Posted by: markfender | January 15, 2014

Expanded Universes

I’m currently alternating between reading Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth, some Dark Horse Star Wars comics, and a biography of Pol Pot (so my next game should be dark). But it’s got me thinking about expanded universes, or the need to keep the money train rolling.

WaltDisney In reading the twelve or so volumes of The History of Middle Earth, we come to the conclusion that Tolkien wrote a lot of drafts. And, while the story of the Fall of Valinor is an interesting one, it doesn’t really relate to the main story line of the books published in his lifetime. However, a lot of the back story of the books is informed by these extraneous details and provides  the rich tapestry that Middle Earth has become. Beren and Luthien matter to LotR because Aragorn makes reference to it, making the world feel historically deep. Reading the origins of this stuff in the Histories is interesting, if somewhat dull when you come across Christopher Tolkien’s extensive “I found fourteen drafts of this story and here’s where each sentence came from” notes. But this leads us to the big difference between this expansion and the other property, the authenticity.

Christopher Tolkien, literary executor of Tolkien’s estate, is rabid about not adding to his father’s work. So, even these twelve volumes are expanding the scope of the world from the stories, they’re still Tolkien’s original ideas. So, it’s hard to complain about not necessarily liking how the story has been expanded. Somewhat exploitative? Sure. After all, Tolkien never finished much of this stuff. He probably didn’t want it published in that form. But it feels more authentic to the original vision because it is part of that original vision, even if obscured in multiple drafts.

The other interesting bit about Tolkien’s expanded universe is that it’s not very good. Or, more properly, it’s not written in the same style or tone as the other books. The Hobbit has a rather silly tone with LotR taking on a much darker and adult tone. But these are relatable stories because they are written from character’s perspectives. The Music of the Ainur does not have that. It’s third-person omniscient with not a single relatable character commenting upon the events. It’s a lot of dry history, more closely related to Tolkien’s studies of Anglo-Saxon poetry than the more novelistic and modern literary techniques of the books. Which makes it kind of hard going and only for the dedicated fan.

But that’s not the only expanded universe stuff that has occurred in Tolkien’s universe. There’s been lots of games that expand his world in other directions. Most of these are fairly accurate to the source material and only expand it in ways that are needed for the games. Is it mentioned anywhere in Tolkien’s stuff that there’s some wolves that will attack your character right outside of Rivendell in the MMORPG, or the names of Gondorian units in one of the RTSs? Unfortunately, these expanded universe properties are not allowed to expand past the events of the stories and end up treading the same ground over and over. I almost prefer that they be allowed to explore the Fourth Age or something, so that they can distance themselves from the original stuff and maybe tell some original stories.

And then there’s Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, which have been expanded into as long an epic as LotR was with the additions he’s made. Which have also, universally, been pretty terrible. I’ve only seen the first movie but if the impression I’m left with after it ended was that it could have been an hour and a half shorter, that’s not exactly a sterling recommendation. Granted, I’m a purist, but I didn’t mind most of the changes he made to LotR, feeling that they could be justified in adapting a book to a movie. And there were a few of those in The Hobbit that I felt were similar in style that I didn’t really mind (Ian Holm’s Bilbo introducing the movie works as a good example), but the last forty-five minutes of the movie could have been cut. I’m not interested in watching your fan fiction, Peter Jackson.

Which brings us to the other example I’ve recently been staring in horror at. Star Wars has exploded its expanded universe across some 40,000 years of history. This does allow the authors to expand into uncharted areas divorced from the movies, but it also brings its own sets of problems. For one, who the hell can keep up with the ridiculous amount of output that property has? Another is how the tone of the movies is somehow lost in a lot of the expansions.

I, for one, never finished the Thrawn trilogy. Reading a book based on a movie was just sort of frustrating. I wanted to see the ships shooting each other, not read another name. And reading recycled lines of dialogue from the movies just made you realize how tone deaf Lucas really is with dialogue. And I’m not really interested in reading even more about Luke, Han and Leia. Their story is done – expanding it into a nineteen novel series about the invasion of a pro-bio anti-tech race (that’s also immune to the Force – the mind boggles) just doesn’t interest me.

Which is why I’m a little more partial to the comics. For one, they’re visual, so you get to see the cool space battles and lightsaber fights. And that stilted dialogue works slightly better when it’s in word balloons. But that’s not to say there aren’t other problems. I read some of the early Dark Horse stuff, the Tales of the Jedi, only to find them god awful. The expansion into ancient times is a good idea since it allows original stuff in the universe. Unfortunately, it appears that Kevin J. Anderson and Tom Vietch, who wrote most of it, are terrible fucking writers. Seriously, Kevin J. Anderson’s dialogue is more wooden than anything I think I’ve ever read (Actual quote: “I am shamed, Memit Nadill. My people are predators, but I am a Jedi. I should know better”). And Tom Vietch tells the entire story in captions. I’ve never read so many captions. And let’s not even talk about how these comics are from before the dawn of Photoshop, so the coloring is lame. Or that there’s a character named Freedon Nadd. Freedon Nadd. Seriously.

The more recent output is better. The Knights of the Old Republic series had some decent characters, some Star Wars-type humor, and even a decently realized superweapon that wasn’t just another Death Star. It fell down on a few points, but it told a consistent story that felt like a decent expansion on the themes you expect from Star Wars. And since it’s based on the KOTOR line of video games, it had some decent universe-building. Speaking of KOTOR, this is probably the best expanded universe stuff in the Star Wars milieu. It used the same themes as the Star wars films, but moved them to a point in time where they weren’t effecting the films. But, more importantly, it also used the common tropes of video games in it story, making the player feel involved. It combined two rather trite stories with their own genre conventions into a singular piece that works across both mediums. Describing the story loses much of the impact of playing through it, but it still manages to capture both sides of the conventions and flip them enough to seem original.

Now that Disney owns Star Wars and is making new films, fans will have to wrestle with their canonicity (<- new word). I, for one, tend to reject most of the other Star Wars output because it’s not the movies. But will I have the same feelings towards new movies? Are they ‘not the same’ because a different creative team is doing them? Or will the sound of lightsabers win me over? Only time will tell, I guess.

Like anything, taste determines a lot. If all you want is more Star Wars, there’s plenty to choose from. But if you’re looking for actually decent storytelling, I think it can be done, but it often gets lost in the quest for more. Which is, of course, the difference between the two expanded universes. My love of Tolkien doesn’t feel exploited when I delve into his Histories since they’re his original notes (In fact, it’s often that love of the original property that keeps me trudging through the drier sections), but it definitely feels more exploitative when Dark Horse publishes yet another title about Jedi that features the worst writing I’ve ever read. Or when Del Rey kills Chewbacca off in order to sell books. Which could lead into a whole discussion about why we even want to explore one particular fictional universe more than the original author did, but this is already long enough.

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