Continuing the panel discussion on worldbuilding (Here and Here), I’ve drawn together a panel, each of whom is knowledgeable about how various talented writers have dealt with this issue. They turned out to be a talkative bunch.
Thomas Anderson, speaking about the books of Terry Pratchett;
Tom Colton, whose specialist subject covers the films of James Bond;
Andy Cooke, Tolkien afficianado.
Matthew Kresal, Specialist on Dr Who.
Retcons. Good thing? Bad thing? Just a thing?
Yeah, retcons like this.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Terry Pratchett gave himself something of a get-out-of-jail free card over retcons when he introduced the History Monks and the concept that the Discworld’s history was shattered by a past event and stitched back together. He had always joked in response to fans pointing out inconsistencies that they were “just alternate pasts” and this idea essentially turned that from a joke to an official explanation. Retcons are rarely made explicit and highlighted in Discworld the way they are in mediums like, say, American superhero comics, which often seem to spend more time trying to straighten out their continuity than they do actually telling stories. Instead, elements of backstory are just quietly discarded, de-emphasised, or reimagined. For example, in Men At Arms, Sam Vimes muses about the head of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch when he was a rookie, Sergeant Keppel. Keppel retired shortly after Vimes joined, but kept coming back in afterwards, and when he died some years later, nobody knew anything about his personal life. In the later book Night Watch, which involves time travel, Vimes’ mentor and head of the Watch is instead said to be Sergeant Keel, who led the Watch through the troubles of a revolutionary period but was killed during it. Keel was a real person originally, but due to time travel shenanigans is replaced by a time-travelling older Vimes, who ends up being his own mentor. Pratchett has taken the broad shape of the backstory mentioned in passing extended existence. The same book takes passing jokey mentions of the current Patrician (Lord Vetinari)’s two predecessors, Homicidal Lord Winder and Mad Lord Snapcase, and features the political transition from one to the other. It also featured Lord Vetinari’s aunt, who was mentioned in passing purely for a joke in Guards! Guards! This reflects more of a tendency to try to maintain consistency in the later Discworld books, whereas previously Pratchett would happily use the same name for characters who were characterised quite differently from book to book (like Vetinari himself and Granny Weatherwax the witch), reuse the same backstory (Granny Weatherwax and Cutangle in Equal Rites vs Granny Weatherwax and Ridcully in Lords and Ladies), etc. To sum up, Pratchett never let retcons and consistency worry him to the extent that other writers sometimes do, but he did allow his natural tendency to put individual story and humour first to be affected by fans wanting a more consistent approach later.
From the answer to the internal consistency question , you’ll have realised that Tolkien wanted there never to be any reason for retcons.
Retroactive continuity should never be needed if internal consistency is maintained. Avoiding the need to change something when published was a major driver for him. Arguably, it caused him to stall forever on the Silmarillion and led to those frequent revisions of the story in its entirety.
Which has a deal of irony, as his original framing stories allowed for discontinuity and discrepancy. From the start, he insisted on having an intermediary narrator, who was identified. Originally Eriol the Mariner, who stumbled across the Elven isle of Tol Eressea, who then learned the stories passed down by the Elves (who were originally not infallible in their memories of the time, either), during the Lost Tales era, then they were intended to be tales passed down from Fallen Numenor, having been garbled by the Mannish misunderstandings of the Elves, and then, even when he chose to ‘tighten up’ the narrative, via the books written by a single Elf: Pengolodh of Gondolin (who drew upon older texts from Rumil of Tirion). These books were then translated by Bilbo Baggins in Rivendell under Elrond and given to Frodo, and passed down amongst the Hobbits of the Westmarch, before being lost and rediscovered by Tolkien millennia later.
There is a thesis amongst Tolkien scholars that Tolkien deliberately put narrative bias into the Silmarillion texts. As a scholar of Anglo-Saxon, he was immersed in an environment where the bias of historical texts, dependent on who recorded and narrated them, was fundamental. It’s been shown that events, places, and characters seen as more friendly to the Elves of Gondolin and Doriath, have far more coverage and far more positive narration. In the Silmarillion, Pengolodh lived in Gondolin and then, after the fall of that city, with the refugees of Gondolin and Doriath in the Havens of Sirion, with Elrond’s parents. Very little is recorded of events in the half of Beleriand (the subcontinent where the Silmarillion unfolded) outside of Pengolodh’s scope.
