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The Trouble With Quibbles
With Films Like 'Star Trek,' Overzealous Fans Exert an Unhealthy Pressure on Moviemakers

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009

We live in the age of extreme niche fandom. Even more extreme is the quibbling.

I was commanded by Paramount's publicists -- the Legion of Women With Clipboards -- to come alone to an advance, clandestine screening of "Star Trek" a couple of weeks ago. I expected the theater to be sadly semi-private, with just a few entertainment writers and all those empty chairs. But when I got there, it was packed with serious Trekkers who had all been there for hours and hours (of course they had), summoned by some magic e-mail. Really, they have been there for 43 years -- waiting, watching, assessing, obsessing. The night was at once joyful and as serious as a heart attack.

The lights went down. I always love this moment. It's the last chance for a fan to wonder if it's all going to be okay, if they did it right, if this is going to work out. The excitement, the concern, the communal investment: no turning back now. It reminds me of Dave Bowman drifting toward the monolith at the end of Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey." He says one last thing to Mission Control: Oh my God -- it's full of stars! And then he disappears into it.

"Star Trek" is full of stars. For a few seconds I turned away from the screen simply to watch its light reflected in the faces of the core believers. Half of them were literally nibbling at their fingernails.

After came the quibbling. Even when fans are pleased beyond ecstasy, there is a quibble. Amid the afterglow, in the line for the men's room, little notes were woven into the frantic conversation: This part could have been better, and what about that, or if only they'd done this. Mostly, though, the men relieved themselves and let out satisfied sighs: J.J. Abrams has not ruined "Star Trek."

* * *

We won't leave behind much in the way of original scholarship or art, but future anthropologists will (kindly, one hopes) take note of how slavishly we tended to a garden of sequels, prequels, adaptations, remakes and reboots. It was all we talked about.

Someone in the future will draw a timeline of four of five decades in length to crack some code of emotion/nostalgia/reverence, which will finally explain why we remade "Bewitched" and "The Dukes of Hazzard."(We did it because we felt . . . stuck? We did it because we were millennially inert, afraid to make something new? We deflected social upheaval by meticulously retelling already-told stories?)

The future will ask why there had to be so many Harry Potter books and why each film version had to faithfully replicate a certain number of pages; why teenage girls all but held knives to the throats of the creators of a "Twilight" movie, daring them to make one false move in casting choices or tone. Someday, someone will make some sense of why the Iron Man movie worked and the Hulk movies (either of them!) did not (for different reasons!). The future will decide, objectively at last, if "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" was any good or not, compared with other "X-Men" movies and compared to the original comic books. (We are incapable of knowing; we are capable only of arguing the arcane merits and letdowns.)

Trailers, which are mere suggestions of the finished product, now have the power to set off weeks of angst-ridden speculation or rapturous typing frenzies -- pre-quibbles! -- such as when grown-ups first encountered, earlier this year, the trailer to Spike Jonze's forthcoming adaptation of the beloved children's book "Where the Wild Things Are." (People reacted with relief; it looks right. It bears watching.)

We criticize films even as they play before us, tweeting our observations from the theater. Many people watch "Lost" each week at a keyboard, hitting send at each commercial break.

Without holding a single document of copyright entitlement, you and thousands (millions!) like you nevertheless experience a chronic fear of violation: Your beloved boob-tube rerun is being made into a big-budget movie. The book you read eight times in fourth grade is getting adapted to the screen. The cartoon character that was on your favorite lunchbox is going to be revivified by sexy actors. They screwed up "Speed Racer." They got Spider-Man right and then ruined Daredevil. You brace yourself for the worst, because the worst happens so often.

The quibble can continue years after the product is released. Can it really be 10 years ago this month that the "Star Wars" people unfortunately met Jar Jar Binks? There you have the ultimate act of fan betrayal, "Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," instigating a decade's worth of Internet agonistes.

* * *

Has our quibbling worked? Yes, if you believe in the collective force of fans and the "wiki" social ideal -- that group input only improves the result, guiding by peer pressure if nothing else. No, if you think filmmakers are too beholden to fans. Quibbling does not produce a Heath Ledger-style Joker; that is the result of an actor and a writer and a director coming unhinged from the original material. Quibbling produces a "Watchmen" movie, which tenderly reproduced the 1988 graphic novel panel-for-panel and still failed -- pleasing fans, perhaps, but excluding newcomers.

All the church words and metaphors people come up with to describe blockbusters and devoted fandom apply: Is it faithful? Will I feel betrayed? Is it canon? Will I still believe? Summertime filmmaking is church now. Pity the producers, directors, screenwriters and actors who take on a science-fiction or fantasy project and must first make an appearance at Comic-Con or some such convention-center cathedral gathering, so as to genuflect before fans of the older version, the classic comic or the original TV show. There's a permission paradigm now: You must show fans your plans -- costume sketches; a glimpse of a vehicle or set design. You must demonstrate reverence. The just-cast star must sit on a panel and make up stories about his childhood love for [insert character here].

For months, Abrams and his team of "Star Trek" writers and actors smartly paid lip service to "Trek" fans, to set them at ease and co-opt their support. The three trailers released before "Star Trek" seemed designed to reassure. Only the third and most recent trailer seemed in any way deviant, as a voice-over tells the new, hottie Kirk (Chris Pine) that he must fulfill his destiny and follow his father's footsteps, which, as anyone knows, is "Star Wars" talk -- a little like being handed a Communion wafer in a synagogue.

Then, as screenings of "Star Trek" got early huzzahs from Trekkers, newbies and movie critics alike, Abrams grew more bold in his press interviews for the film's release. He more freely admitted he was never much of a fan of the original show. Same goes for Zachary Quinto, who plays hottie Spock. It turns out they were going as much on creative instinct. The result is a "Star Trek" that moves relentlessly fast and feels newly born. It's nothing short of an office revolution: All the old guys got retirement packages (save one, Leonard Nimoy, on contract work) and the foosball kids were promoted to management. The conference room is a-shamble. Nobody knows where this all goes next. All we know is we want it to go.

Quibblers would have kept "Star Trek" more like its old self. Quibblers inhibit revolution. Quibblers would deny the basic law of forward motion in pop culture:

If you love something, they will remake it.

But if you really love it, you will set it free, and let them.

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