I love thinking about the social impact of technology and media, and one of the biggest debates out there is the level of responsibility which creators have towards their audience. If a piece of technology– a video game, for example– projects a heightened level of violence, are they obligated to take responsibility for this choice? Actually, the debate over video game violence has been raging for years. The prevailing opinion is that publishers must take some responsibility for the level of violence in their games, hence the ESRB ratings.

OK, so we know that developers need to take responsiblity for anything that might be deemed offensive in their work. But should they also be expected to defend their choice to say, kill off an important character, or introduce a plot twist in the eleventh hour? One of the most popular story writers out there, George Lucas, recently revealed his frustration over the amount of backlash he had received from fans over the years. Check out the quote below, which I took from a recent interview Lucas did with the New York Times:

‘On the Internet, all those same guys that are complaining I made a change are completely changing the movie,’ Lucas says, referring to fans who, like the dreaded studios, have done their own forcible re-edits. ‘I’m saying: ‘Fine. But my movie, with my name on it, that says I did it, needs to be the way I want it.’ Lucas seized control of his movies from the studios only to discover that the fanboys could still give him script notes. ‘Why would I make any more,’ Lucas says of the “Star Wars” movies, ‘when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?’ (Taken from a NY Times Interview by Bryan Curtis)

So what does Lucas owe his fans? Clearly, his success as a film maker stems from the fact that the public loved his work. On the surface, the relationship between audience and artist is pretty simplistic. Franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek are popular because people liked them, and found the story and characters intriguing. Perhaps most importantly, audience members often report finding something they can personally relate to in a popular franchise.

On the other hand, especially when a game or film is part of a franchise, there is the expectation among fans that the creator will not do anything too out of character, or which compromises the ‘feel’ of the original story. Especially when it comes to adaptations of books on the big screen, film makers walk a fine line between catering to their audience’s demands, and exercising their own creative license.

I’ve enjoyed watching the recent online debate between fans of The Hunger Games books (of which I am one) and film maker Gary Ross. On the one hand, Ross has maintained that he is eager to please fans of the book. On the other hand, he acknowledges that he has inserted scenes in the move which don’t appear in the book, and the reaction to this announcement among fans has ranged from excitement to outrage.

In my opinion, faithful adaptations of books are a good thing. But so is the ability to exercise creative license. Just look at the popular LEGO games based on the Harry Potter franchise. Or the LEGO Batman games. I don’t remember a single point in the Harry Potter books when a yellow, cubical figure mounted a broomstick, or razed his enemies with a wand. Lego Harry Potter is a little out there, but it works. It’s a good middle ground between a faithful adaptation of a story, and something entirely new and bizarre.

It’s one thing to demand that developers stick to the storyline when producing an adaptation. But what I find really interesting is that this level of perceived responsibility extends even further. One of the most raging (and influential) debates in pop culture and media today is over the social impact of the Twilight franchise on young girls. When the original film came out in 2008, director Catherine Hardwicke was  routinely criticized for having produced a film that was too close to the book. For critics of Twilight, Hardwicke had missed a golden opportunity to ‘correct’ the gender dynamics in the series, which are still a consistent sticking point among journalists today. When Breaking Dawn, Part One came out this past November, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly produced an eloquent review, but it was more a critique of Bella’s character in the series than the individual movie itself.

So on the one hand, fans want a movie which is true to the book. On the other hand, critics want a movie which projects a more ‘acceptable’ moral message.  Faced with these conflicting expectations, film makers of popular franchises must spend many sleepless nights pondering how to satisfy all of their audience members, which is most certainly an impossible task. For me personally, I’m honestly torn between my appreciation of media which has a good solid message, and my desire to simply sit back and enjoy a film for what it is. In Hollywood, it’s pretty much accepted that films on certain controversial subjects, such as war, will impart some sort of message. On the other hand, film makers who infuse their work with heavy-handed political messages are often deeply chastised by critics. As an example, one early review of the Hunger Games asserts that the film “might be too smart for itself.”

If this is indeed the case, then I can’t help wondering: when it comes to media (both games and films alike), where is the line between profundity and superficiality? Can a film ever just be a film? Can a game ever just be a game? What responsibility (if any) does a developer of a popular franchise like Star Wars, Twilight, or the Hunger Games owe his or her audience? As I wait for the Hunger Games premiere next week, I may be spending some sleepless nights of my own pondering these questions.

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