The love-hate relationship between fans and their favorite content

Increasingly vicious online campaigns are being launched for (or against) inclusive casts, new storylines or character redesigns in movies, series, novels and videogames

'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'
Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega in a still from 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi.'

Dylan D. works as an analyst in the health sector. However, he also considers himself an authority on script writing. More so, at least, than two renowned professionals from the television sector: David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the team behind Game of Thrones. In 2019, after watching – with considerable displeasure – the first installments of the final season of the hit show, he published an online petition to ask HBO to remake the last batch of episodes “with competent writers.” At the time of writing, it had been signed by more than 1,857,000 people.

Some of Dylan’s arguments, which he laid out in an interview with the website, still resonate among the show’s fans: the writers were in a rush to close off the plot and the script declined when they no longer had the novels of George R.R. Martin as a reference. Meanwhile, other issues are more personal: battles that don’t make “strategic” sense, “idiotic” decisions among the characters and, above all, Jon Snow’s ice-cold departure from his wolf, Ghost – something that, as the owner of two pets, particularly hurt Dylan.

Not that he was wrong. Movies, series, books and videogames have always aroused love and hate in equal measure. At the end of the day, that is their purpose. However, in recent years, campaigns have become more common, more massive and, above all, more vicious. So much so that sometimes they even manage to determine the final result.

“Before, you were only able to express your frustration with a letter to the producer. The rest of us didn’t see it. But now you can quickly share your opinion on social media, it is available to others, and there will be people who may want to join. And sometimes the movement even ends up in the newspapers, also because the criticism has become harsher,” explains Simone Driessen, lecturer in the Media and Communication Department of Erasmus University Rotterdam and an expert in popular culture and fandom.

Kit Harington, in the skin of Jon Snow, greets 'Ghost', in a moment of 'Game of Thrones'.
Kit Harington, in the skin of Jon Snow, greets 'Ghost', in a moment of 'Game of Thrones'.

Cases are multiplying. A wave of anger greeted the announcement that 1980s comedy classic Ghostbusters would return to the big screen with an all-female cast, and its trailer instantly became the most disliked video in the history of YouTube. Similar reactions have been provoked by the return of The Little Mermaid or the new series based on The Lord of the Rings: apparently, neither Ariel nor elves or dwarves can be Black. Racism, sexism and homophobia on the part of some fans are the most unpleasant face of the phenomenon. But, at the same time, such campaigns pose a relatively simple debate to resolve: one can only be against these kinds of protests. There are, however, much more complex dilemmas at hand.

What about the unconditional support for filmmaker Zack Snyder from thousands of followers willing to vote for his Army of the Dead to help him win the first Fan Favorite Oscar award? Or the horde of Colleen Hoover readers who call themselves CoHorts and led her from living in a trailer to selling more copies of her books than the Bible?

An article published in Vox in 2019 looked at other episodes, such as the case of the series The 100. At first, it offered the LGTBQ+ audience a rare, relatable oasis: a lesbian idyll at the center of the narrative. Clarke and Lexa. The creators themselves posted messages online in favor of loving whoever you want. Then, they decided to kill off Lexa. People were divided: some thought that, in a series known for suddenly eliminating its characters, it was to be expected. Meanwhile, others accused The 100 of queerbaiting.

A kiss between the characters Clarke and Lexa, in the series 'The 100'.
A kiss between the characters Clarke and Lexa, in the series 'The 100'.

Creative decision or betrayal? Many fans of the Veronica Mars series felt the latter. Through a crowdfunding campaign, they were able to shoot a movie in 2014 to provide continuity to the series, which had been canceled in 2007. The public took more than $5 million out of their own pockets and the plot was resurrected. It went via the big screen back to the small one. But then, in the season four finale, creator Rob Thomas killed off Logan, the protagonist’s undying love. By doing so, he broke a pact, according to the most critical wing: those who paid to restore Veronica Mars had done so, above all, to see that relationship go on.

At least in the aforementioned case it is possible to debate whether an infinitesimal part of the work belonged to the spectators or not. But there are sectors of the public who seem to want to prove that a film or a video game is theirs. “You have to understand that a fan is someone who invests a lot in something they love. Time, money, even part of their identity. They have a vision of how the story should continue, they relate to some characters and they think that they are changing their world,” Driessen says.

The responses of the industry vary. While some creators stick to their original ideas, others do go back to the drawing board. The case of Sonic the Hedgehog is a famous example: the first trailer for the film version of the video game was drowned out by criticism. The aesthetics, the teeth, the eyes: absolutely nothing about the new design of the character pleased its fans. So Paramount postponed the premiere for almost a year and reworked the image of the hero. The director himself, Jeff Fowler, addressed the public: “Thank you for the support. And the criticism. The message is loud and clear... you aren’t happy with the design and you want changes. It’s going to happen,” he tweeted.

Critic Emily VanDerWerff told Vox: “It’s pretty clear that [since the late 2010s] an engaged fandom can be the difference between life and death for a lot of cultural properties.” Yes, the public has a lot of power. But, to paraphrase one of everyone’s favorite heroes, with great power comes great responsibility.

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