I have been a Star Wars fan for as long as I can remember. I grew up hooked on the original trilogy and stood in line for a midnight showing of the final prequel. I own more collectibles than I have room to display. I have built models of X-Wings and Star Destroyers and have several more still to be assembled. There was a meme traveling around Twitter a while back asking the question “what movie did you see the most in theaters?” To a bit of my embarrassment, my answer is The Phantom Menace (1999), the much-maligned first installment of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, with eight times during its original run and once more when it was re-released in 3D. Number two is Revenge of the Sith (2005) with five or six (I lost count). I was elated at the opportunity to see the new sequels starting in 2015, hoping it would become an annual tradition for my oldest son, who had become a rabid fan as well, and me.
At first, this was fairly smooth sailing. Sure, there were grumbles over the similarities between The Force Awakens (2015) and the original Star Wars (1977) and the dubious ethics of digitally resurrecting Peter Cushing to reprise the role of Tarkin in Rogue One (2016), but for the most part, the fan base was reasonably satisfied and excited for more of their favorite franchise. That excitement grew when it was announced that Rian Johnson had been called upon to write and direct the second film in the main sequel trilogy, and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, best known for The Lego Movie (2014), to helm a stand-alone Han Solo adventure. As production on Johnson’s The Last Jedi (2017) neared completion, the top brass at the Lucasfilm arm of Disney was reportedly so happy with the film that it was announced that Johnson would be creating his own trilogy within the Star Wars universe focused on all new characters. Critics raved over The Last Jedi, calling it the best since The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the generally accepted high point of the saga. The film was released to expectedly massive box office…and equally massive fan backlash.
Both director and cast were personally attacked on social media at unprecedented levels. Kelly Marie Tran was driven off Twitter entirely by so-called “fans” who actively and viciously hated her character of Rose Tico. The repercussions were so great that the writer/director slated for the third entry was fired and J.J. Abrams, director of the fan-pleasing first chapter, was brought back to “fix” what Johnson had supposedly broken. Related or not, more unpredictable filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were also removed from Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and replaced by a much safer bet, veteran blockbuster creator Ron Howard.
I watched all this from a distance and marveled not so much at the fan backlash, but at the fact that Lucasfilm and Disney gave in. The prequels had produced plenty of “George Lucas ruined my childhood” vitriol, but besides cutting back the role of Jar-Jar Binks, Lucas generally stuck to his vision, for better or worse. The wake of The Last Jedi was a new level of toxicity that I hadn’t seen anything quite like before.
Rabid fans have been around as long as there have been famous people, but fans holding creators hostage when they don’t like the product is relatively new. The greatest illustration of this is Stephen King’s novel Misery (1987) and its film adaptation (1990).
In both book and film, romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is in a car accident on an icy road after completing a new novel — one that goes in a decidedly different direction from the “bodice rippers” he has become famous (and wealthy) for writing. He is saved from certain death by his self-proclaimed “number one fan,” nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Annie owns and has read every word Paul ever wrote, watched (and practically memorized) every interview he has ever given, and even watched outside his hotel window as he wrote his new novel.
As Paul begins to recover, he lets her read the manuscript he completed just before his accident. She is not pleased, citing that it is full of profanity and “not worthy” of his talents as a writer. When his latest novel, Misery’s Child, goes on sale, Annie buys the first copy and begins reading. At first, she is delighted and hails it as his masterpiece — until she gets to the final chapter. When Annie discovers that Paul has “murdered” her favorite character, Misery Chastain, she takes her wrath out on Paul, starting with slamming the book down on his still battered and broken legs. After she calms down, it gets much worse. She forces Paul to burn his new manuscript, knowing that he doesn’t make copies. She then sets him up with a wheelchair, folding table, and typewriter (which is missing an “n”) and forces him to create a new novel that will impossibly bring Misery back to life. “I expect nothing less than your masterpiece,” she tells him.
By the time he wrote Misery, King had become known as the master of horror and by all accounts was happy to be so. He had always loved the genre and had become by far the most successful horror novelist in history. But for all his love of the genre and desire to continue in it, he also wanted to stretch his creative muscle a bit and try other things. In 1982, he released a collection of novellas titled Different Seasons. Only one of the four stories collected in the volume could be called “horror” and even that was a bit of a stretch. The other three, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” “Apt Pupil,” and “The Body” (filmed as Stand by Me (1986) by Rob Reiner, who would later direct Misery) are real-world dramas, focused on friendships, coming of age, and the influence humans can have over one another. That same year, King also released The Gunslinger, the first chapter in The Dark Tower series, a fantasy epic that would become his magnum opus. Neither Different Seasons nor The Gunslinger was his biggest seller of that period, but neither did they harm his career. Still, fans and publishers were keen for King to return to his “same seasons” so to speak, and bring the terror and gore back to the table.
For years, King’s non-horror work was largely available only in special edition pressings, such as the stainless steel bound “My Pretty Pony” — a collectible of collectibles that went for $2,200 on its publication in 1989. The early books in the Dark Tower series were widely published only in special edition paperback complete with full-color illustrations. When King wrote Misery, I imagine he was feeling a bit trapped by his own success. This was not out of a feeling of ingratitude to his fans or the genre, but simply a need to do something else from time to time. As a creative person, he didn’t want to be typecast. In more recent years, King’s workflows easily in and out of the genre, but before Misery (and It two years later) there was little that did not fit squarely within horror. Perhaps something within him feared his fans would turn on him if he strayed too far from it.
