No Retcon

I have discovered in myself a peculiar rigidity which appears to be growing with age (well, rigidity is supposed to increase with age, isn’t it?).  I am less and less tolerant of ret-conning.  To retcon, standing for retroactive continuity, is to write new material in an established work that reconfigures the history known to that point.  That deal with Dallas where Bobby appears in the shower and the whole prior season was only a dream? Ret-conning, big-time.

With reimaginings and retellings of all sorts of favorite old stories, ret-conning is inevitable.  Sometimes it’s even creative and useful.  But most often it’s a baseball bat used to whack the hapless audience over the head.  The first time I noticed ret-conning (before the term was invented, I think) was in the movie Young Sherlock Holmes.

It is perhaps being unfair to so slight a film as YSH to take out after it, but it just irritated me beyond the telling of it.  Okay, the premise is cute: what if Sherlock Holmes and Watson had met as teens?  And the casting was lovely–both the actors playing YSH and Watson looked like they might have grown up to be the Holmes and Watson of the Basil Rathbone films.  The movie (written by Chris Columbus–disclaimer: I think Chris Columbus is a flat-footed, endlessly literal writer with a fondness for easy outs) is slight but entertaining, except that it insists on closing every single loop in the Holmes canon, while simultaneously opening a loop so large you could drive a London cab through it.  The movie explains the deerstalker and caped greatcoat (which in fact are artifacts of the movies, not Conan Doyle’s stories or the Sidney Paget illustrations that went with them).  It explains Holmes’s meerschaum pipe.  It tells us where Moriarty comes from.  It lets us know where Holmes’s later apparent misogyny came from (ah, early, blighted love…Irene Adler might have been The Woman, but Elizabeth Waxflatter was The Girl).

It does not, however, explain why, when Holmes and Watson meet years later as adults, they don’t recognize each other.  Watson even says, at the end of the movie, that he’s sure their paths will cross again some day.  What then of one of the most famous, most delicious meetings in English popular literature?  Would Holmes start off with “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” and continue to run down everything he knows about Watson from the tiny cues that he, Sherlock Holmes, most observant of men, has picked up on, when he could simply say “Dude, remember me?  We were at Brompton Academy together.”

Contrast all this with Laurie R. King’s wonderful The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, in which the author pulls off something I would have thought impossible: she gives Holmes a female foil, a woman who later becomes his wife.  But King does this really smart thing: she starts out with Mary Russell, the woman in question, telling readers that the Holmes they know, the Holmes written about by “Uncle” John Watson, is not the man she knew.  He was younger (Watson made him older to give him more authority), and their relationship is different, and… We don’t lose any of the Holmes canon; it gets cast in a different light, but it’s not undercut entirely.  Or consider The Seven Percent Solution, which maintains the entire of the canon–but turns it on its head.  Moriarty is a cocaine-dream of Holmes’s, based on the math-tutor that had an affaire with Holmes’s mother.  The whole disappearing-after-Reichenbach Falls thing?  That’s Holmes, after solving a crime and going through rehab with Sigmund Freud, taking some time to get his head on straight.  And yet, as a secret history, it works beautifully precisely because it’s nestled within the canon.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I saw a film last week, the last of three (and, apparently the last one).  It was entertaining enough, but they did A Thing in the plot that ret-conned the plot of the first movie, and I walked out, not with the pleasant glow of having been entertained, but in a funk because the film-maker had undercut parts of the first movie I’d really liked.  And for what?  To neatly tie up a ribbon that really didn’t need tying. Was there no better way to secure a satisfying ending for this movie than to snarl up the story of the first?  It’s not like the film-maker left nifty, satisfying clues in Film One that would make sense after seeing Film Three.  It was just an idea someone had late in the game.

My husband points out that Han Solo really did shoot first.  Ret-conning has to be done gingerly, and with full appreciation that, just like going back in time to change the world, the smallest beat of a butterfly’s wings can knock a plot all to hell.

Posted in Film permalink

About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


No Retcon — 6 Comments

  1. I loved Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the original. I loved the abstracted, not-quite-there aspect of how the main character had to use the beginnings of sculpture to explain what he was sensing, what he needed to understand. In many ways, as an art student, I could point to that movie and say: “That’s what it’s like. It’s not quite like anything else, and you are constantly fumbling for tools and metaphors to explain what you’re seeing and feeling. You don’t mean to be separate from your family and friends – but sometimes you are somewhere else.”

    Then the “director’s cut” came out. Adding Angst, among other things. I found that much of what I loved about the original movie was not only no longer there — it had become unsatisfying. The film no longer resonated for me at all.

    You can’t find the original, or could not when I went looking for it. Only the director’s cut remains. I have no interest in the DC. He smashed the Story he created, thinking the next version was better. Maybe it is, for some. But for me, it became another forgettable SF movie with a couple of lingering, awesome mythic images.

    Retconing requires a delicate touch that some do not have.

  2. Apparently, years after he went back to E.T. and swapped out the scary rifles in the hands of government agents for child-friendlier walkie-talkies, Spielberg regretted it. Some ret-conning is done to render a work more acceptable for a given audience: if Han Solo shot first, how can he be a Hero to the Young? If the Gummit Men haz guns, won’t that scare the kids and the cattle?

    Except that children know that guns exist, and that even Good Guys do wrong things. Sigh.

  3. A really scuzzy retcon (so many examples in the comics that I cannot cite them) is properly ignored. We just avert our eyes from the train wreck and keep on going, by common consent. If the publishers are smart they too slide past, and instantly go back to the way everyone wants it to be. Wonder Woman doesn’t wear jeans and a black jacket any more, for instance.
    I submit that it is not a retcon, when a plot piece is neatly crafted and slipped into the existing canon. THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION is a perfect example. Another might be THE IDYLLS OF THE QUEEN, by Phyllis Ann Karr. She apparently went through MORTE D’ARTHUR and found all the little cracks in the story, into which she could carefully weave an epic about foster-brother/seneschal Kay.

  4. The retcon I most hated was Masterharper of Pern. In the first dragon book we have Lessa fumbling her way through a nasty political situation – she makes mistakes, she gets things wrong, she acts within the limits of her skills and her understanding. And she’s wonderful.

    Masterharper puts Robinton – the older male – into the background and shows him pulling the strings for every single damn event Which makes Lessa into a puppet and robs her of agency and I would have hated the gender dynamic even if it wasn’t a retcon.

    Masterharper of Pern is a book I wish I could unread.