I Never Met a Fiction I Didn’t Like: Characters Creeping into Reality, from the March Sisters to Simon Snow

When @Call_Me_Gil started flirting with @AnneWith_An_E on Twitter, their followers took to calling them “Shirbert.”

anne and gilYes, that’s two contemporary (fictional) young adults named Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, no realer than the L. M. Montgomery characters who first appeared widely in 1908. In this modern-day webseries re-imagining, Anne (as played by Mandy Harmon) started a YouTube channel, Green Gables Fables, when she moved into her foster home. Gilbert (Tanner Gilman) soon had a recurring role in the videos — not that Anne would admit to enjoying his presence at first. He started a channel of his own for a school assignment, but it wasn’t really his thing.

Season 1 paralleled the events of Anne of Green Gables, often staying very close to the original. Anne still delivered an overdramatic “apology” after railing at nosy neighbor Mrs. Lynde, but she delivered it over YouTube. Foster mom Marilla still wrongly accused Anne of stealing her amethyst brooch, but the threatened punishment was to miss a Valentine’s Day stag dance rather than a Sunday-school picnic. Rather than giving Anne his teaching position at Avonlea school so she could care for grieving Marilla after her brother Matthew's death, Gilbert let Anne have his journalism internship so that she could stay close to home over the summer. The second book, Anne of Avonlea, would’ve been harder to adapt into an adolescent’s vlog, what with her stint as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, so its events instead took place over transmedia — that is, via the characters’ Twitter, Instagram, and other social media accounts. (To find Anne and Gil — or Diana Barry or Jane Andrews or Rachel Lynde — on platforms from Instagram to Pinterest, just check out the “Transmedia List” on the Green Gables Fables Tumblr page.) Fans contributed over $15,000 to the Kickstarter campaign to fund Season 2, which followed the events of Anne of the Island, with most of the characters still at an institution of higher learning called Redmond, just a more contemporary version than the one that appeared in the book.

project green gablesThat season wrapped in the spring, but fear not, Anne fans! A completely different webseries adaptation, the Finland-based Project Green Gables, is still in progress and has put its own modern spin on the Anne stories. For one thing, its Anne is a young woman of color who feels insecure about her natural hair like the original Anne did about her ginger tresses. For another…no, I can't spoil it for you. If you’re impatient to find out what has me so excited about PGG’s approach, just watch episodes 40 and 41.

Fan creations are nothing new, as any fanfiction reader knows, but they’ve grown along with social media. Green Gables Fables is far from the only video blog adaptation of a literary classic. Pemberley Digital, headed by Bernie Su and vlogbrother (that is, John Green’s brother and co-video blogger) Hank Green, has specialized in “Reimagining classical timeless stories in innovative ways” since the 2012–13 Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a similar transmedia adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that resulted in a book of its own, The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick (Touchstone). Pemberley’s projects include several updated Austen novels, Frankenstein MD, and, most interestingly from a children’s literature perspective, The March Family Letters (distributed by Pemberley; created by Cherrydale Productions). This Canada-based, contemporary-set adaptation took more liberties with Little Women than either Anne of Green Gables adaptation with its source material; in this version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, the father died the year Amy (Cassidy Civiero) was born, and the videos were letters to Marmee, deployed overseas. The MFL also made more significant changes in its modernizing of the story. That Jo (Alex Kerr) reblogged feminist Tumblr posts wasn’t a huge surprise, but when Meg (Jessica Allen)’s love interest John Brooke appeared as Joan Brooke (Alejandra Simmons), it raised some eyebrows and some cheers. (Green Gables Fables later took a similar approach to Philippa Gordon’s love interest, Jonas Blake/Blake Jonas, in its Season 2.) Season 1 of The March Family Letters ended in July 2015 at about the point where Louisa May Alcott paused between the two original installments of the novel, and like her first fans, today’s “Marchies” are clamoring to know what happens next (or how the adaptation will handle what we already know happens next). They may not get to find out: the creators have stated that a Season 2 is a possibility, but not guaranteed at this point.

