Creator Intent versus Reader Ownership

Who owns the meaning of a story? There?s an anecdote about Kurt Vonnegut that may be apocryphal. It goes like this:

A university student contacted Vonnegut and told him that the professor teaching Vonnegut?s book had bizarre interpretations of it, and insisted that the class embrace his views to pass the course. Vonnegut sits in on a lecture then argues with the professor on the interpretation. The professor?s finally refutation is along the lines of, ?What do you know? You?re just the writer.?

Arrogant, isn?t it? Why am I thinking about this? I just had a twitter conversation that would fall along those lines, with me arguably cast as the nutty professor.

Ah, but that can wait? First, I want to address the idea of creator intent versus reader ownership. Even what to call these two sides of this argument is debatable. Should it be creator authority, creator knowledge, or creator intent? On the other side, is it reader ownership, reader investment, reader interpretation? Each word gives a different level of power to either side.

Does our hypothetical Kurt Vonnegut know what he?s written? Could there be subliminal ideas there that he may have felt needed to be there without understanding why exactly he was putting them there? As someone who has been struggling to write not one, but two novels over the past decade plus, I would say that sometimes I include things that instinctively I know need to be there, but I can?t rationalize (sometimes, it clicks later and I understand, other times I?m still waiting for enlightenment.).

Can someone other than the writer be the definer and keeper of the story?s meaning? That would be harder to accept. Even if a writer doesn?t understand everything that they?ve written, it was written with an intent, and they are the keeper of that, and it should have primacy. When I?m talking about a writer not understanding what they?ve written, I?m thinking of examples along the lines of autobiographical stories that accidentally reveal truths through exposition that the author may not have wanted others to see.

Let?s look at one of the most famous examples of creator intent versus reader ownership:

?Han shot first!?

You should know what that means. There?s been a feud between George Lucas and his fans ever since the release of the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. In Star Wars (1977), Han Solo clearly shoots a bounty hunter who is confronting him and possibly drawing a gun on him. In the Special Edition, the bounty hunter shoots first and misses, and Han?s shot is much more clearly self-defence.

Fans have hurled vitriol at Lucas for that 2 seconds of film, saying that it robbed Han of his character. You can buy ?Han Shot First? T-shirts pretty much anywhere fans gather – comic book shops, conventions, online? Yet Lucas is the creator and he has said repeatedly that he always intended Han to shoot second. (Full Disclosure, I?m firmly in the Han shot first camp, but I never bought the shirt.)

Another, more recent example of creator intent versus reader ownership:

Cameron Crowe recently released a film called Aloha. There?s a character named Allison Ng – a character described as 1/4 Chinese, 1/4 Hawai?ian and 1/2 European. Then Crowe cast a very white woman to player her. Crowe wrote the script (it?s not from a book), he made the character, can?t he cast who he wants? That?s the creator?s intent. A lot of people weren?t impressed. In their interpretation, the character should physically reflect the mixed ancestry.

(My problem with the movie, beyond Emma Stone?s exuberance, was how it telegraphed the plot. For example: Woman hasn?t seen or spoken to her old boyfriend in, oh, 13 years; introduces her 12-year-old daughter to him. Gee, what?s the significance there?)

What?s less talked about is when creator intent and reader ownership align. Prior to the casting of the first Harry Potter film, there was a lot of concern among the fanbase that they couldn?t cast the characters to everyone?s expectations. Yet somehow, they did (or got so close that any discrepancies were forgiven). Best yet, they managed to avoid some obvious but possibly bad choices – Ian McKellan as Dumbledore, for one.

Which brings us to my little story alluded to above.

I?ve been reading a series of books collectively called The Expanse. The books are co-written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. As I?ve been reading these stories, I?ve developed images in my head of what the characters look like.

Well, the series is being filmed by Syfy, the network that brought us the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, then fell in the crapper of Sharknado I-IV. It doesn?t currently have a lot of cred for getting science fiction right (Ascension, anyone). But Syfy is trying hard to make up for that by creating shows such as The Expanse.

Today I finally saw cast photos for the filmed version of The Expanse. In my mind, they got one character right, Naomi. The rest are cast far too young. I tweeted as much:

And Daniel Abraham tweeted back, ?correcting? my understanding:

Which is all well and good, but we come back to creator intent versus reader ownership and how it applies to casting. I?ll have a hard time watching a young-looking 29-year-old playing a character that I visualize as 40+. I?ll have a hard time watching a young-looking 63-year-old playing a frail but spunky and feared centenarian. That doesn?t mean that I won?t check it out when it arrives.

I hope it?s good. The source material is quite entertaining, and the authors are producers on the show, so hopefully that will help the transition from print to screen. We need a new Battlestar Galactica-level show (Killjoys is OK, but not that good). But I know going in that I need convincing. I may not watch beyond the pilot episode if the characters strike me as not true to my internalized vision.

That?s not a problem for the TV show?s creators, unless I?m not alone in my interpretation of the characters.

Time for you to speak up in the comments: Who owns the meaning of a story, the creator or the reader? Do we have the right to say that Han shoot first?