This article from the BBC encapsulates several thoughts I have on the issue of sequels, prequels, spin offs, re-tellings, re-imaginings, transfers to a modern setting etc etc that there seems to be at the moment. Only last week, when I wrote my 2014 Must Read list, I commented on the fact that 8 of the 9 books I had chosen fall into one of the above mentioned categories (and as the 9th book is a short story collection, it could possibly be discounted, although having started to read it I have already seen a re-imagined tale about Sherlock Holmes). I know it’s not a completely new thing – spin offs, and “borrowing” characters for new stories, have been happening for a while. And I’m not saying that such novels are all bad and/or worthless (as you can see from my Must Read list, I do like a good trilogy). But it just seems to be more prevalent at the moment, from the seven Harry Potter books, to Pride and Prejudice sequels, to the inexplicable need for there to be two more books following Fifty Shades of Grey (was one not enough?). Where did it all come from, this need for everything to be written as a trilogy, or to take characters from classic literature, or re-tell a story with a modern twist?
The BBC article takes its inspiration from the news that author David Lagercrantz has been commissioned to write a fourth novel in a follow on from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the following two books took the literary world by storm, leading to film adaptations firstly in the Larsson’s native Swedish and then in English. But Larsson died in 2004 – so why another book, written by a different author? As a reader I know it can be tempting to think that the stories involving your favourite characters might not be over; that you might one day be treated to another instalment, so you don’t really have to say goodbye. But as a writer (and as a reader too) I feel it is important to let a story end. No matter how good it is, it shouldn’t go on forever. It runs the risk of becoming soap-opera-ish, too samey or too clichéd, or too obvious that it was just written for the sake of it. In the case of the fourth book of the Millennium trilogy, it has all the appearances of interested parties trying to milk the cash cow a little bit too much.
Does Hollywood have a role to play in all this? The list of novels adapted into screenplays that become blockbuster hits is too long to even contemplate, making millions for production companies, publishers and authors alike. There will always, therefore, be a temptation to do just one more, just one more… I remember reading an article about the fourth Jason Bourne inspired movie before it was released, in which the writers said they struggled, at first, to come up with a concept of where to take the story next, but, eventually, they came up with something in the end. To me, if there is any hint of a struggle in knowing where a story will go next, that clearly means it has reached its end point and is not meant to go anywhere else. It was good, but it’s over. (I must stress that I haven’t seen the fourth Bourne film. It might be very good. But why does it exist? Why couldn’t the series just be left alone? It doesn’t even have the character of Jason Bourne in it for crying out loud, but clearly that name sells. The first three films came from the brilliant source material of Robert Ludlum’s novels, and came to a satisfying conclusion. That should have been the end of it).
I’ve never really been a fan of follow on stories – those novels which are written as “sequels” often to classic novels. The most recent one I read was Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James, which I found particularly disappointing, though perhaps it was because of the writing style and James’s decision to focus on boring secondary characters rather than the fact it was written as a follow up to Pride and Prejudice. But I have read other disasters too; sequels to Wuthering Heights and Rebecca that I just found woefully disappointing. As I’ve said before, I just don’t think such novels, written by someone other than the original author, can truly capture the essence of the original story, no matter how good the writing is. On the other hand, I am looking forward to reading Doctor Sleep by Stephen King – a sequel to a cult classic written nearly forty years ago, but obviously by the same author. Can he re-capture the essence of what made The Shining so captivating?
The other fate of classic literature in particular is that it will be re-interpreted in a modern setting. I would find it difficult to try and count the number of variations on A Christmas Carol I have read/seen over the years. The Jane Austen project, launched by Harper Collins last year as part of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, involves well known authors re-interpreting Austen’s works in a modern setting. Although it will undoubtedly make money, it is also a celebratory project, and one that could be interesting. Put it this way – I am more interested in imagining how classic characters and the events surrounding them would work in a modern day setting than I am in writers trying to drag out the original story, written by a different author who is attempting to write in the same voice as the original.
But with regards projects like this, we all know that it has been done many times before. For example, I fell in love with Bridget Jones as much as I did with Elizabeth Bennett, and Bridget Jones Diary was published in 1996. And that is just one of many – as the BBC article points out, there have been more than 70 reworkings of Austen’s 6 completed novels. Do we really need any more?
I think I will end this post with a quote from Joanna Trollope, one of the authors involved in the Jane Austen project, as she points out something quite obvious about her reworking of Sense and Sensibility:
“They [fans of Jane Austen] feel very close to Jane, very possessive. And my message to them is, don’t upset yourselves. Don’t read it.”