K. Rowling’s appearance in a Manhattan courtroom this week to defend the fantasy backdrop of her Harry Potter novels is interesting to me for several reasons. It dovetails with a conversation I’ve been having in the Fan Culture class I’m teaching this semester, about the vast world-models that subtend many franchise fictions (e.g. the “future history” of Star Trek, the Middle-Earth setting of Lord of the Rings, the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, and so on). In his writing on subcreation, J. R. R. Tolkien calls these systematic networks of invented facts, events, characters, and languages “secondary worlds,” but more recently the phenomenon has been given other labels by media theorists: master text, hyperdiegesis. Henry Jenkins has put forth the most influential formulation with his concept of transmedia storytelling, which recasts franchise fictions like The Matrix as a kind of generative space — a langue capable of ceaseless acts of fictional parole — which can be accessed through any number of its “extensions” in disparate media.

One might say, in an excess of meta-thinking, that the notion of the storyworld itself floats suspended among these various theoretical invocations: a distributed ghost of a concept that feels increasingly “real.” As our media multiply, overlap, and converge in a spectacular mass ornament like a Busby Berkeley musical number, we witness a contrasting, even paradoxical, tendency toward stabilization, concreteness, and order in our fictional universes.

A key agency in this stabilization is the cataloging and indexing efforts of fans who keep track of sprawling storylines and giant mobs of dramatis personae, cross-referencing and codifying the rules of seriality’s endless play of meaning. Most recently, these labors have coalesced in communally-maintained databases like Lostpedia, the Battlestar Wiki, and — yes — the Harry Potter Lexicon at the heart of the injunction that Rowling is seeking. The conflict is over a proposed book project based on the online Lexicon, a fan-crafted archive of facts and lore, characters and events, that make up the Harry Potter universe. Although Rowling has been sanguine about the Lexicon till now (even admitting that she draws upon it to keep her own facts straight), the crystallization of this database into a for-profit publication has her claiming territorial privilege. Harry, Hermione, and Ron — as well as Quidditch, Dementors, and Blast-Ended Skrewts — are emphatically Rowling’s world, and we’re not quite as welcome to it as we might have thought.

At issue is whether such indexing activities are protected by the concept of transformative value: an emerging legal consensus that upholds fan-produced texts as valid and original so long as they add something new — an interpretive twist, a fresh insight — to the materials they are reworking. (For more on this movement, check out the Organization for Transformative Works.) Rowling asserts that the Harry Potter Lexicon brings nothing to her fiction that wasn’t there already; it “merely” catalogs in astonishing detail the contents of the world as she has doled them out over the course of seven novels. And on the surface, her claim would seem to be true: after all, the Lexicon is not itself a work of fiction, a new story giving a new slant on Harry and his adventures. It is, in a sense, the opposite of fiction: a documentary concordance of a made-up world that treats invention as fact. Ideologically, it inverts the very logic of make-believe, but in a different way from behind-the-scenes paratexts like author interviews or making-of featurettes on DVDs. We might call what the Lexicon and other fan archives do tertiary creation — the extraction of a firm, navigable framework from a secondary, subcreated world.

But is Rowling’s case really so straightforward? It seems to me that what’s happening is a turf battle that may be rare now, but will become increasingly common as transmedia fictions proliferate. The Lexicon, whether in print or cybertext, does compete with Rowling’s work — if we take that “work” as being primarily about building a compelling, consistent world. The Lexicon marks itself as a functionally distinct entity by disarticulating the conventional narrative pleasures offered by Rowling’s primary text: what’s stripped away is her voice, the pacing and structure of her storytelling. By the same token, however, the Lexicon produces Rowling’s world as something separate from Rowling. And for those readers for whom that world was always more compelling than the specific trajectories with which Rowling took them through it (think of the concept of the rail shooter in videogames), the Lexicon might indeed seem like a direct competitor — especially now that it has migrated into a medium, print, that was formerly Rowling’s own.

The question is: what happens to secondary worlds once they have been created? What new forms of authority and legitimacy constellate around them? It may well be the case that the singular author who “births” a world must necessarily cede ownership to the specialized masses who then come to populate it, whether by writing fanfic, building model kits and action figures, cosplaying, roleplaying, or — in the Lexicon’s case — acting as archivists and cartographers.

