The Relevance of Fan Theories: Interpretations vs. Intentions

theory
What the majority of fan theories look like, in using insane assumptions as their central concept.

We all love, at some primitive level, to be told that we are wrong and, in turn, be manipulated into believing something completely different to what we did before. Simply look at the number of conspiracy theories still floating around the internet several years after the event (e.g. the Apollo 11 moon landing footage was faked). Whether it is a dangerous obsession or a brief curiosity, we all love to get our minds blown. This is exemplified by the plethora of fan theories about our favourite movies, television shows and so on, which force you to spend several hours in introspective pondering about your interpretations about a certain film or television series. But, at what point can a fan theory be considered an essential part or at least a potential aspect of a film or televisual text’s understanding? Is the text’s meaning within the intentions of its creator or the meanings imposed on it by the ‘interpretative community’ of film-lovers which surrounds us? Is there a point where we just have to say “It is just a movie!”? Overall, fan theories are not just stories made up by crack-pots any more (well, some are), but legitimate interpretations which should be taken seriously.

Everything is derivative of something else
Everything is derivative of something else

The catalyst for this piece was a theory posited by Jon Negroni, called ‘The Pixar Theory’, which suggests that all of the films created by Pixar Animation Studios were within the same ‘universe’ and each film is placed along a timeline. It is a very interesting read for anyone who loves the Pixar films. While it is hard to regard its hypothesis as irrefutable, it does demand that a question be asked: Where does a film’s meaning come from? In the seminal essay ‘What is an Author?’ by Michel Foucault, he essentially questions the role of the author in the production of a “work”, stating that the author is only the starting point or entrance into a particular discourse or discussion. Therefore, it is becoming more and more obvious that the intentions or portrayed ‘meaning’ should be challenged, or at least, periodically questioned.

It is difficult, however, to separate a work from its creator, especially since laws concerning intellectual property have been created. The very idea of art must come from some sort of origin, whether it be a single person or a collective. However, it is also pertinent to note that art can come from several different places at once, whether these be the influences which the creator drew on, the social, political or cultural dynamics of the time it was created and so on. Therefore, it may be posited that no piece of art is a creation of its “author” alone, but rather an infinite amount of influences. One can see a work as the work of a specific person, but, in doing so, subconsciously acknowledges that in terms of many other things, i.e. whether the author is a man or a woman, where they come from, what religion they ascribe themselves to, et cetera. Nevertheless, in any reading of a text, it is impossible to completely discount the intentions of the author.

Poor Cameron...
Poor Cameron…

However, some fan theories often do completely reject the author’s intended meaning and even altering one’s perception of a film forever. For example, a fan of the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off believes that the entire film is a manifestation of the shy Cameron’s imagination as he has no friends and the whole film is a subconscious push to get him to face up to his fears. Ultimately, this is a much more fulfilling interpretation to the film, which only adds to the message of living life to the full while you can. However, one could not interpret the film as such, if it was taken as a static text. Instead, as an interpretive community, we consciously search for extra “meanings” which are not intrinsically within the text. This can either help one or hinder one’s appreciation of a film or other text.

The process of creating one’s own unique theory about a text can allow for an increased respect for it, in that, in its deconstruction, those who consume these theories, view the text in a different light and create a new fan base for a text. In turn, it engenders the necessary view that a film text should not be viewed once and discarded, but, instead, a film should be constantly re-considered under different theories, environments and ideologies throughout one’s life. These theories can also be seen as a paratext (an ancillary product which originates from a text, while also directing one back to that original text). Unlike fan-fiction or creepypastas, a fan theory should always support its central concept with an explicit part of the film text. A good example of this is a theory that in Pulp Fiction (1994), the briefcase which Vincent and Jules holds Marcellus Wallace’s soul, which he sold to the devil, as is denoted by the Band-Aid on the back of his head. Therefore, a fan theory should only be taken into account into one’s understanding of a film if it uses something directly from the visuals or dialogue of the film in its central concept.

However, to accept the use of fan theories in mainstream film criticism would suggest that no films be taken at face value and that everything manifested on screen should be doubted. This would lead to detrimental effects on how we value the film medium. Ultimately, although film is a medium of art, it should first aim to entertain. In allowing film theories to be accepted as essential elements of a film’s understanding, it would make every viewing a solely active experience. While there are texts which essentially force one to speculate about its meaning (e.g. most of David Lynch’s works, most of Charlie Kaufman’s works), the majority of popular films out at the moment are just movies with the intention of entertaining and have only one meaning. To theorise about the deeper meaning of a romantic comedy would be pointless, in that its intention is to entertain. Therefore, there should be a limited acceptance of interpretations in how a film text is valued, so that those film texts which, seemingly demand to be re-evaluated under different interpretations are valued under this light. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge the fact that interpretation is moving from an isolated experience to one where a film’s understanding is a collective and constantly growing thing.