Through all of Annie’s cruelty, Paul is aware of his dependence upon her. Annie spends the first part of the movie telling Paul that she will get him to a hospital as soon as the roads are clear enough and that she called his agent while on an errand in town. After discovering the death of Misery, she reveals the truth that no one knows he is there. She has not called or spoken with anyone about him being in her home. She reminds him, “you better hope that nothing ever happens to me. Because if I die, you die.”
Creators depend upon fans for their livelihood and their very ability to continue creating. If nobody consumes the art they create, it becomes a hobby — something that can pass the time and bring personal happiness, but not a sustainable living. It is a unique and exceedingly rare position for a creator to be able to make their living from creating, but very often that success leads to pigeonholing in one area. Venturing out beyond the narrow confines of the genre they are known for is all too often met with cries to “stick to a brand” or “stay in your lane.” But the heart of a creator is to create and that includes an innate desire to experiment and grow. Ultimately, the reason why fans are drawn to a certain artist in the first place is that they did offer something different. Fans were given something that spoke to them in a powerful way and that produces a kind of bond between creator and consumer. When that bond becomes dangerous is when fans feel they have a right to be involved in the creative process, that they can do a better job than those actually involved in the creating.
In the film, Paul comments that he wants Annie to be in on everything about the book he’s writing. Not just the final product but how it's written. This is a trick to try to regain her trust and lure her into a false sense of security. In the real world, learning about the creation of a work can be interesting and healthy, but should come after the fact. The desire to watch behind-the-scenes footage or interviews about how a film was made can be inspiring and lead a person to their own creative endeavors. But this is more an act of research, not meddling in the process.
The rise of social media has taken this tendency to want to be involved to a new level. Now, fans hear of studio meddling, a hashtag is born, and before long that studio is spending upwards of forty-million dollars (as of this writing) to complete “the Snyder cut” of Justice League (2017), a film that, apparently, never really existed. Studio meddling has always been a problem, but fan meddling is a new level of producing art by committee.
Another telling moment in the film is when Annie discovers that Paul has been trying to escape. She tells him all the things she does for him and comments that he just continues to fight her. Annie is completely oblivious to the fact that she is harming Paul physically, mentally, and creatively. The most famous sequence in the film is a literal expression of this fact. The hobbling scene is one of the most cringe-inducing moments in all of King’s work and adaptations. In the book, Annie cuts off Paul’s foot with an ax. In the film, she places a piece of wood between his ankles and smashes them with a sledgehammer. Just before she swings, she says, “trust me, it’s for the best.” It is what is implied by every tweet, blogpost, and online rant: “I know better than you.”
The thought that “I could do better than that” is a key moment in the life of any creator, but it needs to have something behind it. If a person thinks they can do better, they need to prove it. It takes a great deal of talent, hard work, willingness to take rejection, as well as a little luck to get into any creative endeavor, but it does happen. Anyone can complain, few are willing to put in the effort to actually contribute.
In this scenario, if the creators are Paul Sheldon and the toxic fans are Annie Wilkes, the studios are Paul’s agent Marcia Sindell, played by Lauren Bacall in the film. In Misery, Marcia has no idea where Paul is or what is happening to him. She calls the local sheriff in hopes of finding him. In the real world, studios are fully aware that fans are abusing the creative teams that make their movies — and they are standing by and letting it happen. Worse, they are compounding the problem by giving in to their demands. Part of this is that the costs of making a film, mounting a Broadway musical, or publishing a book have become astronomical, leaving little room for only modest success and certainly no room for “failure.” Tentpole movies have to break box-office records in order to turn a profit in the current climate. The mid-budget feature is becoming a thing of the past with established directors like Noah Baumbach and Martin Scorsese turning to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime to get their films made. It seems likely that a film like Misery would be made in such a manner today.
The Star Wars and #ReleaseTheSnyderCut debacles are just two examples of toxic fandom in recent years. The fiasco surrounding the 2016 Ghostbusters remake is another story. The fact that the film was a success didn’t matter to the studios who only seemed to be able to hear the shouting of “movie-bros” spouting sexist and even racist venom against the film, the actresses who starred in it, and the film’s director Paul Feig.
In general, these filmmakers have been able to recover. Feig went on to direct the modestly budgeted, and very entertaining, cult hit A Simple Favor (2018). After being fired from Solo, Lord and Miller moved their attention back to animation to produce Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), widely considered not only the best Spider-Man film but one of the best comic book films period. Rian Johnson was able to put his energy into the star-studded reinvention of the whodunnit Knives Out (2019). Not only was the film a massive success (and a rare mid-budget theatrical hit) but also hailed by critics as a favorite of the year. It just goes to show what creators can do when given the space to work. As it turns out, they can produce some pretty great stuff when not tied down to the whims of those who feel they know best.
These happen to be success stories, but up-and-coming filmmakers and, far too often, female directors, are completely shut out by one bad showing at the box office or fan backlash. In a time of cries for inclusivity and much-needed reform on that front, vital and diverse voices are being silenced. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the current toxic fan culture.
Recently, I revisited the beautiful Gabriel Axel film Babette’s Feast (1987), a film largely about what it means to be an artist even with limited means to create. Near the close of the film, after the titular feast, Babette speaks the key line of the film. She says, “through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: give me leave to do my utmost.” When artists are given that kind of space, great things can happen that not only benefit them but all of us.
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