Before the Internet, such maps were made on paper, sold and circulated among fans. One of my areas of interest is the “blueprint culture” that arose around Star Trek and other science-fiction franchises in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ll be speaking about this topic at the Console-ing Passions conference in Santa Barbara at the end of April, but Rowling’s lawsuit provides an interesting vantage point from which to blend contemporary and historical media processes.

Top Ten


The New York Times’s roundup of the top box-office earners from 2007 mentions something that I found interesting: with the exception of The Bourne Ultimatum, “nine of the Top 10 grossing films were science fiction, fantasy or animation.” Within that techno-generic triangulation, it’s not entirely clear where something like Zack Snyder and Frank Miller’s 300 (at #7) would fall; the film isn’t SF or fantasy – the Times labels it “mock-historical” – and its mise-en-scene is almost entirely digital, bringing 300 as close to animation as live action can become without imploding into absolute Pixarity. Below are the rankings; more thorough information can be found here.

  1. Spider-Man 3: $336,530,303
  2. Shrek the Third: $322,719,944
  3. Transformers: $319,246,193
  4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: $309,420,425
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: $292,004,738
  6. The Bourne Ultimatum: $227,471,070
  7. 300: $210,614,939
  8. I Am Legend: $209,506,903
  9. Ratatouille: $206,445,654
  10. The Simpsons Movie: $183,135,014

As a student and fan of special effects and new media, I’m struck by the completeness with which the top 10 encapsulate an evolving mode of high-tech production in serial media. While some might see as obvious the correlation of huge budgets, high-volume special and visual effects, and the SF/fantasy/animation triad, to me their confluence at this moment in history deserves some attention. A few observations:

  • Most of the movies on the list are of a type I’d call “culturally suspect”; even if releases like Ratatouille (#9) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (#5) won praise from critics, the accolades often seemed qualified, even grudging; Ratatouille was not “just” a cute-animal movie, Order of the Phoenix was “comparatively dark and mature” for a film aimed at children. The air of disreputability echoes the low standing of science fiction and fantasy as genres, and of animation as a form. The films’ enormous profitability stands in striking contrast to their devalued cultural status.
  • Four of the movies were entries in a sequel chain, and one (Transformers, at #3) is, as the Times points out, a likely launchpad for a new franchise. I point this out not to repeat the lame lament that “no one makes original movies anymore,” but to highlight the degree to which serialization and adaptation are increasingly evident in LSMPs (Large-Scale Media Productions). There is enormous profit in transmedia systems.
  • A majority of the titles are marked by state-of-the-art visual effects; they are, in short, special-effects films. Again, the standard complaint here is that flashy FX are responsible for the metastasis of production and marketing budgets in recent decades or that FX have crowded out good storytelling; but I find those objections rather reactionary and pointless. It’s more interesting to consider how these megabudget productions serve as R&D labs for visual effects methodologies – here understood not simply in terms of resultant onscreen spectacles, but the whole offstage infrastructure of previsualization and pipelining that subtends and coordinates the production of those spectacles. I speculate that methods of manufacturing spectacle (and of faking less “marked” elements of filmic realism) trickle down from the megaproductions, becoming available to films that are smaller in scale and arguably more subtle and sophisticated in their employment of FX.

Finding a Transmedia “Compass”


My colleague Tim Burke’s pointed rebuttal to critics of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass – who charge that the movie lacks the theological critique and intellectual heft of Phillip Pullman’s source novel – caught my eye, not just because I’m a fan of the books and intend to see the movie as soon as end-of-semester chaos dies down, but because I’ve spent the last week talking about transmedia franchises with my Intro to Film class.

To recap the argument, on one side you have the complaint that, in bringing book to screen, Pullman’s central rhetorical conceit has been cruelly compromised. The adventure set forth in the three volumes of His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) unfolds against a world that is but one of millions in a set of alternate, overlapping realities. But the protagonist Lyra’s cultural home base is fearfully repressed by religious authorities whose cosmology allows for no such “magical thinking” – and whose defense of its ideology is both savagely militaristic and a thin veil over a much larger network of conspiracy and corruption. (Really, right-wing moral guardians should not be objecting to how Pullman treats the Church, but how he nails the current U.S. administration.) But, the charge goes, the movie has trimmed away the more controversial material, leaving nothing but a frantic romp through tableaux of special-effects-dependent set design and, in the case of Iorek Byrnison and the daemons, casting.