What if fan theories are just written by studios to make us constantly re-watch their movies?
What if fan theories are just written by studios to make us constantly re-watch their movies?

With the growing popularity of sites like reddit and Twitter, it is evident that the often insular experience of sitting down and watching a movie at home by yourself is becoming more and more irrelevant. This is the age where the expression of one’s opinion is central to a film’s commercial and critical success, in that the maintenance of hype surrounding a film will ensure its long-term life both as a product and a work of art. As such, the multitudinous interpretations of a film text are what imbues it with its value; not intrinsically, but as an additional element. It is inevitable with the growth of popular response to film that it will become a medium where its evaluation is not exclusive to professional critics. For example, the popular film website Rotten Tomatoes shows both the rating of professional critics and casual watchers. Therefore, it is not possible to completely discredit the several interpretations, simply because they take up the majority of the voices in the interpretative community.

Nevertheless, there has to be a point where a movie is just a movie, right? The answer to this question is dependent on several factors, most of which are highly subjective. These vary from whether one sees film as a reflection of life or as a vehicle for escaping one’s life, as a product of entertainment or a work of art, among many other things. However, as posited by Doug Walker (a.k.a. the ‘Nostalgia Critic’) within a video titled ‘When is a Movie Just a Movie?’, how one should value all depends on whether or not you enjoy it. Therefore, if creating insane theories or looking through film theories gives you pleasure or enhances your enjoyment of a film text, then you should do so. However, there are also times where this passion can go too far. This can be seen in the impact of the 1999 film Fight Club, where several real-life “fight clubs” were founded, as well as attempts at terrorism being made, with the express intention of imitating the actions of “Project Mayhem” within the film. In one case in Australia, a fight that broke out even led to a person’s death. While this was obviously not intentional, it discredits the argument that film is just a way of escaping reality. While some films have indelibly changed the way we see life, it should not be the only thing which directly dictates what we do. There are an infinite amount of considerations which are necessary in our day-to-day decisions and actions (e.g. the law, moral principles, familial obligations and personal intuitions). When a film solely dictates who we are (say, if one was to believe he/she was a character from a movie) or what we do, then our interpretations of what is essentially fiction goes too far.

Take it easy, there, Bert
Take it easy, there, Bert

As we have seen, fan theories are undoubtedly a massive part of who we are as individuals and as an ‘interpretative community’ and in saying that, they could never be deemed as completely ‘irrelevant’. Regardless of how crazy they may seem or how many inconsistencies may be found, they are a necessary part of how we understand a film. However, a necessary distinction to make is that they should not directly influence how you view a film. To be made aware of a specific theory concerning a film you wish to see would impact on one’s viewing experience. While it is realistically impossible to keep all theories out from one’s initial interpretation, one’s first watching confrontation should be as free as possible from outside influences. At its most basic, all art, including a film is experienced in order to benefit ourselves and in fulfilling that purpose, different interpretations should add or shape your own understanding of a text. Therefore, a fan theory or some academic theories should be naturally applied to your own understanding or, at the very least, be seen as one of the many parts of a text’s interpretative history, given no more weight than what rating a film critic gave it. Art is a subjective experience and, while this is never unsullied by several different factors of the viewer, fan theories should be valued as much as the viewer wishes.

However, in terms of the wider community, it is inevitable that fan theories will grow in their popularity and if so, there needs to be some serious re-consideration of what a meaning of a film text consists of. While some theories are just fun postulation, others, like the Pixar Theory use a considerable amount of work and actual evidence within the films to support its argument. While we can conclude that there is no way to completely ignore the intentions of the author, there is no way to definitively decide whether a fan theory may have meaning. This is based on the theory that no piece of art can have one meaning, because every person places their own filter of cultural, social and political beliefs on their own interpretation. Therefore, the collective meaning is constantly changing, as well as dependent on the religious, political or social beliefs of different interpretative groups. For instance, while Monty Python’s Life of Brian may be seen as a funny, but not necessarily harmful, satire of religion/hysteria in a liberal nation (e.g. Australia), but seen by others to be detrimental to the sanctity of religion in conservative religious communities.  However, there should not be an active search for connections where there may not be. This would diverge into the territory of ‘conspiracy’. A theory should only be suggested if it came as a natural part of the viewing process. While it may be interesting to see if a certain kids show has hidden pro-communism messages, it is just unnecessary assumptions. Perhaps, they are just fun to think about and share around our friends and do not need to be seen as a better or worse interpretation of a film text. It would appear unfair to assume a fan theory as the only meaning that a text can have. Yet, as long as there is a considerable amount of reasonable evidence, with all things taken into account, within a certain theory, it is reasonable to conclude that, regardless of who wrote the hypothesis, it should be seen as a possible ‘meaning’ of a film text, and thus, the film should be re-evaluated against this theory.

