Wednesday, August 10, 2016

"Canon Isn't Real": And Other Controversial Things I Say About Source Material

I never realized how particular and possessive comic book fans were of their source material until I started watching Arrow. In a lot of ways — in the good ways — I can’t exactly say that I blame them for their attachment to characters and stories. I’m an avid reader, not of comics but of books that often (it seems far too often these days) get turned into television shows or movies. Take, for example, one of the biggest franchises of all time: Harry Potter. As an obsessive reader of the books, I would often debate and lament the fact that the filmmakers chose to do certain things that went against the book canon. In the third movie, why is no one wearing their school robes? Why does Hermione’s hair suddenly become beautiful? Why did they change the color of her Yule Ball gown from periwinkle to pink? Why was Bill such a prominent Weasley in the books but not in the movies at all? Why were there elements of the Triwizard Tournament that the film changed? Why did they change the color of Harry’s eyes (okay, that one was apparently because of contact lens issues)? Why is it so easy for me to point out what is different? Because Harry Potter, the book series is a separate entity from Harry Potter, the film series.

And as much as we don’t want to admit it, we have to learn to separate the two. I know, I know — when television writers use existing source material to build their worlds, those who read the material and watch the adaptation are almost always disappointed. Why? Because the world we envisioned in our heads and the characters we’re attached to very rarely are exactly what we want and we expect. That’s why I’ll always love book!Ginny Weasley and bemoan the existence of movie!Ginny Weasley. I want to unite them — I want to believe that since they’re the same character, they have everything in common, but the truth is that they don’t. Ginny, in the films, was not given enough time to be fleshed out as a character. Not like she was in the hundreds of pages of the book. So when I watch the films, I detach from that version of the character but latch onto the book version.

I think that’s okay. I actually think it’s perfectly acceptable to prefer one version of a character over another. But the problem these days is that, more and more, people don’t want different versions of the same character — they want identical adaptations. I’ve seen this in the comments section on every tweet and Facebook post and article about Arrow. It’s become more and more prevalent as the writers have seemed to deviate from particular storylines in the comics in favor of new storylines unique to the television adaptation.

So we’re going to spend the rest of our time discussing why it’s difficult, but necessary, to separate adaptations from their source material, using — primarily — the example of Arrow as a television show. I’m not here to berate anyone for wanting what they want or preferring what they prefer. If you’re a hardcore Green Arrow/Black Canary comic book shipper, good for you! If you’re a hardcore Olicity shipper, good for you! If you like Laurel Lance, Sara Lance, Moira Queen, Thea Queen, or Felicity Smoak, then props. Like what you like and don’t be ashamed of it.

The problem, however, is in the insistence that one person’s opinion is always right and someone else’s is always wrong. If your insistence on your ship being the “right” one blinds you to hearing someone else’s point of view, or if it actually causes you to harass, demean, or otherwise slander someone else, then you’re not much more accepting or tolerant than a petulant child. (And trust me, I’ve seen BOTH comic book purists and television loyalists get ugly with one another for this.)

Let’s make this a safe space for discussion, shall we?


I think that this first idea is going to be the most difficult to swallow, so we’ll start here. Yes, you read that heading correctly: there is always more than one canon. Most television series that are adapted from source material (be it comic books, graphic novels, novels, etc.) are adapted by people who are fans of that particular product. They’ve consumed it, digested it, and have let it become a part of them. As you might assume, there are varying degrees of adaptation. Someone who is adapting a book series into a television show (like The Magicians, for instance whose first season just wrapped on SyFy) will pace their stories differently and construct a different canon than someone who is adapting a book series into a movie (think The Hunger Games).

So which canon is the real canon? Is it the book? The movie? The television series?

Let’s take Batman as an example here for a moment. Batman is obviously a comic book series that was also adapted into a television series and a string of movies. So who is the real Batman? Who is the real Joker? I think that honestly, the more conversations you have surrounding this idea of “canon,” the more you realize what it actually means. The word “canon” derives from the Greek and means “rule” or “measuring stick.” Technically deriving from Jewish and Christian ideals, “canon” work was work that was considered to be authoritative in nature. The canon, therefore was the rule and the thing by which all other works were measured.

