Recently Harry Potter creator JK Rowling made big headlines in both the geek and mainstream press for this controversial statement:
“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron…I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.”
Needless to say, Rowling’s remarks inspired rage, fury, and heartbreak in thousands of Harry Potter fans who believe that Ron and Hermione belong together, this blogger included. But on the other side of the coin, thousands of Harry/Hermione shippers have found themselves vindicated by the most authoritative voice in the Potter fandom — the creator herself.
Which raises the question: who is right? Do the Ron/Hermione shippers win the fight because their version of events is printed in millions of books that will be read for generations, or are the Harry/Hermione shippers right because of the fact that the creator of these stories would change the outcome if she had it to do over?
Another Rowling revelation some years back created greater media frenzy, but was for the most part accepted as canon by the Potter fandom: Dumbledore is gay. This character detail, while never explicitly stated in the text, makes sense of Dumbledore’s complicated relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald. Since this extratextual detail complements the existing canon, it was accepted as canon by the readers. So the authority to declare canonicity seems to rest not on the voice of the creator, but on the consensus of the fans.
When the creation becomes bigger than the creator, the question of canonicity becomes complex. One fandom perfectly illustrates this complexity, and the push and pull between the authority of the creator and the authority of the fans can be succinctly summed up in three words:
Han shot first.
The abominable quality of the Star Wars prequels aside, George Lucas created rage and frustration by altering the content of the original trilogy. Like Rowling, he realized that if he had it to do again, there are things about his movies that he would change. Unlike Rowling, he did go back and make those changes, and he refuses to release the original theatrical versions of the films, making dusty VHS copies of the original trilogy the only way for fans to enjoy the unaltered movies that they love.
A new scene featuring a CGI Jabba the Hutt is one of the many alterations made to the “special edition” re-releases of Star Wars
In case this is your first day on the internet, the most controversial alteration in Lucas’ “Special Edition” re-releases of Star Wars happens in Han Solo’s introductory scene. He’s confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo, who makes it clear that he’s going to kill Han to redeem the price on his head. In the original version, Han shoots Greedo under the table and coolly walks away, establishing his character as a charming but cutthroat rogue. In the altered version, Greedo shoots at Han first, missing at close range, and Han immediately fires back, killing Greedo. Fans argue that this alteration completely ruins Han’s character arc. If he is not first established as something of a selfish cad who will do anything to protect his own hide, his growth into a hero who will risk his life to save his friends has no meaning. What on the surface appears to be a minor CGI alteration is in fact a major change to the story.
Frame from the altered “Greedo shot first” version of Star Wars
Fans claim that the true canon of Star Wars is made up of the three original, unaltered films. But they concede that they have little power to wrest creative control from Lucas, even if he is violating the canon.
But sometimes fans do gain control.
Some stories in the nerdverse have long outlived their creators. The best examples are DC and Marvel superheroes. Since some of these characters have been around for close to a century, the people who now write their stories were once the fans who idolized the characters. The fans have literally taken over creative control of the canon.
A character’s look and personality can change significantly as creative control changes hands over the years
And yet this doesn’t end fan dissatisfaction with new developments in the canon. The need to cater to these fans, along with the unwieldy nature of storylines that span multiple decades, have resulted in the ability to completely erase canon with the universe retcon.
A controversial universe retcon recently took place outside of comics in the world of another character who has been entrusted to multiple creators, Doctor Who.
In the 21st century, the character of the Doctor has largely been defined by the fact that he is a remorseful war criminal, having been forced to destroy his homeworld of Gallifrey in order to save the rest of the universe. This was undone in the 50th anniversary special of the show, when the Doctor, with the help of his previous regenerations, is able to save Gallifrey. While the episode was a fun excuse to get David Tennant back on screen, fans argue that this retcon cheapens the Doctor’s character and robs the show of much of its philosophical depth. While they are willing to go along with new developments that new creators bring to the story, fans feel that the canon is insulted by creators who undo things.
Retcons provide a “big friendly button” to creators who want to rewrite canon
Perhaps the best way to understand the slippery nature of canonicity is to look to a book that has generated a more hardcore fandom than Star Wars and Doctor Who combined: the Bible.
The Bible has dealt with all the canonicity issues at play here. 1 and 2 Chronicles are the “Special Edition Re-release” versions of 1 and 2 Kings, with alterations that seem to do nothing but make the story less interesting. The New Testament is to the Old Testament as new Doctor Who is to old Doctor Who; a fresh spin to an old franchise that messed with the original series but managed to attract a whole new group of fans. The Book of Revelation is the series finale that disappointed all of the fans, who have been writing re-interpretive fan fic ever since.
The lesson is that every fan creates their own canon. The original creators provide the material, but we pick which parts are most important to us. It’s what makes the geek community beautiful — we don’t just love a movie or book or TV series; we let our imaginations run wild in the playgrounds that the original creators provided for us. We’re not just observers; we’re participators, co-creators. Our passion gives the creation of one person a life far beyond what they intended. For better or worse, when Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and the Doctor first made their ways outside of their creator’s minds and into ours, their worlds became something that we all share ownership in. Hopefully, taking a cue from the Bible fandom canon wars, we will learn to play nice.
But seriously, Han shot first.