Tale as old as time? We explore spin-offs, reboots and racebending
While it may be true that there’s nothing new under the sun, there’s always new twists to be given to old books, movies, and television shows. From the release of the live-action Beauty and the Beast to the announcement of a possible revival of the Matrix franchise, the vocabulary around adaptation has become more varied, contentious, and linguistically innovative than ever.
For artists who want to tell new stories about existing characters, the trusty sequel has been around since the sixteenth century to refer to ‘a literary work that, although complete in itself, forms a continuation of a preceding one’. It has its linguistic roots in the Latin word sequi, which means to follow. So far so reasonable. The first incidence of its opposite, prequel, comes to us in the 1950s from the world of science fiction.
In a minor act of rebellious back-formation, it pulls the quel off sequel and gives it a new prefix to suggest coming before. From a Latin perspective, this is nonsense: the se in sequel isn’t a morpheme (unit of meaning) but a phoneme (unit of sound). On the other hand, prequel makes a nice intuitive antonym for sequel, and the irresistibility of the thing itself is evident in the range of authors and producers who have fallen under its sway, from George Lucas’ unbeloved Star Wars prequels to Geraldine Brooks’ March, which imagines the life of the saintly father in Little Women.
Neither prequel nor sequel, the spin-off takes place in the same world, and often with some of the same characters, as the original property. Ashes to Ashes pulled characters from the time-travel police procedural Life on Mars; the sitcom Frasier followed psychiatrist Dr Frasier Crane through his post-divorce career in Seattle after he departed from the beloved Cheers. Spin-offs have formed some of the most beloved iterations in the Star Trek universe: Deep Space Nine shared a chronology and—as its run went on—some characters with its predecessor The Next Generation, and the two shows featured several crossover episodes.
Unsurprisingly, the word remake originates in the film industry: a 1936 issue of Variety made note of casting decisions in the “remake of Desert Song”. While a remake implies the recycling of existing plots, concepts, and characters, the more versatile reboot suggests a more dramatic departure from the original material: character backstories may disappear, the fictional worlds may abide by different rules, and creators are free to tell brand new stories in the universe of their film, TV show, or comic book. The 2002 BBC miniseries Doctor Zhivago was a remake; Mad Max: Fury Road, with its foregrounding of Furiosa and its disregard for Max Rockatansky’s history in the foregoing Mad Max films, was a reboot.
Both reboots and remakes offer the opportunity to introduce a property to a new audience—and to get creative (or noticeably uncreative) with their casting. When Paramount introduced a film adaptation of the popular animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, they cast white actors in several of the roles of Asian characters. In response, Marissa Lee and Loraine Sammy coined the term racebending—a play on the Avatar characters’ imagined powers of air- and water-bending. Their definition: ‘Situations where a media content creator (movie studio, publisher, etc.) has changed the race or ethnicity of a character. This is a longstanding Hollywood practice that has been historically used to discriminate against people of color’.
At the time of its creation, racebending was used near-synonymously with whitewashing—a critical description of a practice harmful to communities of color. Since then, however, the term has developed a positive spin: it now more commonly refers to the practice of casting an actor of color in a part originally imagined as white. For instance, numerous artists and writers created fanworks that depicted a racebent Hermione Granger, even before the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a black actress, in the role of Hermione in the 2016 play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Another adaptations term common in fannish communities is genderswapping, or depicting an established character with a different gender. In some fics, the gender change is an element of the fic’s plot; in others, it’s part of the premise, tagged (for example) as “Girl!Yuri” or “Genderswapped!Yuri.” Genderswapping also serves as a means of revitalizing classic plays: director Phyllida Lloyd, for instance, has staged a series of all-female Shakespeare productions over the last five years, most recently her Harriet Walter–helmed 2016 production of The Tempest. The 2016 remake of the beloved 1980s film Ghostbusters genderswapped all of the lead characters, including the agency’s secretary, a rare instance of canonical genderswapping that dominated the conversation around the film’s release and critical reception.
Of course the fun of a reboot, spin-off, or genderswapped remake isn’t in the name, but in judging how the new compares to the old. Does New Who get too weepy compared to Classic Who? Do Emma Watson’s vocal talents stand up to the memory of Paige Tyler singing about the great wide somewhere on your childhood cassette player? Artists will never stop remixing and remaking old properties for new audiences, and all we can do is hang on for the ride.