On the other side you’ve got positions like Tim’s, which welcome many of the excisions because they actually improve the story. As Pullman gets cranking, especially in the concluding Amber Spyglass, his narrative becomes both attenuated and obese, subjective time slowing to a crawl while mass increases to infinity like an space traveler moving near the speed of light. Personally, I was mesmerized by Spyglass’s long interlude in the Land of the Dead, which in its beautifully arid and disturbing tedium managed to remind me simultaneously of L’Avventura, Stalker, and Inland Empire. But it’s hard to disagree, especially when Tim reminds me how turgid and didactic C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle got, that while we all like to have our intellect and imagination stirred, very few of us like to be lectured.

Me, I’ll suspend judgment on the movie until I see it – a strategy that worked well with The Mist, which I enjoyed astronomically more than Stephen King’s original novella. But I do sense in the debate around Compass’s political pruning an opportunity to air my concern with transmedia storytelling, or rather with the discursive framework that media scholars are evolving to talk about and critique transmedia “operations.”

In a nutshell, and heavily cribbed from Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture, storytelling on a large scale in contemporary media involves telling that tale across a number of different platforms, through different media, all of which are delegated one part of the fictional universe and its characters, but none of which contains the whole. While Star Trek and Star Wars did this starting in the 1960s and 1970s respectively, current exemplars like The Matrix bring the logic of transmediation to its full, labyrinthine flower. The three installments of the 1999-2003 trilogy are but land masses in a crowded sea of other textual windows into the Matrix “system”: videogames, websites, TV spots, comics, etc. each play their part. Each text is an entry point to the franchise; ideally, each stands alone on its artistic merits while contributing something valuable to the whole; and the pleasurable labor of transmedia audiences is to explore, collect, decrypt, and discuss the fragments as an ongoing act of consumption that is also, of course, readership.

Admittedly, Pullman’s trilogy doesn’t lend itself perfectly to transmediation any more than The Lord of the Rings did. When you’ve got to contend with an “original,” pesky concepts like canonicity and (in)fidelity creep in. Fans will always measure the various incarnations of Harry Potter against Rowling’s books, just as J. R. R. Tolkien’s fans did with Peter Jackson’s movies. But The Matrix or Heroes or Halo, which don’t owe allegiance to anything except their own protocols of ongoing generation, are freed through a kind of authorless solipsism to expand indefinitely through “storyspace,” no version more legitimate than another. (I’m not saying those franchises are literally authorless, but that they lack a certain auratic core of singular, unrepeatable authorship: instead they are team enterprises, all the more appealing to those who wish to create more content.)

There are some neat felicities between the transmedia system’s sliding panels — each providing a partial slice of a larger world — and the cosmological superstructure of His Dark Materials. (One could even argue that franchises come with their own pretender-gods, the corporations that seek to brand each profitable reality and police its official and unofficial uses, thus contradicting the avowed openness of the system: New Line as Magisterium.) But to come back to the question with which I opened, does it matter that, in turning Golden Compass the book into Golden Compass the movie – surely the first and most crucial “budding” of a transmedia franchise — some of the text’s teeth have been pulled?

I suggest that one danger of transmedia thinking is that it abandons, or at least dilutes, the concept of adaptation – a key tool by which we trace genealogical relationships within a world of hungrily replicating media. If A is an adaptation of B, then B came first; A is a version, an approximation, of B. We assess A against B, and regardless of which comes out the victor (after all, there have been good movies made of bad books), we understand that between A and B there are tradeoffs. There have to be, in order to translate between media, where 400 pages or the premise of a TV series rarely fit into a feature-length film.

The contradiction is that, while we would not usually expect an adaptation to precisely replicate the ideological fabric of its source, and can even imagine some that consciously go against the grain of the original, transmedia models, which talk of extensions rather than adaptations, assume a much more transparent mapping of theme and content. We expect, that is, the various splinter worlds of Star Trek and The Matrix to agree, in general, on the same ideological message: the commonsense “talking points” of their particular worldviews. We may get different perspectives on the franchise diegesis, but the diegesis must necessarily remain unbroken as a backdrop – or else it stops being part of the whole, abjected into a wholly different and incompatible franchise. (There’s a reason why Darth Vader will never meet Voldemort, except in fan fiction, which is a whole ‘nother ball of transmedial wax.)