* * *

Like the people of the updated Avonlea, the modern Marches and their friends interacted in character online with each other and with fans. Interactions among the characters reflected what was happening in the videos — Anne finally followed Gilbert on Twitter after she forgave him for calling her “carrots”; Jo un-followed Amy after the latter, in a fit of temper, poured ice water on the former’s hard drive. In some cases, the online events included details that the original authors could scarcely have imagined. Beth (Nicole Girt) — the March sister who didn’t want to leave home and get married — identified herself as “ace,” or asexual, on a Tumblr questionnaire, and again later in the videos. In doing so, Beth made herself a part of an active online asexual community, and other users could and did show their support.

march family lettersSure, purists may cringe at Amy March’s incarnation as an attention-seeking hipster or at Avonlea resident Josie Pye’s penchant for Starbucks. But the new doesn't necessarily replace the old; instead, it's a reflection of fans' intense devotion to the source material and their desire to engage with it. Comments revealed that some viewers were reading or rereading along; Green Gables Fables fans even started a “GGF Book Club” on Tumblr. Literary-inspired webseries and the communities around them allow readers, teen and otherwise, to take ownership of novels that had existed long before their time. They can try to predict how an adaptation will handle the next chapter. They can comment knowingly, “This video hurts…Because, well, the future. Events in the future. Events in the future are coming, and I don't want them to.” (YouTube user Randomly Speaking on doomed Anne character Ruby Gillis’s/actress Abigail Snarr’s channel. S/he was right; the “events” did occur in Season 2, and followers hung on Gilbert’s Twitter feed as he shared news of Ruby’s decline.) They can share opinions on how they might adapt the stories differently. (YouTube user TheAmberLily7 on a March Family Letters video: “In the first video, Meg was way too uptight and serious and matronly. Yes, she was concerned with following the rules and doing the proper thing, almost to a fault, in the book, but she still knew how to have fun with her sisters, especially before she got married.”) And their comments get likes and dislikes and cheering and jeering replies from other viewers. The commentators become, themselves, part of the show.

That’s perhaps even truer on other social media platforms, where viewers can become involved in the characters’ conversations. After bathing Jo’s hard drive in ice water, @theamymarch tweeted, “Is this what they describe as the feeling of a dish best served cold?” Some followers favorited the tweet; others berated her. @CarolPrince82 summed it up: “No, no. This is what they describe as being a brat.” Admit it: when Amy burned Jo’s manuscript in the original, you would’ve loved to throw some choice words at her. Now you can.

More and more, the lines are blurring between what exists in fictional worlds and what exists in our world for readers to interact with. More and more opportunities are available for readers to involve themselves in stories and even contribute to them in new ways.

* * *

It’s not just public-domain classics that are going metafictive. Brand-new fictions about existing fictions are appearing more often in author-created forms like companion novels meant to be books that exist in canon universes — you, like a Hogwarts student, can read Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or The Tales of Beedle the Bard. At least two works written by fictional characters in recent years became real, physical books in 2015, and the real-life creators of both vocally encourage reader participation.

levithan_hold me closerIn John Green and David Levithan’s 2010 novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, secondary character Tiny Cooper wrote and directed an autobiographical musical, and the opening performance of Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story played a major role in the novel. Now, that musical exists as “A musical in novel form (Or, A novel in musical form),” written by Levithan. This copy of the script that readers can hold and pass around is clearly intended to be from a particular moment in time after the first performance. It’s full of commentary from Tiny in the stage directions (“A note on the spotlight: It should be very clear that this is Tiny’s special place”), and the “Introductory Note from Tiny Cooper” says: “The musical has already changed slightly since its first epic production. That’s the thing about life and love — every time you take another look at them, there’s something else that can be revised.”

Readers can own a copy of Tiny’s script and, in some small way, feel like they live in the same reality as he does. They could even, if they wanted, stage the musical themselves, though it might be difficult to honor Tiny’s request: “I know it’s not going to be physically possible for me to star in every production — although please ask me first when you start the casting process.”