Ecthelion stands in defence of Gondolin.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In any case, you can find multiple inconsistent versions of several stories within Tolkien’s notes as published by his son, who has deliberately emphasised these issues. Galadriel and Celeborn had multiple inconsistent backgrounds. The Blue Wizards (the two of the Five Wizards not in the Lord of the Rings), likewise. The latter elements of the Silmarillion could easily be argued over.
Retcons could readily justified to a degree simply from arguing that Pengolodh was not infallibly accurate and inveitably biased to a degree, but Tolkien seemed desperate to avoid the need for them. His son did mention in one interview that his father was unable to complete the story of the Silmarillion, because it would feel like completing his life.
For Doctor Who, retcons are very much “just a thing.” And they have been from comparatively early on in the series’ history, thanks to writers like Terry Nation being inconsistent with the details of their creations or different production teams having an inability to decide when the 1970s serials with UNIT took place. It’s something that feels as though it’s bred into the series’ DNA.
It could be why Doctor Who fans seemingly embraced making sense of it all. There are books like Ahistory and The Discontinuity Guide, both first published in the 1990s and the former still being updated into a multi-volume work, that go through these issues. Sometimes story by story, other times in expansive essays. It makes for remarkable reading as a fan, though I sometimes wonder what it must look like to someone on the outside.
And it led to spin-off media writers taking advantage of the book ranges like Virgin Missing Adventures and the BBC Past Doctor Adventures to fill in gaps or explain away the changes. This can be a problem at times as well, as you have numerous writers all wanting to write the “definitive” way something happened, leading to the likes of Liz Shaw leaving working at UNIT with the Third Doctor in various ways across different media, including in two novels from different publishers almost exactly a year apart.
Whether they work or not, or indeed stick around (semi) permanently, seems to be up to individual fans and the current production team. They’re a fact of life. Until, suddenly, they’re not anymore for whatever reason.
Tom’s answer was so thorough that it’s earned itself a place as it’s own article. See his article series on the Many Faces of Bond, Part 1 (of 3) of which is Here.
How is the perception of the world changed by a transferal to a different medium? For example, the James Bond of the Ian Fleming books is not the same as the James Bond of the films.
James Bond’s transition to film has defined an entire genre and redefined its central character through the medium transforming one fundamental aspect of 007 – namely excising his internal monologue.
While it’s not the only part of James Bond’s character which sets his literary counterpart from his film adaptation, it’s crucial largely because all of the novels (except for The Spy Who Loved Me, told from the perspective of the Bond girl in an attempt to appeal to other audiences) are told from his perspective, and his personality is fully on display there.
Literary 007 is pensive, resigned, and at times depressed, and all but spells out that his vices (smoking, drinking, spending, women) are ephemeral distractions from the looming possibility that his life could end the very next day. Bond regards his very profession as a necessary evil, and barely shows any sentimentality towards the tools of his trade.
To address the elephant in the room, he is also extremely racist and sexist by modern standards, being already somewhat bigoted by contemporary standards.
Film 007 has none of this baggage (and doesn’t manifest his bigoted attitudes beyond what was typical of the time, already having been sanitised a little) and his vices instead become the very male power fantasy that was intended to be deconstructed by his literary self; beautiful women flock to him, he drives the latest in fast cars and suavely orders food and drinks beyond the reach of most men.
While the first four Bond films and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were fairly faithful adaptations, making them in that order and following them up with the version of You Only Live Twice that Ian Fleming wrote – a journey through depression ending with an open question to Bond’s future – and not the version Roald Dahl “adapted” – a high-octane thrill-ride culminating in the biggest visual spectacle seen to date in the franchise – likely would have killed the franchise.
What would a world with James Bond the mini-series have looked like vis-a-vis the one in which we’re livin’ (to quote Paul McCartney in Live and Let Die)? With such a paradigm shift, it’s hard to say, but it would be far from recognisable.
Adaptation issues can be a red flag to a bull for Tolkien fans. The release of the Peter Jackson (PJ) movies divided online Tolkien fandom, some resolutely refusing to accept their existence.
This might come as a surprise to those who grew up in a post-movie world. The PJ movies were a great success as movies.
This underlines the issues – what makes a great written story and what makes a great movie can be rather different; adaptation necessarily requires changes. Surprisingly, Tolkien was accepting of this – specific changes, however, he might very much dislike. He was invited to comment on a movie proposal by Morton Zimmerman in 1958 – and from the comments, it looks terrible (Fairy castles, feathered Orcs, blue lights and copious magic incantations, the floating body of Faramir, huge numbers of Eagles being used at every opportunity).