Golden Compass’s critical “neutering” in the process of its replication reminds us that different media do different things, and that this has political import. Jenkins writes that, in transmedia, each medium plays to its strengths: videogames let you interact with – or inhabit — the story’s characters, while novelizations give internal psychological detail or historical background. Comic books and artwork visualizes the fiction, while model kits, costumes, and collectibles solidify and operationalize its props. Precisely because of the logic of transmedia, or distributed storytelling, we don’t expect these fragments to carry the weight of the whole. But each medium promotes through its very codes, technologies, and operations a particular set of understandings and values (a point not lost on Ian Bogost and other videogame theorists who talk about “persuasive games” and “procedural rhetoric”), hence translation always involves a kind of surgery, whether to expunge or augment.

Golden Compass may fail at the box office, which would end the Dark Materials franchise then and there (or maybe not – transmedia are as full of surprise resurrections and reboots as the stories told within them). But director/screenwriter Chris Weitz has made no secret of the fact that he sanitized the book’s theological transgressions in hopes that, having found an audience, he can go on to shoot the remaining two books more as Pullman intended. Regardless of what happens to this particular franchise, it’s our responsibility as scholars and critics – hell, as people – to be sensitive to, and wary about, the ideological filters and political compromises that fall into place, like Dust, as stories travel and multiply.



I like the tired, almost fatalistic tone of Charles Herold’s New York Times review of Halo 3; it’s an unusually self-reflexive piece of videogame criticism. “It doesn’t really matter what reviewers say,” Herold writes with more than a hint of a cynical sigh. “Halo 3 is not just a game: it is a phenomenon fueled by obsessed fans, slick advertising and excessive press coverage (of which I find myself a part).”

Wisely, Herold approaches this newest version of Bungie’s blockbuster series less as a chapter or sequel than as an upgrade. The gist of his review — a line repeated twice, like a mantra — is that “Halo 3 is Halo 2 with somewhat better graphics.” The game’s strengths, he asserts, are in its enhancements to the multiplayer experience, an experience that I consider indistinguishable from the “obsessed fans” and “excessive press coverage” that Herold cites. That is to say, Halo 3 is as much a social game, in its way, as World of Warcraft or Second Life.

Before fans of those elaborate MMORPGs object, let me stipulate that Halo and other shooters involve very different aesthetics of play and intellectual engagement. Movement and communication in deathmatch are channeled and intensified by tactical exigence; interactions are of necessity fast and brutal, and the only economies one deals in are those of weapons and ammo. Foundational dynamics of avatarial immersion and what I have elsewhere called “spectatorial play” are, of course, present in Halo, as they are in any other videogame. But the MMORPG and the FPS deathmatch remain two distinct branches of ludic evolution.

What’s interesting to me about Halo 3‘s huge, immediate, predictable success is that it casts into sharp relief a vast preexisting social base of gamers who sit ready with their XBox 360s to spend hours, days, weeks, and months hunting and blasting each other in the virtual arenas provided by this latest upgrade: a package of new spatialities to explore and master. This base is as loyal as the most devout religious faith, the most engaged political party. (Indeed, I suspect that today’s online gaming audiences, which merge the pragmatics of commercial technology with the mysticism of avatarial transubstantiation, will be looked back upon by future historians as the first true hybridizations of the secular and religious communities.)

It’s too easy to say that Halo differs from something like World of Warcraft in its bloodiness and speed, its apparent simplicity (or primitiveness). I think the more profound distinction lies in the fact that Halo has colonized social spaces beyond those of the MMORPG, something that became clear to me a couple of years ago when I taught a course in videogame ethnography at Indiana University. Many of my students played only Halo and sports games like Madden; these players would never go near EverQuest, for example, because only “hardcore” gamers — the real geeks — played that. Halo, in other words, succeeds as a game because it has gone mainstream, become something one can mention without embarrassment. It nestles much more closely and comfortably into the crenellations and capillaries of real-world social dynamics; it is, in this sense, the norm.