Let’s begin with a thought experiment: Are action figures adaptations?
After all, the design and production of an action figure involves translating a text across media (from film to plastic), reproducing a particular character often cued to a specific moment in the original work (for example, “Slave Girl Leia”), impacting how the public makes sense of the story (see for example the way Boba Fett emerged as a focal point for future Star Wars storytelling based on the grassroots embrace of his action figure). True, the action figure might constitute the minimal unit of adaptation: there are cases of films (East of Eden  comes to mind) that productively adapt subplots, but the action figure comes closer to, say, paintings that capture the core gestures or dramatic tensions between the characters in a Shakespearean play or perhaps the nativity set, which models a key event from the Bible. Such practices illustrate or evoke pre-existing memories, rather than re-tell stories for new audiences. Or at least, this is true for the figure itself, which represents either a character abstracted from any narrative context or may, as in the Slave Girl Lea example above, stand in for a specific moment. What happens when the figure gets into the hands of a child is anyone’s guess: the action figure becomes an authoring tool. The child may faithfully retell the events of the original narrative, may rework them, and may even mix and match characters across different franchises to create a new crossover story. What happens as Slave Girl Leia, newly purchased from the Jabba-like Disney Corporation, comes to hang out with her other Disney Princess sisters? And what of the collector—say, the faculty member who displays an embodiment of an object they have written about on their bookshelves as a talisman of their own research experience? The action figure thus attracts other stories that extend beyond the original in many different directions.
Like an adaptation, the action figure is judged in terms of its fidelity (Is it accurate? Does it look right?) but also for how it helps us to see the original in a new light. Consider, for example, a high-end action figure depicting Nosferatu, from the German Expressionist classic, which captures the angular acting style and elongated physique we associate with Murnau’s film: We learn something about expressionist cinema each time we play with it (and yes, such a figure exists in my collection).
I am of course being somewhat irreverent both in asking this question and in the mix of high and low examples I am using to illustrate it. For most of cinema history, a lofty academic journal focused on the relationship between film and literature would have dismissed action figures as promotional or ancillary products or, more recently perhaps, read them as paratexts but not as themselves adaptations (Gray). Yet, we can use the lowly action figure to illustrate a key point—in the age of transmedia franchises, there is much more movement of stories, characters, fictional worlds, core themes, and stylistic elements across media. The borders between textual and promotional practices are breaking down, and this blurring of categories should have some impact on how we think about adaptation.
By transmedia, I mean, “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling”). My own and many other definitions of transmedia emphasize the idea that each platform makes a “unique contribution,” a definition that often serves to somewhat unfairly distinguish transmedia extensions from more traditional adaptations, and the result is “additive comprehension,” new insights form at the intersection between different media extensions.
Anyone who thinks seriously about adaptation knows that each makes some unique contributions—in terms of their selection and interpretation of material and how they use the affordances of the new medium in ways unavailable to the original producer, if nothing else. But, an adaptation is understood as a version or retelling of the original, whereas an extension goes beyond the original (for example, expanding the timeline or developing the backstory of a secondary character or exploring another dimension of the fictional world). In practice, the difference may be only a matter of degree—adding and subtracting scenes and characters in the case of a faithful adaptation, adding entire stories or corners of the universe in the case of a transmedia extension.
This focus on extension and additive comprehension was originally a way for transmedia theorists to criticize the redundancy that marred so many mindless novelizations of existing media franchises in favor of works that explore new creative possibilities. But the result has been to keep adaptation studies and transmedia studies at arm’s length for more than a decade.