The problem with the idea of translating canon today is that canon is so fluid because there are various iterations of the same base content, and various interpretations of the same content. Returning to our Harry Potter example for a moment, let’s flash forward to a few weeks ago when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was released. I won’t spoil the play for you, but I can truthfully say that while it was not as horrible as I anticipated, it also doesn’t fit with my canon view of the characters. Their language and behavior (or lack thereof) contradicts what I knew to be true of them in another, similarly canon, work.

Is any of this making your head spin yet? Good, because it’s making mine spin. So what am I getting at, here? I think my point is that canon, by its definition, is pretty cut-and-dry but we’ve been attaching the term to things too fluid to solidly define. If we say that comic books are canon, that means — by definition — any adaptation of Batman or The Flash or Green Arrow that even remotely contradicts the canon we’ve established is invalid. You can see how that would be absurd for comic books (but probably great for religious works deemed to be inspired by God), right? And it would be absurd for ANY book. Any movie that contradicts its novel counterpart would have to be thrown out and considered an invalid adaptation. Sorry, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, The Magicians, and many more.

I think what we need to realize is that in this day and age, one true canon is not realistic. It’s just not. What people really say when they rant and rail about movies and television shows differing from comic books and novels is: “My version is the best version, and I want anything created to reflect what I deem to be important.” When we get upset about Hermione’s dress color being different, what we’re really saying is: “My version matters more than this other version, and therefore is the right version.”

There is, in my opinion, no “true” canon when it comes to comic books and novels. These are source material that adaptors pull from in order to create content. When we see a movie with that dreaded: “based on a true story” tagline, maybe we should pay a bit more attention and start imagining it whenever we see adaptations of our favorite source material. Because that’s honestly what most of the creators and writers do in the end — they pull source material that they enjoy, and adapt it along the way to fit whatever narrative they’ve told. Very few things in this world are “true” adaptations — 100% accurate 100% of the time. And though that’s what we think we want — we think we really need to see everything we read turn into everything we watch — I would argue that it’s probably not.


Okay, so that might have been a little bit heavy to carry. “There’s no real canon, Jenn? Are you serious?” Yes, I’m actually serious. Whenever we cry about canon, I think we represent one of my favorite lines from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Canon is so fluid now that we should actually probably use “source material” instead of “canon,” since that implies that the book or comic or graphic novel is the rule by which we have to — by very definition — measure everything that follows. But the joy of adaptations, in my opinion, is in their differences not always in their similarities. It’s about their creative license and artistic vision.

Though we think we want everything creators to do mimic everything that we read, the truth is that ultimately we don’t want that. Why would we want to SEE exactly what we want when we can READ exactly what we want? What we truly want (maybe this is too bold of a claim, but I’m going for it) is for creators to ADAPT a story or a character or a book or a comic. Because we want to see how they inject their vision and creativity into the source material.

And we want to see if it aligns with what we believe to be true.

Now, here’s where things get a little sticky. Sometimes creators just get it wrong. Sometimes they interpret characters and storylines and relationships like they’re writing really bad fanfic. (I hate to say it, but the co-writers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child did this.) So yes, sometimes when we see an adaptation on-screen of something we’ve read, we go: “Uh, who is this character and why do they bear the same name as my beloved [insert character’s name here]?” I get that. I totally do. (See, once again, references to The Cursed Child.)

But I think that those are bad creators and bad adaptors. If writers want to create faithful adaptations of the things they love (because the assumption here is that if they are adapting it, they love and care about it enough to be faithful to the foundation of the stories), they’ll work to determine what the core elements of the story and characters are that need to be translated.

And honestly, adaptation is a lot like translation.

If you know anything about translating things into different languages, you’ll know that word-for-word translations are not an actual thing. When you’re in Spanish class in high school, you don’t painstakingly translate an English phrase word-for-word into Spanish. Why? Because even though it will technically be correct, it won’t be accessible and it won’t be easily understood and — worst of all — it will lose meaning and significance.

The way that you translate is by knowing the language that you’re going to translate into: understanding their phrases, their euphemisms, and the nuances of their language. That’s why you don’t see anyone jumping to adapt American Gods into a word-for-word translation of the book series; because not everything will be the same as the book. Adaptations are not, and should not be, clones of the source material; they should be translations of it — taking characters and storylines and making them a best fit for the new medium they have.