There are choices made by PJ with which I personally disagree strongly, but I won’t go into them here as it could take over the article. He also made some good choices (the visuals, some of the characters, some of the encounters) and that’s where an adaptation can be strong.
From his notes on this and suggestions, though, it can be seen that Tolkien would have strongly preferred a lean into the spookiness and fear category than the action and fighting category (he gave a description of the way to do the encounter with the Wraiths at Weathertop that was very different from the film adaptation, but would have worked very well, in my opinion – and one where I’d initially thought PJ was going after the encounter with the Ringwraith on the road in the Shire, where he did indeed lean into the fear and spookiness aspect with clever use of distortion in the visual medium and use of the audial medium as well).
The way that the adaptation is done is what governs the perception changes by the transferal to a new medium. Changes are inevitable (again, Tolkien was fine with that if done with the core themes in mind – he even suggested cutting the entire Battle of the Hornburg sequence as potentially repetitive when the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was coming up, and if there wasn’t time or thematic space for the Scouring of the Shire, not to bother with killing Saruman but leave him permanently immured in Orthanc. His son and literary executor had the entire Bombadil sequence cut from the radio play version).
But then again, without the changes, we’d be robbed of the opportunity to vocally disagree about the need for each particular change and whether it adds to or detracts from the tale.
Pratchett always felt that filming Discworld would be an impossible challenge, not least because he was thinking of the kind of Hollywood attitude of the 1990s which would try to cram a multi-book series into one rubbish film which had no connection with its original source material. That wouldn’t really change until the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Nonetheless, there were some successful Discworld adaptations in Pratchett’s lifetime, starting with his friend and superfan Stephen Briggs adapting many books to the stage. The Discworld stage plays are great fun but suffer, as do all visual adaptations, from losing the introspective narrative of character voices and especially Pratchett’s use of the omniscient narrator (especially his infamous footnotes). In fact, a new series of audiobook versions of Discworld released recently cast a different narrator purely for the footnotes! Several Discworld books, including The Colour of Magic, The Light Fanastic, Mort, and eventually Guards! Guards! were translated to comic/graphic novel medium, mostly successfully (comics allow some space for narrative introspection as well) but occasionally losing a few subplots along the way. Of course, any kind of visual adaptation also runs the risk of creating a specific rendition of the appearance of characters or places rather than letting the reader’s theatre of the mind do it. Early in the Discworld series, the only visual representation was in Josh Kirbys iconic covers in which everything looks like melted wax, but Kirby’s images often contained his own ideas and didn’t always match the book descriptions. It was only later that Pratchett effectively signed off on ‘canon’ depictions of characters and places by Paul Kidby.
No, idiot Editor. Not that Hogfather.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Anyway, getting back to adaptations, the first screen adaptation of Discworld were the animated adaptations of Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music by iconic British animation studio (now sadly departed) Cosgrove Hall. Pratchett was surprised and pleased by how well these multi-part animations were pulled off (as was I, as a fan, at the time) with only occasional duff notes (no pun intended) like not explaining very well the “empty chord” bit at the end of Soul Music. However, there were also some nice additions, like Soul Music actually coming up with appropriate words for the Rite of AshkEnte rather than it being done off-screen. These animations were followed by three live-action adaptations from Sky, created by Vadim Jean and “mucked about with by” (as the credits put it) Pratchett. These were Hogfather, The Colour of Magic (actually adapting both that book and its sequel The Light Fantastic) and Going Postal. These were not as unambiguously successful as adaptations (in my opinion) as the Cosgrove Hall ones, partly due to the limitations of live action. They got a lot right but also missed out large sections, especially The Colour of Magic. The lack of introspective narration is the major issue with Hogfather which, as a result, doesn’t explain very well the cleverness of Mr Teatime’s plan or how he is eventually defeated, though getting visual depictions is very nice. The first two adaptations also trade heavily on David Jason, who is fine as Death’s manservant Alfred but then ends up playing Rincewind when he’s implied to be much younger at that point in the books. Going Postal was better than it could have been (being my second favourite Discworld book) but Richard Coyle wasn’t a believable Moist von Lipwig (who’s meant to be both charismatic and a forgettable blank slate in appearance) and also didn’t get that Reacher Gilt is meant to be a villain with good publicity, rather than an unambiguously evil from the start. Since Pratchett’s death, the only attempt at a live action Discworld adaptation has been the parodically awful attempt at a Watch series that doesn’t deserve further discussion and has rightly sunk without trace. It remains to be seen if Discworld will ever reach the big screen.
