Trying to Sing Along: The Cognitive Dissonance of Adaptation

I remember the first time I went to church after Pope Benedict XVI introduced a new translation of the Mass. I come from a family of Christmas-and-Easter Catholics, so I’m rarely in church more than twice a year, but I’ve always enjoyed those rare visits – not for the religion, about which I’m a bit ambivalent, but for the ceremony. I loved spending part of my holiday in the same beautiful church I’d known my whole life, surrounded by the same people, all of us standing and sitting and kneeling like synchronized swimmers, reciting the same prayers and singing the same songs, off-key voices floating collectively to the painted ceiling.

Then, in 2011, I came to that same church, surrounded by those same people, but when the priest said “Peace be with you,” and I responded “And also with you” with Pavlovian precision, the crowd drowned out my voice with the words “And also with your spirit.”

I was disoriented. I scrambled for a missalette to teach me the new words. But as I stumbled along through the rest of the Mass, face buried in that book, I couldn’t shake a feeling of betrayal. The changes to the language were largely superficial, the meaning remaining intact, but I could no longer follow along with the same comfortable ease.

Cut to 2012. Two decades after its original release, one of my favorite movie musicals, Newsies, came to Broadway. While I was out in Wisconsin, my closest friends, also Newsies fans, had seen the production’s premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and loved it. I was eager to see the Broadway version upon my next New York visit. But when those same friends sent me the cast recording and I loaded it onto my iPod, that same feeling of disoriented betrayal descended. I enjoyed the new songs, added for the production, but when I tried to sing along to the songs I knew by heart, the words didn’t match up. “And the old will fall / and the young stand tall” in “The World Will Know” became “And the old will weep / and go back to sleep.” “Hey, bummers, we got work to do” near the beginning of “Carrying the Banner” became “Hey, look, it’s bath time at the zoo.” (Seriously?) I no longer knew everything there was to know about Newsies, and a whole generation of new fans already knew these songs, and this storyline, better than the original. My knowledge was obsolete, the comfort of familiarity no longer assured.

When I reflected on these two experiences, disparate as they may be, I realized that I’d been a bit of a hypocrite. I’d always been tempted to roll my eyes at those who complained about movie versions that didn’t line up with the comics, or new storylines that retconned character histories. “DC isn’t coming to your house to rip up your copies of Watchmen!,” I thought, when fans wailed about the publication of Before Watchmen. “Just ignore the Star Wars prequels and rewatch the original trilogy!” I reasoned. The initial material would always exist, and no one was forcing fans to buy the new stuff. Why couldn’t these people see that?

But what I failed to take into account, and what I ran headlong into when I encountered changes to Newsies and the Catholic Mass, is the joy and security inherent in the ability to “sing along.” In most cases, that “singing,” or recitation, isn’t as literal as it is in my examples, but it’s there all the same, a current running under the surface of our nerdy obsessions. We get a thrill from knowing that we belong, from being able to “get” the inside jokes, catch the references and callbacks to previous canon. More than that, we cling to the security blanket of certain facts that we can take for granted, the guarantees implied by the knowledge we’ve acquired.

This combination of recognition and foreknowledge allows us to retain our sense of self and our identity as fans, and it serves as the background radiation of our fannishness. We may not know what villain the X-Men are going to fight next or which of them are going to hook up with each other, but if they go to Muir Island, we know they’re likely to encounter Moira MacTaggert, Scottish-born geneticist. So when we sit down to watch, say, X-Men First Class, and we meet Moira MacTaggert, American-born FBI agent, we’re set off-kilter – and while the uninitiated among us are able to roll with that information without pause, the preexisting fans become the outsiders, the viewers left confused and struggling to sort through their cognitive dissonance. It’s not that we want to exclude anyone from the “club” of our fannish knowledge – we just don’t want to feel like we’re the ones who are excluded.

Notably, if the two versions of a property are sufficiently different – like, say, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and CBS’s Elementary – we’ll expect the big changes, and go in with a different set of expectations. That’s how I felt about the brand-new Newsies songs. But when the versions are similar enough for us to expect our knowledge to be useful, for us to assume that the “lyrics” will be the same, the differences catch us by surprise, and a frustrating sense of disorientation sets in.

I’m not saying that some fans don’t react poorly to adaptations and new canon for problematic reasons. Some rail against change because they resent the addition of racial, sexual, and gender diversity to old properties, resisting progress wherever they can. Others enjoy being snobby gatekeepers about their fandoms and resent the waves of new fans that adaptations and sequels inevitably create. Furthermore, plenty of fans have perfectly valid reasons to critique adaptations on artistic or political grounds, regardless of their fannish feelings about the property.

I’d argue, though, that a large number of fans might trace their dissatisfaction and antipathy toward certain adaptations to the disorientation I’ve described – the abrupt elimination of their expected ability to “sing along” without stumbling over the words. And while these feelings don’t justify lashing out at others or engaging in other destructive behavior, I think it’s worth taking a look at why these feelings, when expressed non-destructively, are a very human reaction to a violation of the comfort fannishness and tradition unconsciously provide. We may not be able to control those feelings, but, much like the fannish properties themselves, there’s comfort to be found in their recognition – and their admission.

I think we all feel the pressure – I certainly do – to like or dislike things for the “right” reasons. We want to feel intelligent and rational, to draw a line between ourselves and “those fans.” But in that attempt at rationality, we frequently bend over backwards trying to justify intellectually reactions that are primarily emotional. And in most cases, those emotions, and the decisions we make as a result, aren’t a huge problem, even if we aren’t proud of them. I’ll probably never see the Newsies musical, no matter how much I love the film, because I cherish the emotional and social security that being able to “sing along” provides. Maybe you’ll never be able to watch a Thor movie, or read comics set in Marvel’s Ultimate universe, for much the same reason. And maybe that’s ok.

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