But that isn’t always easy for us to understand or accept, especially when we can’t connect the creator’s vision to our own. For some, Green Arrow/Black Canary was such an integral part of their comic book personal canon that they couldn’t fathom why Oliver would even consider being with Felicity Smoak. And I get that, to an extent. To them, it only illuminates the fact that their source material is “right” and the Marc Guggenheim, Greg Berlanti, et. al. adaptation is “wrong.” But what if there was a movie to come out featuring someone else cast as Green Arrow, that still ended with him not being with Black Canary? Would those same people continue searching until someone created a “faithful” adaptation? Isn’t that just an example of the notion I mentioned before: that we want to reinforce our own “canon” by only seeking out adaptations that align with our beliefs?

What we need to understand — what we all do, really — is that there are certain elements of story that are concrete, and most that are fluid. I hate to say it, as a storyteller, because I want everything about stories to be unchangeable and unmovable. But they’re not. And the tighter we hold onto the notion that the first version of anything we touch is the “right” version, the less and less we’re able to appreciate adaptations and creative artistry of others.

I’ve dabbled quite a bit in generalizations here, so I’ll get down to the specifics. I don’t read comic books. I think this needs to be stated, yet again. But I really do love and appreciate Arrow for what it is — an adaptation, a “based on” version of pre-existing source material. The most important elements of the story are the ones that I’ve been able to glean from the show’s writers: Oliver Queen was a selfish, narcissistic, womanzing playboy whose life was changed when he was shipwrecked and every bit of his spirit was broken. He was plunged into darkness over and over again, and in his quest to avenge his father, he only found more darkness. His journey is one of self-identity when he takes up the mantle as “The Vigilante,” and then again when he becomes “The Arrow.” Oliver is a master archer, but he struggles with who he is beyond that. Apart from this foundation of a character, it doesn’t matter to me whether Oliver has facial hair or not, or what his costume looks like, or who he dates. The most important thing in adapting one work to another form is keeping the fundamental things similar.

And I understand that many feel like Arrow has lost its way over the years, but they’re improperly attributing it to the romantic relationship between Oliver and Felicity. People who are vehemently against the two being together romantically generally cite the same thing that Dan Harmon did when he developed Community: namely, that romance ruins television shows. I could spend another 3,000 words discussing why that’s not true, but I’m going to isolate the anti-Oliciters into two different camps here.

Either you’re against Oliver/Felicity because: a) you think any romance ruins television shows, or b) you think Oliver should end up with Laurel because that’s how it was in the comics. To the first, I would just have to say that I’m sorry but I disagree. Bad writing ruins television; romance never does. Let me repeat that for everyone in the back: BAD WRITING RUINS TELEVISION SHOWS. Were Oliver and Felicity written well as a romantic pairing in season three? Eh, I have my qualms with them but the build-up throughout seasons one and two was substantial enough for their romance to be believable. Were they written well in season four? HECK NO. I will be the first person to tell you that I’m now very blasé toward their relationship. But it’s not because romance ruined Arrow; it’s because the writing choices soured me to Oliver’s character (and Felicity’s, to a far lesser extent).

To the second camp, I have to just say that if 2,500 words have yet to convince you that the version of Laurel Lance and Black Canary in the comics is different from the Laurel Lance and Black Canary on the television series Arrow, I don’t know what will. This is a prime example of what I discussed earlier: holding too tightly onto something that your mind deems as canon that you are unable to distinguish the differences between adaptations. Oliver Queen and Laurel Lance in Arrow are based on the characters in the comic books. But they’re not identical. Nor were they ever intended to be. Nor will any character from a comic book or novel be identical. Look at Harry Potter. Look at The Hunger Games. Look at The Giver. Look at The Great Gatsby. Look at Pride & Prejudice.

Each adaptation is tailored differently. It looks a little different than the next adaptation. Because honestly, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: what is significant in a piece of source material to you may not be of significance to the person adapting the creation. And what creators have to do is make sure that their adaptation is true to the foundational elements of the story. Stephen Amell and Katie Cassidy have no chemistry together whatsoever, in my opinion and in the opinion — clearly — of the people who create and write for Arrow. You can choose to believe whatever you would like, and you can ship whatever you would like and I’ll never stop you.