Briefly, there have also been adaptations of non-Discworld Pratchett works. Truckers was adapted to stop motion by Cosgrove Hall in 1992, and Johnny and the Dead (the second in his Johnny Maxwell trilogy) was adapted to live action children’s TV in 1995. This was actually the first Pratchett work I came across as a kid (without knowing it was him), and was not especially impressed at the time, except by Brian Blessed’s reliable bombacity. It was only as an adult when I went back and read the book that I found that the adaptation had had several problems, notably the most missing-the-point ending change ever (after a sequence in which all the unquiet dead spirits find final rest in their own ways, as in the book... they all show up again and reassure Johnny they’ve come back???)
Come to think of it, if that was my first impression, nothing Hollywood can do to ruin Pratchett would beat that ending.
This is interesting to answer because there are examples from the most recently aired piece of Doctor Who to when this discussion is taking place. Because The Power of the Doctor, aired as part of the BBC centennial celebrations and acting as a swansong for a showrunner/Doctor combination, brought back two past companions, Tegan Jovanka (played by Janet Fielding) and Ace, aka Dorothy McShane (played by Sophie Aldred). Companions who had interesting fates, shall we say, in spin-off media.
We’ll talk about Tegan first. The character stopped travelling with Peter Davison’s Doctor on screen in 1984, staying in the then present day. Fielding reprised the role in a one-off capacity in a skit for Jim’ll Fix It (and the less we say about that, the better), but the characters didn’t reappear for the rest of the series run. So, come the rise of spin-off media, various writers started imagining life beyond the TARDIS for Tegan. Among those was a short story where she had a nervous breakdown, dismissing her time with the Doctor as delusions from trauma well into old age, and an audio drama called The Gathering, set in 2006, that have Davison’s Doctor meeting her again, older and unmarried after she learned that she had a terminal illness. The audio was notable because Fielding reprised the role, despite being somewhat standoffish toward Doctor Who, a one-and-done so she’d stop being asked about doing more. Except, a few years down the road, she did do more and continues to do so, albeit in stories set during Tegan’s travelling days.
All of which is nothing compared to Ace. The final serial Ace appeared in was the last serial of Doctor Who’s original run, which had her and Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor walk off toward further adventures. So, her fate, unlike Tegan’s, was an open book. The Virgin New Adventures had her around for the opening few novels, then had her leave for a bit only to come back and then leave again in a recurring capacity, for example. When the proverbial war started over whose continuation of the series was definitive, Ace became a literal casualty when the Doctor Who Magazine killed her off in explosive fashion. But that didn’t stop the webcast Death Comes to Time from ignoring that fate (and how the McCoy Doctor regenerated, for that matter, but that’s a topic for another article). The Big Finish audios presented their own version starting in 2000, including stories inspired by plans for the unmade 1990 season. Ace had so many fates that trying to reconcile them was near impossible.
All of which built to the 2013 story The Death of the Doctor in the spin-off TV series The Sarah Jane Adventures. There’s a scene where the title character and former companion mention others in passing. That included Tegan campaigning for indigenous rights and “that Dorothy something – she runs that charity, ‘A Charitable Earth’. She’s raised billions.” All of which contradicted what had been in those stories I mentioned above, sometimes to a great extent. But it inspired new stuff, including Aldred’s 2020 novel At Childhood’s End, which had the grown-up Ace meeting the Jodie Whittaker Doctor and her companions.
And then they were back on-screen and together to boot! And, sure enough, Chris Chibnall created his own takes on what had happened to these characters. They hadn’t seen the Doctor in decades in any incarnation, Tegan hadn’t died of a terminal illness in the mid-2000s, Ace had still left the Doctor under a cloud, and the story’s events allowed them to reconcile with the Doctor (their own Doctors, even), and move on with their lives.
While Chibnall didn’t use the specific fates of either character, there are echoes nonetheless. Anyone who followed Ace’s various paths understood something unsaid that had happened between her and the Doctor. Tegan still had a troubled life after the TARDIS, which included unhappy relationships. Chibnall found a way to combine those aspects of their spin-off media portrayals with what was alluded to in passing on TV without being slavish to any of it. It’s a strong example of how things sometimes cross-pollinate or, since everyone is drawing from the same well, writers come to similar ideas for characters and stories.
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Matthew Kresal is the author of Our Man On The Hill from SLP.