So, have fun looking at all the crazy fan theories out there at the moment and the amount of new ones conjured every day, but just remember to not assume what you see as fact. Most are just extremely imaginative and show the passion which films and movies stirs in our hearts. As said by Albert Einstein, “The truth of a theory is in your mind, not in your eyes.”

Wanted for murder by drowning, juicing, burning and stretching.  Apparently, adults just want to make children's movies more morbid
Wanted for murder by drowning, juicing, burning and stretching. Apparently, adults just want to make children’s movies more morbid

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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My name is Matthew Sims and I am a third-year journalism student at Monash University in Victoria, Australia. I am passionate about film, television, gaming, literature.

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33 Comments

  1. I get so excited about these.

  2. Great article – I love these alternate theories for tv and films, some of them are hilarious and others are sort of genius.

  3. Tbooker
    0

    Very cool post. A good fan theory is always worth a giggle and they’re always fun to speculate on.

  4. catwyatt

    I loved this article and I thought you made many excellent points. However, I would have to disagree with one point: “…the majority of popular films out at the moment are just movies with the intention of entertaining and have only one meaning. To theorise about the deeper meaning of a romantic comedy would be pointless, in that its intention is to entertain.” I do believe that if you approached Nick Cassavetes or Richard Curtis, or any other person in the industry with a habit of making romantic comedies, and told them this, they might have a bone to pick with you. The genre of the film does not necessarily decide its deepness of meaning. In fact, to say any film was created with only one meaning in mind is, I think, jumping the gun. Overall, though, I thought the article was quite thought-provoking.

    • Matthew Sims

      I did not mean to generalise, and I am, in no way, well-versed in the world of romantic comedies. I think I was addressing films like New Year’s Day, The Holiday, etc. I also firmly agree with your last point, and I apologise for generalising. All I meant to convey that some films are meant to be analysed and speculated upon and some are just meant to be enjoyed for what they are, and seem to have no hidden meaning. Anyway, thank you very much for commenting.

    • Just to play devil’s advocate…

      In defense of Mathew I think that he is attempting to make a valuable distinction between two different modes of reception: interpretation and entertainment.

      Admittedly, Matthew’s claim is false but his categories are valid. There is a mode of reception common to art films and mysteries which finds pleasure in association, interpretation, and clarifying obscurity.

      Likewise there exists a mode of reception common to romantic comedies, horror films, and thrillers which engages the body, stimulating thrills, chills, and arousal in the bodies of viewers.

      I think that the categories need to be thought through in more details; but I think it is fair to assert that they are distinct viewing experiences: bodily arousal (thrills, chills, and heartache) vs. cognitive arousal (interpreting, associating, and theorizing).

  5. Nice write-up (appreciate the photo captions too). Do you have a take on the difference between fan interpretations/intentions as they relate to films versus TV shows? With a show like True Detective (or even Lost before it), where its popularity is probably creditable to the huge swarm of fan participation between weekly episodes, I think fan interpretations influence creator intentions. But a film only comes out once, and doesn’t have a chance to have its creator’s (or creators’) intentions influenced. What sort of text is a mini-series like True Detective, and how do we gauge its artistic value in reference to TV before it, TV that doesn’t take weeks off (a la House of Cards), one-off films, or even films in a series?

    • Matthew Sims

      I like your point, and I definitely wanted to touch on it within this article, but since I had to categorise it into film, I tried to stick to that. But, I would have to say that television definitely fosters and encourages constant speculation. While I watched True Detective after its initial run, I can see how speculation would have been rife between each episode. As to how that influences the way a show would go, it depends whether there is some sort of pre-meditated narrative. While I have not seen much of ‘Lost’, there would have to be at least some awareness of where the story was going to go. Still, I’m sure that it influenced the way it went, if people told the executives about where they wanted the show to go or saw it going. However, as there are more and more anthology series coming out (e.g. True Detective, Fargo, etc.), there is no doubt that theories will influence the way things will go. However, I think that the basic structure of the author’s intentions will be hard to move. For example, the creators of How I Met Your Mother probably knew the backlash they were going to receive from the ending, but aired it anyway. However, the fact that they are releasing an alternate ending probably tells us otherwise.

