Some stories are so good you don’t want them to end; some characters are so memorable you never want to stop reading about them. But what do you do when the original authors are no longer around to continue their stories?
Purists will insist that only the original teller of the tale has the right to carry on the story. No one except Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can make the adventures of Sherlock Holmes relate to us. Goscinny and Uderzo were the creators of Asterix, Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwarts mates are J K Rowlings’ creations, and once she penned the last full stop of the series, that’s all there is to tell about them. End of story.
Or is it? Among the first few people to write new Sherlock Holmes stories was one Adrian Doyle — Sir Arthur’s own son. Surely the great man’s own offspring had some claim to continue the immortal sleuth’s chronicles having presumably learned the craft at his father’s side. Yet the younger Doyle’s stories come across as derivative. Clever enough mysteries, but lacking the vivid atmosphere and assurance of the canonical tales. Even though the Doyle estate has refused to authorise other Holmes tales, many authors have tried their hand — after all the character is no longer under copyright — and arguably, many of their stories are far more true to the original and far more interesting than Adrian’s tales. And now, in an entirely new medium, we have two competing versions of a modern-day Holmes — BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’ Elementary. Both serials offer an interesting take on the character, and both are valid versions in their own way. In a sense, they do offer to us another set of exciting Holmesian adventures as do Laurie R King’s novel about Sherlock Holmes and a lady called Mary Russell who starts as his apprentice and winds up as his wife and crime-solving partner.
Then we have Jeeves and Wooster. P G Wodehouse’s brilliant butler and clueless aristocrat have been immortalised on the small screen by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, but their series generally drew together elements from Wodehouse’s original stories. Wodehouse’s last Jeeves novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen was published in 1974. It was also the last novel Wodehouse completed before his death. Indeed Wodehouse’s brilliantly witty prose is so important to the appeal of these stories that you can hardly imagine anyone else writing anything that even comes close.
However, that’s exactly what Sebastian Faulks attempted when he secured permission from the Wodehouse estate to write a new Jeeves and Wooster novel, Jeeves And The Wedding Bells, published in 2013. The novel has an aggregate score of four stars out of five on Goodreads.com and 4.5 on Amazon, suggesting that Faulks has pulled off the supposedly impossible feat of pleasing the many demanding Wodehouse fans the world over. The Guardian notes that the novel doesn’t quite have the Wodehouse magic, but is ‘a gentle, funny, knowing act of tribute’ and ‘a wonderfully happy book’. One can’t help but feel Wodehouse wouldn’t have minded.
Sophie Hannah was authorised by Agatha Christie’s estate to write a new Hercule Poirot mystery, which was published this year under the title The Monogram Murders. This one has only achieved three stars on Goodreads but it does have four stars on Amazon. The Guardian review calls it a ‘diluted essence of Poirot’ but notes that it is an ‘enjoyable diversion’.
So it isn’t easy to step into a beloved storyteller’s shoes. But is it worth doing so? On one level it can be a good business decision. Cinebooks are doing reasonably well with their translations of the original Blake and Mortimer adventure comic series and the continuations by modern writers. Several Belgian comic creators are stepping up to carry on well-loved series like the Thorgal books. There has even been a new Asterix adventure. While we’re reasonably certain Rowling won’t be allowing anyone else to extend her fictional world of magic in a while, Terry Pratchett has named daughter Rhianna as the custodian of Discworld when he is no more, which means she may commission new novels from suitable authors.
So what do you think? Can only one original writer give us the true spirit of a beloved character and world? Can other writers offer anything more than respectful homage, novel twists and enjoyable but minor derivative works? Would you read another writer’s take on your favourite character, or watch a movie or TV series that took them into new territory? For that matter, would you ever want to take up the challenge of continuing your own favourite stories?