Thinking on Transmedia: accretive adaptation and narrative resonance

By | May 28, 2009

Recently, in preparation for an upcoming talk we’re giving at Turner Networks, my colleague Ana Domb and I were talking about how slippery the term “transmedia” has become. More and more, it seems to be used to talk about a range of different practices, from ARGs to adaptations, world-building to merchandising. While I do not advocate any set of hard and fast rules for what “counts” as transmedia and what doesn’t, being able to make clear (if not absolute) distinctions between these forms is precisely what makes them useful as categories.

So I wanted to start thinking through some of these issues here, perhaps in a loosely organized series, about some of the different aspects of how transmedia is used, talked about, and theorized. I wanted to take some rough first stabs at getting down some of things clanking around my head, more a documentation of the thinking process than the end result of clear thought.

When we began talking about transmedia, it was defined thus:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” (Henry Jenkins, Transmedia Storytelling 101)

One of the classic examples the Matrix franchise, which told the story across the films, video games, animation, online, and so on, often to the detriment of those in the film-viewing audience who were just engaging with one of these channels, since they missed crucial parts of the narrative and world development.

But as the form becomes more popularized, we are beginning to see more “loose” uses of transmedia tactics, uses that aren’t quite fully integrated transmedia narratives, but nor are they merely replications of a story in a different format or merchandise extensions.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two general hybrid categories: accretive adaptations and narrative resonance.

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Accretive Adaptations is a term I made up just now because I like alliteration I use to refer to adaptations or versions that are meant to be seen in conjunction with or as additions to previous versions, rather than stand in place of them. As such, they often add additional narrative development or reframe the existing narrative in various ways that expand rather than simply repeat the story. Anime franchises are a great example of this, wherein every version of the text — from the original manga, to the anime, to live action stage and screen productions — are created with the knowledge that significant portions of the audience are familiar with previous versions. For instance, because a majority of anime is based off of manga (comics), which produces stories slower than anime episodes, they often include “filler arcs” or storylines that aren’t part of the central narrative to stall for time as manga artists generate more content to be adapted into the anime. Thus, though an anime series is, strictly speaking, an adaptation of a manga, it includes expansions in the story as well. The most popular animes also have live-action stage musicals produces, where the story is retold as musical theater. Again, these retell the main story, but include additional interactions between the characters that potentially deepen character development or bring out aspects of character relationships that are not developed in the original texts.

Narrative Resonance are what I think of as story expansions that don’t fit as part of the story world, but “resonate” with it. In other words, though they are not part of the narrative, they draw their meaning from being related to it. One example is the recent Samsung “Anycall Bodyguard” campaign, which featured a 5+ minute musical drama with a secondary couple from a popular TV drama. The fictional couple were highly popular with fans, but were not the main focus of the show, so Samsung decided to take advantage of the fact that many fans wanted to see more development with the pair. Their musical drama advertisement generated a lot of interest and buzz because of its use of the characters and its development of their storyline, even though it has no place within the real story. It is also like an alternate universe story, a possible scenario or piece of fanfiction, that is adjacent to and resonates with the original, even though it isn’t directly a part of it.

These are just two ambiguous transmedia-adjascent hybrid forms that come off the top of my head, especially in my work in Asian popular media. I’m sure there are countless more forms and examples in media from all over the world.

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