      As for what sort of text is True Detective, looking only at one season, it sort of forces you to appreciate it afterwards as a full story. However, the way that it is broken up into series and leaves you guessing for the majority of it, or at least in suspense. This is where I see TV heading down, rather than massive series which people get invested in, and may seem too prolonged, instead we will get shorter stories, told in a similar structure of introduction, problem arises, climax, resolution. Therefore, it is sort of like a prolonged film. However, I really do not think it is in my power to answer your last question fully.

      In short, fan theories are going to have an increasing impact on how television series/shows are made and maintained. Thank you for commenting.

  6. Monique

    Fantastic topic. Ever since The X-Files, the internet has provided a bridge between tv show creators and fans. I think we’re trending towards a new media platform where fan interaction is an integral part of the art experience, and I’m curious to see what that platform looks like.

    My personal favorite theory is about the James Bond franchise, and suggests that “James Bond” is a designation alias, just like “007”. Whatever the agent’s name before that, his name becomes James Bond when he’s promoted. This means that all the Bonds we know are “real” within the canon. This theory was partially contradicted by Skyfall, but I still like it.

    • Matthew Sims

      Thank you. Television is definitely a more open way for discussion, than films. While interpretation of film does help your appreciation of a film text, speculation on a televisual text can shape your understanding while you are watching it and I think this is a really interesting topic to think about. Television is definitely a more community-based art form, and because of that, constant re-evaluation should be encouraged among its fans.

      I also love the “007” theory.

  7. Elaina Chastain

    Great topic to explore. We’ve all had those theories that about certain shows or movies that literally NO ONE agrees with. I think that as long as your theory satisfies you, then who cares what others think 😛 Great work!

  8. Awesome publications and style of article writing.

  9. I think it would be interesting to examine how criticism coming out of academia differs from fan theories. Criticism often seems to be this somewhat removed (at least overtly) approach to the work. Often times you have the critic pushing their world views through their interpretation, but, in the end, published literary (etc.) criticism tends to be more a dry examination of the mode or history of the work. From this, often times an interpretation is extracted that applies to more than just the work in question.

    In comparison, fan theories are kind of bizarre. There’s a sort of unrestrained enthusiasm to them and, far more than criticism, they’re interacting with the work. The fan theories that try to completely change the meaning of a piece seem to be an exercise performed by the theorist to further immerse themselves in the work– to extend the world of the work into reality. I feel like the tendency of fan theories to openly operate in such a personal sphere often leads to them being discredited as worthwhile interpretations. You make the point that “as long as there is a considerable amount of reasonable evidence… regardless of who wrote the hypothesis, it should be seen as a possible ‘meaning’ of a film text.” This perception of fan theories as ‘too’ emotional or simply personal fantasies seems to be a major stumbling block in regarding a fan theory “as a possible ‘meaning’ of a film text.” So, I don’t know. Maybe this reveals an issue with the structures of criticism. Or maybe fan theories are just a completely different way of interacting with a work and unrelated to criticism.

    • Matthew Sims

      Criticism may be in danger because of this objective, distant view which, while appealing as a general recommendation does not appeal to the exaggerated world of the internet. You can already see criticism combining with fandom with sites like That Guy with the Glasses, or Youtube channels like Jeremy Jahns.

      Completely support your points in the second paragraph. Nothing should really be discredited, as long as there is enough evidence, or a great deal of popular support. Professional critics, in their distant view, do force themselves to see it as a product at times, and I think this is where the magic of movies is forgotten, that it is a highly personal thing, it is meant to satisfy the individual, rather than some sort of objective aesthetic or conventional standards. Anyway, I think this is a really interesting road which film or televisual theory should head down soon. I’m not saying we should reinvent the wheel, professional film criticism has worked for a long time for categorising people into interpretative communities, but the more emotionally driven fandom should not be brushed off as fluff, either.

  10. You make excellent points about author intentionality. I’m trying to remember which school of critical theory believes that the author’s intentions are ultimately unknowable… do you know?

    Also, would you say a fan theory ever actually changed your perception of a movie? For me, fan theories always seems somewhat removed from the experience. They can make the work richer or more detailed but don’t change anything.

    • Matthew Sims

      Maybe Reader Response (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reader_Response)??

      I have really only just discovered them, so I have not really seen any films or television shows under a new light. However, I would have to say that I would be very hard-pressed to accept any of them as an overriding meaning, because my interpretation is so ingrained in my enjoyment of a film. Still, I would be completely open to analyse and criticise a film based on a certain theory, certainly.