The concept of world-making has entered both fields in recent years and gives us one opportunity to reconsider these relations. Think of a world as a mental or intertextual construct—an encyclopedic understanding of all of the elements that constitute the setting of a particular story (the characters, the institutions within which they operate, their core tools and technologies, core bodies of knowledge, social norms, shared mythologies, and so forth) and from which new stories could be generated (Wolf). Each extension may tap a different aspect of that world and develop it in much greater depth than in the originating text. Each text may tell a different story, but these stories belong together as long as they operate in a shared world. We might think about examples where adaptations preserve the original story and map it onto a new world. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015) is an adaptation of Lysistrata that preserves but relocates the plot from the classical world of the original into contemporary Chicago in order to comment on gun violence and gang warfare. By contrast, Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) is a film extension of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books that tells a back story of the Kansas humbug-turned-wizard never contained within Baum’s many Oz novels. The first is an idiosyncratic adaptation, whereas the second is an extension. Both make original contributions. Such extensions are, of course, not new: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet expanded the backstory of secondary characters from pre-existing narratives, whereas Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet (1996) relocates that story into a different world. And, we might think about how Tom Stoppard’s works, such as Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead (1990), both extend (and comment upon) Shakespeare’s original narratives.
Extensions often authenticate themselves as belonging in the same fictional world through adapting aspects of their originating texts: my analysis of Oz the Great and Powerful shows that a broad range of story elements and visual motifs are drawn from earlier Oz texts, including some elements in the Baum books not brought to the screen before and others that fit within the canonical version as profoundly shaped by the Judy Garland musical (Jenkins, “All Over the Map”). The narrative extensions are read as legitimate in so far as they fit into the world as previously constructed and as meaningful in so far as they encourage us to look at that world through new eyes.
All of this brings us back to the action figure, which is an extension insofar as it enables us to deploy that character in new situations and settings. Growing up in an age of action figures, collector cards, video games, and the like encourages contemporary children to develop a more extensive understanding of how story worlds work. Eiji Otsuka describes how worlds operate in the context of Japanese media mix strategy: a world might take shape across a range of collectible cards that can seed new extensions in film, television, manga, printed books, or video games. Think Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh. The card set provides a template that subsequent storytellers can tap to create new narrative experiences. Otsuka suggests that the same template can allow audiences to construct their own stories, whether the amateur comics (doujinshi) published by Japanese fans or the fan fiction published by western fans. In both cases, authors authenticate the new story as fitting within the existing fictional world through using familiar lines or speech patterns, visual iconography, specific plot events, etc., all reinterpreted and restaged in a new media setting. Transmedia theorists distinguish between works that contribute to the continuity and works that foster multiplicity, which is radical re-imaginings of the original (not unlike Chi-Raq or for that matter, a playroom story in which Slave Girl Lea is menaced by Nosferatu). In reality, most fan fiction does a bit of both—it grounds itself in the original enough to justify its re-interpretation of the characters or extensions of the story. In that sense, we can understand fan fiction as a kind of critical argument through creative storytelling, one that cites a variety of textual evidence in order to explain and justify its extension of the original.
Inspired by what Jacques Derrida has called the “archontic principle,” Abigail Derecho suggests the term “archontic literature” to describe a range of textual practices—from fan fiction to literary texts such as Wide Sargasso Sea, The Wind Done Gone, or Ahab’s Wife—which self-consciously build upon but also re-center existing texts. For Derecho, as for Derrida, this “archontic principle” is the “drive within an archive that seeks to always produce more archive, to enlarge itself” (64). We can see both adaptation and extension as different forms of the archontic principle at work whereby beloved stories resurface and recirculate, sometimes because they are being retold and sometimes because they are being extended in new directions. Such a framing suggests that those of us who study transmedia (and fan fiction) and those who study adaptation are asking a related set of questions, though as of now we are often talking past each other, because our terminological and methodological assumptions lead us to underestimate the materials the other is studying.
Busse, Kristina, and Karen Hellekson, eds. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. New York: McFarland, 2006. Print.
Derecho, Abigail. “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction.” Busse and Hellekson 61-78.
Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. New York: Columbia UP, 1995. Print.
Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.
Jenkins, Henry. “‘All Over the Map’: Building (and Rebuilding) Oz.” Film and Media Studies: Scientific Journal of Sapientiae University 9 (2014): 7-29. Print.
Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 22 Mar. 2007. Web.
Ōtsuka, Eiji. “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative.” Mechademia 5 (2010): 99-116. Print.
Wolf, Mark J. P. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.