And Levithan doesn’t want readers’ roles to stop there. “Now I just hope musically-inclined people will post some tunes to go along with my lyrics,” Levithan told MTV News. “I am a huge musical fan…but have proven completely unable to carry a tune…I trust that there are many, many Tiny Coopers out there. And if they’re truly like Tiny Cooper, I am sure they will use YouTube to find their way to me.” Encouragement from the author to be the character, to provide the music Tiny would’ve written, via a platform where teens in droves already share their creative work? If that’s not legitimizing, I don’t know what is.

And then there’s the author who wrote the book, so to speak, on embracing fan culture: Rainbow Rowell, who often publicly praises the art her fans create based on her books, centered her 2013 novel Fangirl around Cath Avery, a college freshman who’s well-known online for her fanfiction about a series that is itself fictitious. The Simon Snow books by imaginary author Gemma T. Leslie resemble the Harry Potter books (which do exist in Fangirl’s universe), and like J. K. Rowling’s real novels in the real world, they have an extensive fandom. Cath’s online fans eagerly await each installment of Carry On, Simon, her lengthy fanfic featuring a romance between Simon and his Draco Malfoy–like roommate Baz. (Cath rushes to finish before the release of the final Simon Snow book, as the influx of new canonical information is likely to contradict the details of her story.)

rowell_carry onGemma T. Leslie still doesn’t exist, and neither do her Simon Snow books, but now a book called Carry On does. Though the title alludes to Cath’s work, Rowell has stated that she wrote the novel as herself. Still, Carry On bears more resemblance to what Fangirl readers know of Cath’s work than what they know of Gemma’s. Rowell tweeted, “CARRY ON will be a Simon Snow story. And a Simon & Baz story. A love story.” That romance came from fake-fandom, not fake-canon.

Real fanfiction, in fact, is full of same-sex pairings among familiar characters: Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter; Remus Lupin and Sirius Black; Anne Shirley and Diana Barry (did I mention you should check out two key episodes of Project Green Gables?). Fanfiction gives readers the power to reshape the stories they love, and it may be that some LGBTQ teens, who for so long rarely saw themselves in the books they read, felt a particular need to rewrite those books. Now, Simon and Baz can fall in love while they learn magic, and Tiny Cooper can sing his story, between the covers of actual books with publishers’ money behind them. That sends a powerful message: when fans imagined similar stories, they weren’t being silly.

Nor is it silly to obsess over characters, to want to commiserate with them and sometimes shake them, to wish that they would like your posts. (Twitter user @dottyasyouplease, after @Call_Me_Gil favorite his/her tweet: “Little bit embarrassed of how excited I was when a fictional character acknowledged my presence on the interwebs. But not so embarrassed that I won’t tell EVERYONE ABOUT IT.”) I did the math when I was ten years old and first read A Little Princess: maybe, I thought-but-didn’t-really-think, a very, very elderly Sara Crewe would be my friend. That was unlikely for a number of reasons (the book was older than I thought, for one), but now, all these metafictive ways of presenting stories means we can converse with our favorite characters. And I never met a fiction I didn’t like.

For more in our Fan Week series, click on the tag Fan Week 2016 and see #HBFanWeek on Twitter.


Recommended Literary-Inspired Webseries

Literary-Inspired Webseries Awards Nominees 2016

Green Gables Fables (created by Marie Trotter, Alicia Whitson, and Mandy Harmon)
“A modern adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series.”

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (Pemberley Digital)
“Reimagines Austen’s classic around a fictional vlog filmed in the bedroom of a 24 year-old grad student, living at home and burdened with a mountain of student debt.”

The March Family Letters (Cherrydale Productions; distributed by Pemberley Digital)
“A vibrant, fun, and modern reimagining of Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming of age novel Little Women.”

The Misselthwaite Archives (Pencil Ink Productions)
A multimedia (though not interactive) adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, notable for Sophie Giberson’s standout acting as an out-of-place, teenaged Mary Lennox.

Project Green Gables
Another “modernized remaking of the beloved Anne of Green Gables series by L. M. Montgomery,” this one’s a bit newer and perhaps a bit less well-known than Green Gables Fables, but stars a racebent (and very witty!) version of Anne.

Shoshana Flax
Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, associate editor of The Horn Book Magazine, is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons University. She has served on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and Sydney Taylor Book Award committees.

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