      Thank you for commenting.

    • Sounds like New Criticism to me (Wimsatt and Beardsley in “The Intentional Fallacy”). All that matters in this school of thought is the artifact itself – the author relinquishes control once it is placed in public. Neat stuff

  11. With sites like Cracked.com and their Youtube channel, theories like these are becoming even more popular i think. It used to be just something you did to impress your friends, telling them that Bowser is the real good guy in the world of Mario Bros. while Mario is kind of a jerk, and than giving them evidence to back it up, just as a topic of conversation. Now it has evolved into interpreting film, games, and other media searching for meaning in its darkest confines. As a writer and someone who has taken quite a few literature courses and read many a classic novel, I would say that interpretation is identical to movies and games as it is to Literature. To some the Robert Frost Poem “stopping by woods on a snowy evening” sounds like a poem about the beauty of winter, whereas it is taught in universities to be a death poem about a man thinking of his own death. I think art is what you want it to be, and means what you make it mean, and that is where these theories come from. If you want to you can find conspiracy and hidden meaning in anything, even if was never there, so long as you look hard enough for it.

  12. Jessica Pedersen

    “Nevertheless, there has to be a point where a movie is just a movie, right? The answer to this question is dependent on several factors, most of which are highly subjective. These vary from whether one sees film as a reflection of life or as a vehicle for escaping one’s life, as a product of entertainment or a work of art, among many other things.”

    I think the distinction between viewing a film as a “reflection of life” or as “vehicle for escape” is key when deciding the place of fan theories. Once you decide what exactly it is you’re trying to get from a film, then you can start placing these theories within that context. Just like you said, if combing through these theories helps you reflect or escape more, and if it is something you enjoy, then it should be done. If not, then it doesn’t seem necessary.

    Ultimately I agree completely with what you’re saying. Fan theories can be fun, but it doesn’t necessarily add anything to the “canon” of a film. Very interesting article.

    • Matthew Sims

      It should definitely be dependent on a specific context. But, I do think that there should be a new potential for a fan theory to add something to a film’s canon. Thank you for commenting.

  13. McCaggers

    This is great! So many fan theories out there and it can be hard to discern out the canon sometimes, particularly if you’re looking up fan art or something. I really liked how you summed up the article, “Most are just extremely imaginative and show the passion which films and movies stirs in our hearts.” Well said!

  14. Mette Marie Kowalski

    One of the best articles I have read here so far! I never heard of the Pixar Theory before and it actually sounds very interesting and even plausible. I agree that the theory shouldn’t become a conspiracy or something that is “a matter of fact” for the audience, but it’s interesting to dabble with ideas and look at how films could be connected etc. As for the “big” Hollywood, yes, there’s not much you can interpret into these films… although I think some have become deeper and more open for interpretation. Nothing immediately springs to mind but I do think that some bigger films could be a source of inspiration for fan theories.

  15. Alice Bishop

    I agree that fans search for deeper meanings in a number of texts but one thing that annoys me, especially as a film student, is academics applying their own pretentious interpretations to films.

    It reminds me of lectures given by poets when I was in high school. When people made suggestions they would often respond with something along the lines of “That’s a really great interpretation, I hadn’t thought of that”. For me, if the creator has not even vaguely considered an element of the subtext then it just doesn’t exist.

    That being said, fan theories can be fascinating and very entertaining to read. Great article 🙂 I particularly like how you talked about film as a medium. Lynch is one of my favourite directors and it frustrates me when people try desperately to make sense of everything he presents on-screen. When he’s interviewed he won’t just accept pretentious theories, he simply doesn’t say what the meaning is.

    As nothing can ever be fully understood I think films can be enjoyed on an aesthetic level, regardless of people’s interpretations 🙂

    • Matthew Sims

      Agree with everything you say, Alice, and will partially accept that a subtext does not exist if the author has not considered it. However, this can only be if one looks at it as a creation of one person or one group of people. While I see where you are coming from, art is becoming a lot more of a collective experience and its interpretations should reflect that.

      Films such as those from Lynch or others like Synecdoche, New York demand one to interpret it (even on a purely subconscious level), if one is to see it as more as an aesthetic experience. Regardless if one actively tries to not interpret it, it is inevitable simply by the act of watching that one will have some opinion of what is happening in front of oneself.

      Anyway, thank you for commenting!

  16. Aaron Hatch

    I think the fan theories I have grown sick of recently are the ones stating it was either all a dream, or the person was in a coma the whole time. It is really over used, and it is not really effective because you can theoretical apply it to any film or TV show.

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