But being able to separate adaptations is key in being able to appreciate them for what they are. Love Oliver/Laurel on Arrow? That’s great — for you. But don’t assume that because you appreciated and admired them in the comics that they have to be appreciated and loved in the television show with the same amount of ferocity. Sometimes being faithful to an adaptation means that as the adaptation evolves, the show or film begins to slowly and subtly move away from the source material and become more independent because it needs to be.

Speaking of...


This may shock you to learn, but I’ve never actually read a Green Arrow comic! (Actually it won’t shock you because I’ve already said this earlier in the piece.) But I’ve also never read Lev Grossman’s series, The Magicians. I’ve never watched the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, nor have I ever read the book series Poldark.

Have you noticed a pattern above? Yes, I’ve watched all of the shows that are based on those print pieces (Arrow, The Magicians, Jane the Virgin, Poldark). But I can guarantee you that in every circumstance I’ve mentioned above, and hundreds more, the creators of those television shows were not writing their content for the sake of only those who are familiar with the source material. It would be absolutely stupid if they did, wouldn’t it? And this is true on the grander scale, too, of film. Could you imagine the pitches at Marvel if someone said: “Okay, we need to create a movie that will only draw in the readers of comic books. We’re going to create... The Avengers!”

How many do you think went to see The Avengers and its sequels (or most/any Marvel or DC film) but had never picked up a comic book? How many people do you think have seen Harry Potter or the Divergent series but never read the books the films are based on? I know of so many people that this is true of, so why do we assume that television is any different? Why do those who know comic books backwards and forwards and are purists insist that the shows mimic the comics frame-for-frame?

At the end of the day, television shows and films are revenue-generators — at least, they seek to be. In order to be the kind of show or movie that brings in money, you need to appeal to a broad demographic. Want to know why CBS has the highest ratings of any network? Look at its content. It is broad. There is nothing niche about it — multi-camera, easily-accessible comedies; easy-to-follow procedural dramas. There are not many nuances there, and so viewers gravitate toward that which seems accessible and familiar to them. That’s not to undermine the power of good storytelling, of course: you could have an accessible show flop because it’s just bad (see: many comedies on CBS over the years). Writing plays a great hand in the success of television shows and films, but in order to be successful or acclaimed or just to break even, what do networks and studio executives need? Eyeballs.

So when I hear people complain that Arrow has deviated from its comic book origins, I’m baffled as to what they assumed would happen — what they think will happen when Supergirl hits its third season or when The Flash enters its fourth year. Shows know that in order to be successful, they need to reach a wider audience than just “comic book fans” or “readers of the novels.” Arrow has determined that it needs to deviate from those origins while still attempting to maintain the spirit of the comics in order to draw in both comic book purists and those who have never stepped foot in a comic book store. That is what good television does — it draws together all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes from all kinds of demographics. If you fail to draw in more than just one particular subset of viewer, your show will flop. If Arrow wasn’t captivating audiences — both comic book fans and non-comic fans — then it would be cancelled. That’s how the television industry works.

But because it has, so far, bridged the gap, the show is still on the air. You will never find a shot-for-shot remake of your favorite source material, and if you do, I can guarantee you that it will flop. Take, for example, Gracepoint: FOX’s failed attempt at bringing Broadchurch to America. After just one season, the show was cancelled. The source material lives on, but the FOX attempt to cater to people who loved Broadchurch left people who had never watched it, like me, left out of all of the nuances.

If you want a shot-for-shot remake of your favorite comic books or novels, you won’t see it on television and you certainly won’t see it in the movie theatres. As the alternative, if you’re really insistent on seeing your favorite source material remade, might I recommend renting a green screen and rounding up a few of your closest friends?


So canon doesn’t exist, your source material will never be remade exactly the way you want it on television or in a film, and all of your opinions are wrong! Just kidding. I love that people are passionate about their favorite books and comic books. I think it’s awesome that people are even still reading in this day and age, when there are plenty of other things that vie for our attention and our time. And when I call people out on... well, calling out things as being “not a part of THEIR canon,” I’m including myself in that bunch. I’m guilty of placing the beliefs of my canon onto the beliefs that someone else holds about theirs.

