It’s not the first time we’ve seen a horror movie trailer featuring an old house in the woods, messages written in blood and some sort of unpleasant surprise in a swimming pool. But it is the first to feature Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore – much-loved children’s characters we normally associate with comfort and safety.

Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey is a new low-budget slasher flick from Rhys Waterfield that follows a grown-up Christopher Robin returning to Hundred Acre Wood with his girlfriend and finding that his trusted friends have – as we are told in giant all-caps across the screen of the trailer – “TURNED WILD”.

How is it, you may ask, that Waterfield has been allowed to create this abomination, which has been panned mercilessly across the board? How have AA Milne’s wise, beloved characters, tenderly drawn in his books by EH Shepard, been turned into axe-wielding, mask-wearing murderers in a film that seems to exist purely for the purpose of their subversion? The answer is simple: because in 2022, Winnie the Pooh, originally published in 1926, entered the public domain, voiding its copyright.

In the UK, most artistic works are protected by copyright law for 95 years after their original publication (music recordings for 100). This means that hundreds of other books, characters and stories have, such as Winnie the Pooh, recently passed into the public domain, and can be used and abused as new creators see fit. Pooh is the most famous work to have entered the public domain in 2022, although it was joined by classics such as Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Though it seems unlikely that the Ramsay family will be bastardised into a 20s imagining of Saw, it is, now, theoretically possible for that to happen without any input or approval from the Woolf estate.

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Other characters more easily subverted and manipulated will soon be available. Many beloved early Disney characters will go out of copyright in the next few years: Mickey Mouse, Pluto and Donald Duck among them. In another decade, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings will enter the public domain, too.

In the case of Pooh, of course, Waterfield’s is not the first adaptation: Disney bought the rights almost 60 years ago and turned the story into a series of successful films, as well as a lot of merchandise.

Disney’s own ownership isn’t a straightforward story, either. The company first obtained the rights in 1966 for the short film Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. But Disney’s license wasn’t obtained from Milne – because he had sold the copyright to the books to the comic book pioneer Stephen Slesinger in 1930. Slesinger’s widow sold the rights to Disney in 1953 in exchange for regular royalties, but the family sued Disney in 1991, claiming they’d been short-changed, and demanding damages of $2bn. It wasn’t until 2009 that an LA judge struck out the Slesinger family’s claim and Disney ruled once more.

To make things even more complicated, only certain characters are free to interpret, because of when they were introduced to the Winnie the Pooh series. Although Christopher Robin’s feline friend Tigger is arguably more naturally inclined to predatory behaviours than a baby pig or a donkey, he does not feature in Blood and Honey simply because Milne did not invent him until 1928: thus he remains protected until 2024.

Disney also still owns the rights to its cartoons, if not the characters themselves – so any future renderings can’t be too closely related to Disney’s drawings. Pooh’s well-known red t-shirt, for example, was simply part of his Disneyfication.

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Although it’s easy to understand why Blood and Honey may cause alarm with its unnuanced handling of Milne’s genius, it’s not the first time a classic has been adapted in a subversive or unsettling way. Disney, for a start, turned working class hero Robin Hood into a fox – no doubt the source material for many a hot take if it had happened in the present day.

And if Tim Burton’s 2010 film Alice in Wonderland did not contain gore on the same level as Blood and Honey, it was a much darker story than the original. Alice, 19 years old compared to Lewis Carroll’s young girl, ends up following a white rabbit after she receives an unwanted marriage proposal. Although what happens when she’s there broadly follows Carroll’s story of the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts, Burton’s imagining is even weirder, trippier and more disturbing than the children’s story: there are monsters to be slain and iridescent forests to get lost in, and Johnny Depp plays a particularly creepy and crazed Mad Hatter.

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Extreme adaptations in this vein are closely related to “fan-fiction”: fans use their favourite characters as jumping off points for their own stories. Amateur fan-fiction online – which is subject to copyright law but, due to being difficult to moderate and relatively unimpactful, rarely actionable – tends to be even more liberal with the source material, often involves a sexual scenario you wish you’d never heard of.

This image released by Fathom Events shows Natasha Tosini, from left, Chris Cordell, and Craig David Dowsett in a scene from "Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey." A.A. Milne???s 1926 book, ???Winnie-the-Pooh,??? with illustrations by E.H. Shepard, became public domain on January 1 when the copyright expired. (Fathom Events via AP)
Natasha Tosini, and from left, Chris Cordell, and Craig David Dowsett in a scene from ‘Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey’ (Fathom Events/AP)

One particularly disturbing crossover involves Harry Potter villain Voldemort having sex with the Pokemon character Pikachu; another details the sexual relationship between the Giant Squid – again, from Harry Potter – and Hogwarts castle. (Harry Potter and Pokemon are still covered by copyright, and will be for some time: for works published after 1978, the copyright extends to 70 years after the author’s death.) For creators of these adaptions, of course, there’s a great appeal: characters you already know and love taken into your inner world and stretched to the limits of imagination.

Not all post-copyright adaptations have been so crude. Sherlock Holmes, a character who entered the public domain in 1982, has been the subject of multiple TV and movie franchises. Following a licensed series in the 60s, from 1984 the BBC broadcast The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series starring Jeremy Brett that ran for a decade. Mark Gatiss, Stephen Moffatt and Steve Thompson’s 2010 Sherlock, broadcast by the BBC and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes the eccentric genius, with Martin Freeman as down-to-earth Dr Watson, had even more fun, using onscreen graphics to demonstrate the inner workings of Sherlock’s superior brain.

In Hollywood, there was Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law’s blockbuster Sherlock Holmes in 2009, and, most recently, Enola Holmes, a purportedly feminist movie starring Millie Bobby Brown as Sherlock’s worldly wise younger sister. These more considered interpretations can be valuable ways to add to the story or bring it into the modern world, helping us see characters in a new light and keeping classics alive.

Yet unless you are a particular fan of Sherlock, you may feel we have reached saturation point. And as more and more iconic figures come out of copyright – Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are all due within a decade or so – more and more bastardisations of them will crop up as creators attempt to put their spin on much-loved stories. When an audience loves a story, it can be tempting to eke it out as much as possible – but this creates an exponential curve of “creativity”, resulting in tellings that would have been better if they had simply been about something new.

Blood and Honey, despite being a low-budget indie, has already drawn plenty of attention; when a work of art concerns characters we already know and love, it’s not difficult to sell it. What will be arguably more interesting than a performatively imagined murderous teddy bear is when creators choose to continue the stories within their existing frameworks, expanding on the world made by someone else in order to add depth and perspective to what we already know and love. For now, we might have to contend with watching Christopher Robin and his friends get murdered by his cuddly toys. Or we could always pick up a copy of Winnie the Pooh.

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