'The Legend of Mi Yue’ dispute raises questions about adaptations

2015-12-01 06:51:42 GMT2015-12-01 14:51:42(Beijing Time)  Global Times
(Photo Source: Xinhuanet/ent)(Photo Source: Xinhuanet/ent)

One of the most anticipated TV series of the year, The Legend of Mi Yue, finally debuted Monday. Directed by Zheng Xiaolong and with a cast led by Sun Li, the series is similar to the duo's previous hit show The Legend of Zhen Huan. Although the crew behind the new series is nearly identical to that of Zhen Huan, both the director and the leading actress have emphasized that the new story would be very different from the previous show. No matter what, one thing is sure to be the same, the marketing team is trying to create another commercial success story.

However, not everything around the show has been positive.

On November 11, Jiang Shengnan, a writer hired by the studio to adapt her unfinished novel into the series, blasted the studio on Sina Weibo for not recognizing her contributions to the show.

The dispute

In an article published on Friday, Mi Yue producer Cao Ping outlined how the studio and Jiang began working with each other.

According to Cao, Jiang had published a 7,000-character section of The Legend of Mi Yue online in 2009. Coming across the section, in 2012 Cao asked Jiang to work on adapting her work into a TV series. In August of 2012, Jiang signed a contract with the studio to write scripts for the show, as well as promise not to publish her novel before the TV series aired. In March of 2014, Jiang handed in scripts for 53 episodes and later the show was shot from September 2014 to January 2015.

While things seem clear cut at this point, things get complicated because Jiang was not the only screenwriter for the TV series. The studio also hired Wang Xiaoping, the wife of the show's director, to rewrite Jiang's scripts. In promotion materials for the TV series released in January, Wang was credited as the head screenwriter for the show, while Jiang was listed as original scriptwriter. Seeing her demotion, Jiang decided to move ahead and publish her novel through a publishing house in August.

Viewing Jiang's decision as violating her contract, the studio moved to take Jiang to court.

On November 24, the Beijing Chaoyang District Court published its decision on its official Sina Weibo account. According to the decision Jiang was found to be in violation of her contract.

While this may be seen as a blow against Jiang, She Huimin, chief editor of the Economic Daily, pointed out on her social media account that this judgment actually helps Jiang.

"First, the decision recognizes Jiang as the author of the novel and as a scriptwriter for the 53-episode TV series... Second, it rejects the studio's request for Jiang to apologize, which means Jiang is not ethically wrong."

While the decision seems to recognize Jiang's contributions to the show, Wang has stated on several occasions that the show is not based on Jiang's novel, because at the time the scripts were being written the novel had not yet been finished.

In January, Wang posted an article on Sina Weibo describing the process by which online stories are turned into a screenplay.

"If an author is publishing a novel online but the novel is not yet finished, could a TV or movie studio decide they liked the story and want to use it to create a screenplay? Certainly. This is what film companies usually do: They hire the author as an original screenwriter to create an [original] script," Wang wrote, taking the stance that since Jiang was hired to write new scripts that the show should not be seen as an adaptation of the novel.

Questionable contracts

Currently Jiang has taken the studio to court in order to determine to whom the copyrights for the show's story and characters should go. Considering all the trouble she is going through this begs the question of whether author should write scripts for adaptations of their own work.

Many authors from home and abroad become involved in writing scripts for TV or movie adaptations of their work. JK Rowling was involved in the script writing for all the Harry Potter movies. Meanwhile in China, more Chinese writers, most of whom lack TV or film experience, are deciding to work on adaptations themselves.

However there are dangers that come with walking this path. Commenting on the dispute around Mi Yue, Wen Yu - author of novel Caught in the Web, which was adapted into a film by Chen Kaige - wrote on Sina Weibo: "When scriptwriters and authors negotiate with studios, studios often tell them to 'talk about your creativity.' Remember, they use the word 'creativity' to replace the word 'story.' Creativity is only an idea, which has no copyright; stories, on the other hand, have a copyright, especially stories written down."

On Friday Wen took to social media again to warn young authors about the traps that exist when it comes to working with studios. When an author is hired as the scriptwriter for an adaptation of their work there are two contracts: One gives the authority for the adaptation, while the other is the commission to write the script. However, the latter contract often states that the rights to the script belong to the studio, not the author.

As for the contract authorizing the adaptation, these may include clauses giving studios the right to explore productions based on scripts and the TV show without permission of the original author. Wen reminded authors to not sign these "full copyright" transfer contract. "Authorize rights one by one, for TV shows, movies, online series, stage dramas and games... Be careful about those 'including but not limited to' lines in contracts."

Editor: Zhao Wei
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