I remember being in high school when my friend Michael and I were talking about Star Wars and how we felt about the prequel movies (only Episode I had been released at that point). I made some comment about how it would have been cool if they had continued the story past Return of the Jedi, and he excitedly introduced me to the world of Star Wars books. He was particularly enthusiastic about some of the books that continued Luke, Han, and Leia’s stories past the original movie trilogy. If you’re more of a Star Wars nerd than I am, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Michael and I haven’t done a good job keeping up with each other over the last several years, so I don’t know if he’s one of the myriad of Star Wars fans who were some combination of baffled, bamboozled, outraged, heartbroken, or otherwise bothered by Disney’s announcement that everything post-Return was now no longer “canon,” and the subsequent character decisions made in the more recent Star Wars movies. I do know that a lot, or at least an extremely vocal little, of die hard Star Wars fans do feel those emotions.
I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on Star Wars fans, but I will be using Star Wars and its fans as an example, simply because they’re the most recent, vocal, and vociferous fanbase to go through this. Just know that what we’re talking about is applicable on a much larger scale than simply the Star Wars universe.
What is “Canon,” Anyway?
Let’s start by defining the word “canon.” The first two definitions when Googled are,
- a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged;
- a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.
As it is applied to pop culture these days, it means, “The official collection of books, movies, characters, etc.; the official storyline.”
So, to be fair to angry Star Wars fans, the issue here is that there were beloved storylines in Star Wars books (especially books, but other mediums, too) that were retconned out of the canon. Disney retroactively went in and said, “We know that you love those stories, and we’re sorry, but they’re not part of the official story anymore. We’re going in a different direction.”
They pulled the rug out from under Star Wars fans to some degree. I really don’t want to minimize how hard it must be for one of these hardcore Star Wars fans to see Luke pass into the Force on screen in Episode VIII, when they have a dozen books on their shelf that continue his story in amazing ways, and those books are now retconned.
Let’s get philosophical for a minute here: retconning is sometimes great, sometimes terrible, but it’s never easy. Retconning a beloved storyline/character/etc. is change, and change always represents pain on some level. (As an aside, I will remind you of the immortal words of Westley, The Dread Pirate Roberts: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” This is true.)
Let’s get further philosophical and say this: as fans and consumers, we can’t allow ourselves to indulge outrage and ire at content creators simply because the story went in a different direction than we thought it should, or wanted it to.
We can be disappointed, frustrated, and/or lose interest, but it is completely unhealthy to turn vitriolic towards writers, directors, and actors. That way madness lies, as they say, because ultimately we are not in control of the intellectual properties we love.
An Alternative Approach to Fandom
Let me say it, as clearly as I can, like this: You are not the thing that you love, and you are not defined by the thing that you love. Furthermore, there is literally nothing preventing you from continuing to enjoy the pre-retconned or pre-terrible version of Star Wars, or whatever other intellectual property you enjoy.
I, for instance, am literally always somewhere in the middle of a rewatch of The Office. I dearly love the show, but I don’t spend a whole lot of time on seasons 8 or 9. Why not? Because the show just wasn’t as good without Michael Scott. Don’t get me wrong, the last few episodes are some of the show’s best, but basically everything in between Steve Carell’s exit and the last three episodes (except the Tallahassee storyline) is skippable.
So, what if the angry Star Wars fans did a similar thing with the stories that they love? What if they employed what I call a “head canon” – a canon that you subscribe to, regardless of what the massive corporation controlling your favorite IP says is canon? What if, instead of spewing vitriol at actors and directors, and endangering the future of Star Wars movies altogether, they simply said, “Meh, I didn’t like it. I’ll stick with the storylines in the books I love”?
Because here’s the thing about all artistic pursuits – there’s what a creator says, what they think it means, and what an audience thinks it means. And there’s a gap between each one of those things. So Star Wars (or, again, whatever intellectual property you’re thinking about) is the legal property of Disney and Lucasfilm, but it belongs to you and me just as much as any other art belongs to those who experience and consume it.
If your Luke Skywalker is the one from the books, then Disney and Lucasfilm can’t stop that from being the case. It’s not that there was a long and illustrious list of books, etc., that continue the Star Wars story; there still is a long list of books that do that. So what if they’re no longer “canon”? You can still read and enjoy them. They can be your Star Wars universe.
So if you find yourself in the position where a beloved IP, or some aspect of it, has been retconned into something different than what you love, employ a “head canon.” Just let what you love be what you love, and don’t stress about the differences. Be open to new movies/comics/books/ideas/etc., as they may end up being things that you love as much as the alternate storylines that are now only “official” in your head canon.
And for God’s sake, don’t be horrible to people on social media just because you didn’t like the story…