But I think the most important part is to learn to be respectful and to have discussions about this stuff. In the age where you can post anything anonymously, troll people, and basically just hide behind a username, I think it’s more important than ever that we learn how to have educated discussions about the things we disagree on. And you might disagree with everything that you’ve read here. That’s okay. I’m not here to convince you of anything — all I want is for my own opinion to be counted for something. All I want is for us to be able to co-exist with our differences rather than insist that one side is right and the other wrong, all while slandering each other in the process.

Like I said before, I’ve seen both sides of the Arrow fandom do this: Oliver/Laurel fans and comic book purists, you guys have said some pretty heinous things to real people all in the name of defending your favorite character; and Oliver/Felicity, television show separatists, you’re no saints either. I’ve seen shade and anger thrown around like confetti from y’all, too. Passion often breeds passionate anger, but sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back and remember the most important thing of all: none of this is real.

Seriously, if no one has ever told you before, none of these characters are real. Black Canary isn’t real. Green Arrow isn’t real. I hate to break it to you, but Felicity Smoak isn’t real either. Nor is Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Harley Quinn, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Elizabeth Bennet, or Mr. Darcy.

I love passion. I encourage you to be passionate and to find ways to express that passion.

But let’s all remember that the most important thing — and the thing that will tell others the most about us — is how we behave when our passions are challenged. Behave like you would if your favorite character was watching you. That’s all.


  1. VERY well said. Thanks for hitting all the important points and for reminding people to act decent to one another. My dream is all of us learning that we can enjoy what we enjoy together without stepping on each other's toes.

  2. I agree with this article. Also, the writers have stated many times that Arrow is just another adaptation of the Green Arrow character.

  3. I'm not a fan of Olicity because of a third point you touched on, it's been written terribly. Romance is a great bit of the storytelling playbook if its done well. Arrow hasn't done much well the past 2 seasons including Olicity.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Now that I have got the chance to read the full article. I have to say

    The title Canon is not real, is misleading. Canon is very much real, yes full Canon us not adapted but the core Canon is very much used to set up a story or character.

    You say you want us to respect each other well respect is a two way Street, this article talks so much down to comic fans. You make assumptions about out opinions,likes and dislike. It would have been better to research and ask us why we want or like what we do.

    Not all comic fans are purists. Not all comic fans dislike all romance and not all comic fans hate Olicity because of Laurel/Oliver.

    You say Laurel wasn't like Black Canary, and but what's your reference when you say you don't read comics.

    I do respect where this article is coming from,I too get annoyed with extreme fans/purists. But at the same time let's also remember they are also extreme fans who are anti comic books. (I think we agree on that bit). The media should stop speaking for us comic fans, I don't think you fully understand us and we would like to have our say when you talk about us. Its only fair.

  6. Thank you for writing this Jen. I'm probably going to ramble but I wanted to comment. I have also never read a comic book and I'm sure to some that invalidates my opinion. To them I say cool because I'm unlikely to get a respectful debate from those types anyway. I don't have a hatred for comic books just because I didn't read them. Growing up in a super small town they weren't sold anywhere and no one I knew read them. I didn't really watch superhero movies either they didn't speak to me as a little girl. Maybe if there was a bad ass movie of Wonder Woman for me I definitely would have gone to a theater.

    I'm more than fine with respectful Laurel fans and Oliver/Laurel fans. Sadly those haven't been the people I've encountered on social media. You simply can't talk to someone who wishes you dead over a tv show. So that bums me out that the disgusting loudmouths are really ruining things for all sides.

    I grew up a shipper since I was super little though I didn't know that's what it was. My mom loved soap operas and of course I had my favorites. My first big non soap couple was Kimberly and Tommy on Power Rangers. I was 9 and loved them so much that you couldn't dissuade me. I truly hate that shipper has been turned into such a nasty word by keyboard thugs. Guess what if you want Oliver/Laurel you're also a shipper.

    To be honest the most vile to me as a fan have been supposed male genres. I was a fan of Sons of Anarchy and the absolute filth some people flung at me was scary. How dare I support a female character who stood up to the male characters. There is an absolute sludge of misogyny in the fan bases and sadly in some writer rooms. Why should my opinion be seen as less than because I happen to have a vagina?

    It's late here so I'm not even sure this made sense but fingers crossed it does. Keep up the awesome work Jen.