by Leigh Perry / Toni L.P. Kelner
Ever run into a classic car collector, or just somebody who has an old car they love? They keep those vehicles running by replacing broken parts as the year go by, and after a while, I have to wonder if it's the same car. How much can you replace without ending up with a whole new car?
Sometimes I ask that same question about fictional characters.
Don't get me wrong. I applaud character growth throughout a character's adventures. I love the way Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody and Vicky Bliss changed over the years, and I wanted Harry Potter to learn from his adventures and mistakes, and watching Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott progress has been an absolute joy. On TV, the character arcs in Star Trek: the Next Generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Leverage, and Monk are so much fun. But each of those characters stayed entirely consistent with their previous incarnation. In fact, later books are made richer by knowing where character traits come from. For instance, I know that Vicky Bliss in Night Train to Memphis is claustrophobic because of events in Borrower of the Night. I know where Jean-Luc Picard learned to play that little flute, and why a parasol is so important to Buffy. Despite the changes, they were still the same cars.
I'm happy with even radical reinvention of characters, as in the modernization of Sherlock Homes and Doctor Watson in Sherlock and Elementary. I enjoy Treasure Island even when it's been morphed into Treasure Planet or Muppet Treasure Island. I love the original Oz novels, the 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz, and Wicked. I'm even very fond of a fairly violent version of the Land of Oz in the comic The Oz Squad. In each of these cases, it seemed to me that the new editions kept the heart of the characters even as the trappings changed. Sherlock and Watson still team up to solve crimes. Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver still have their complex relationship. Dorothy still loves her companions. To me, they were the same cars.
But now there's the new twist that's been made to comic book hero Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, where it turns out he was a Nazi-sympathizing part of evil organization Hydra all along. No matter that he slugged Hitler in his very first appearance, that he'd gone up against the government when he thought it betrayed the spirit of America, that he'd been a bona fide hero both before and after a stint of suspended animation. Nope, now we're supposed to accept him as a villain. As far as I'm concerned, this is a whole new car and one I do not want to drive.
Of course, everybody's line in the sand is different. Maybe you love the L. Frank Baum novels and not the MGM musical, or maybe you only like the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So tell me: when does an character become something new?