Guest Post By Patrice Persad
I will admit that (in most cases) I favor fanon over canon. In fact, sometimes the enthusiasm that I feel for a particular original work when all I know is the plot or characters’ names is because I was dragged into canon by an engrossing fanfiction piece or fanon. Of course, I appreciate the original creator or author’s story and character development, but, with fanfiction and other transformative fanworks, or fanon—whether they are from fledgling fans to acafans—the presented opportunities promote something that canon may have been miserly with: hope.
In fanworks, a character can earn redemption, detain (or even hoodwink) Death, or be the awe-struck recipient of other miracles that are just not within his/her grasp in canon. The merging of fanon and canon to showcase an original work’s themes and story in wholeness can be illustrated in a miniseries adaptation of one of my favorite classic literature pieces, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, or The Parish Boy’s Progress. (Ironically enough, the novel Oliver Twist is one of the cases in which I prefer the text, canon, instead of all the media adaptations.) Although I have not seen or read every version of the classic, The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre (which is now, I believe, just called Masterpiece) in 1999 covered Dickens’ book in what I deem as the most comprehensive and best Oliver Twist media version [link: www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/ olivertwist/index.html]. In this three-part series, Mr. Alan Bleasdale, who shares the writing credits with Mr. Dickens and who is a longtime Dickens aficionado, pens the backstory of Oliver’s deceased parents, Mr. Edwin Leeford and Agnes Fleming, and their illicit affair. One could say that their history is pieced together and based from circumstantial evidence, such as hints, facts, documents, and personal effects, that Dickens includes in the book. This backstory, or prequel, also stars two shadowy characters from the novel: a younger Edward Leeford (who later sports the alias Monks amongst folks in the underworld), Oliver’s half brother, and Mrs. Elizabeth Leeford, Edwin’s wife. (The full name of Edwin’s wife is never disclosed by Dickens, so this selection of “Elizabeth” is another fruit of fanon, Bleasdale’s fabrication. Mrs. Leeford is bodily absent from Dickens’ narrative, yet Bleasdale bestows upon her dialogue—a voice.)
Now let me go back to connecting fanon (or fanworks) with hope. Before viewing the actors’ portrayal and dramatization of Mr. Bleasdale’s screenplay, I had never expressed sympathy for Dickens’ Monks. To me, he was a bad seed. (Imagine my disgrace when I later heard Bleasdale’s Edwin echoing my exact sentiments about his son.) In canon, Monks does all that is within his power to erase Oliver’s existence/identity in an episode of enmity for the child and allegiance to his dying mother to gain his inheritance. He eventually dies from an epileptic fit in jail after being incarcerated for reverting to vices. In Bleasdale’s pre-canonical depiction, Edward is a sickly, reluctant boy who is bullied into the vindictive Mrs. Leeford’s schemes, which include murdering Edwin and attempting the murder of the young pregnant Agnes Fleming. Under Mr. Brownlow’s, the lawyer’s, insistence in the miniseries’ third installment, Edward breaks down, along with having a seizure, in front of an audience that includes Oliver Twist and confesses what Mrs. Leeford, his mother, did and how his father’s apathy for Edward hurt Edward the most. Bleasdale’s ending for Monks, in its kindness, grants Edward peace in the New World with a family of his own making. I curiously began to think that perhaps Monks indeed had a conscience. I began to think that perhaps he is not an evil man, or at least not the incarnation of a very nefarious historical figure. Through Dickens’ words, I am introduced to Monks, the dark, unrepentant creature who makes deals with criminals. I only learn of his life story and identity near the novel’s conclusion. In contrast, I encounter Edward as Edward, a human—one scorned by his father on the basis of a medical condition—in the series’ first installment. I meet Edward first and see him as Edward even as he is addressed as Monks by Fagin and his associates in London.
Bleasdale’s screenplay, to my delight, allows me to entertain the significance of the family bond. From just one line in the miniseries’ script, I envision the family bond as a symbol for salvation—a symbol of hope. Edward, for the first time in his life, is not shunned by a member of his birth family or belittled on account of his affliction. Even after exposure to Edward’s fit and the man’s confession of ill will, Oliver clasps Edward’s hands in his pair and remarks guilelessly, “I’m sorry, sir. I wish none of this had ever happened.” Now Bleasdale does not explore the fraternal relationship between Oliver and Edward, two orphans, as it is only merely featured (perhaps this might inspire some fanfiction?), but fanon arranges the following premise that does not exist or is not hinted at in canon: the compassionate acknowledgement of the humanity in a person—Edward—whose health condition influences society to hastily label him/her as unacceptable or, from Dickens’ text, a “villain.”
Fanon is a balcony where the readers or viewers can catch a glimpse of some sort of goodness—of something possibly humane—in any character; it gives us hope that no one can truly be evil at heart or that evil is not natal. The, however meager, missing scenes witnessed from this balcony are proof enough of a character’s remorse, heartbreak, and commiseration. Bleasdale’s chase scene of Bill Sikes sets up an unlikely exchange between Fagin and Bill Sikes; this exchange distinctly reveals how much Sikes loved Nancy, his murder victim and accomplice in some of his undertakings. In fact, Oliver Twist in all its forms is represented, enacted, sung, and/or choreographed in which people, both men and women (males and females), of all classes, stations, and ages do bad and good deeds. There are female characters who do bad and good deeds; there are male characters who do bad and good deeds. All men are not inherently “bad,” or wicked. All women are not inherently “bad,” or wicked. Performing one bad deed does not stop one from being human. Doling out one wrong deed does not strictly identify anyone as diabolically evil (perhaps with the tentative exception of Bill Sikes or Bleasdale’s Mrs. Leeford). This is what makes Dickens’ world, his story, timeless. The Nancys still die after refusing aid from the Mr. Brownlows and Rose Maylies. The Bill Sikeses still are murderers. But at least the Oliver Twists still remain kind-hearted and optimistic when careening into misfortunes and misadventures. In canon and fanon, I suppose that this is all I can ask for. No, it is all I can hope for.