The never ending story
It’s a case that any self-respecting sleuth would relish. A charismatic character, well known to millions and long presumed dead, returns to the public eye seemingly no older than when he went away. A Lazarus-like resurrection? Copycat imposter? Or an astute exhumation on the part of a literary estate?
The announcement on 18th January that Anthony Horowitz (the creator of the teen-fiction Alex Rider spy novels) had been authorised by the Sir Conan Doyle estate to pen a new Sherlock Holmes novel, 80 years after the author’s death, may have raised eyebrows among 221b Baker Street aficionados. But it’s far from the only body to be discovered when delving into the mysterious case of post-author fiction: James Bond, Peter Pan, Scarlett O’Hara and Jason Bourne are just a few of the characters that have been revived in recent years.
The thirty-sixth Bond novel, Sebastian Faulks’s ‘Devil May Care’, was published in 2008. Even before Faulks, Bond had already reached beyond Ian Fleming’s lifespan with new – if relatively low-profile – adventures, courtesy of one Richard Benson. Geraldine McCaughrean won the right to pen the sequel to JM Barrie’s Peter Pan stories in 2006 – the author’s estate having been bequeathed to Great Ormond Street Hospital. Elsewhere, Alexandra Ripley wrote the 1991 authorised sequel to ‘Gone with the Wind’, ‘Scarlett’: it sold millions and is still in print, but was critically panned, the New York Times describing it as a “stunningly uneventful 823-page holding action”.
For a beleaguered publishing industry, a brand with a proven sales record is a valuable thing. That brand may be a big-name author, but it can equally be a fictional character, or indeed the world in which a novel is set. Books are no longer merely books. They are film adaptations, TV versions, interactive websites, fanclubs, live events, theme-park rides and merchandise.
While printed books are under siege, the potential for trans-media spread has peversely opened up – and the movie industry is just as aggressive in hunting for literary brands that are guaranteed to shift tickets or products. When Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels were turned into the successful film franchise starring Matt Damon, fantasy and thriller writer Eric Van Lustbader stepped up to pen six more instalments (the latest, ‘The Bourne Dominion’, is out this year).
Sales of reprints of an author’s work are no longer (if they ever were) lucrative enough in themselves for a literary estate to claim it is truly making the best of the copyright or intellectual property in its care. This is fiercely defended turf. While Alexandra Ripley’s ‘Scarlett’ got the green light, plenty of other authors attempted bootleg versions. In 2000, Alice Randall released ‘The Wind Done Gone’, a retelling of the story from the point of view of slaves. A US court case eventually settled in favour of the author, on the basis that the book was a parody protected by the First Amendment. The parties settled out of court, and the book became a New York Times bestseller. However, when Fredrick Colting brought out ‘60 Years Later’, a sequel to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, he became embroiled in a dispute with the JD Salinger estate which means the book cannot be published in North America until the original comes into the public domain.
“James Bond, Peter Pan, Scarlett O’Hara and Jason Bourne are just a few of the characters that have been revived in recent years”
In this world of fiction-as-brand, canny authors can cash in before they die – as Tom Clancy, the techno/military thriller specialist whose work has spawned a legion of film adaptations (‘The Hunt for Red October’; ‘Patriot Games’; ‘Air Force One’) and games (‘Splinter Cell’; ‘Ghost Recon’; ‘Rainbow Six’), knows all too well. Not only did Clancy license his own name to game developers Ubisoft (an area in which he admittedly has little direct experience), but he was a pioneer of novels written by a team of writers.
Initially Clancy didn’t actually acknowledge that he hadn’t authored a number of books attributed to him, instead thanking the actual authors for their “invaluable contribution to the manuscript”. These days it’s an open secret – Clancy fans even refer to these branded offshoots as the ‘apostrophe novels’: as in, ‘Tom Clancy’s Net Force (created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik, and written by Steve Perry)’.
In a multimedia world, it’s not that strange that Clancy may see his role as curator of the fictional world he has created, with more than one author employed to populate it. But when these universes (which have businesses behind them) become big enough, they require bureaucracies to run them. For an example, we need only look to a galaxy far, far away.
The ‘Star Wars’ universe may have begun on celluloid, but it’s the ultimate cross-platform fictional creation – with multiple authors working on the various films, books, graphic novels, comics, animations, TV series, board games, video games and everything else. Breadth of output is no problem; continuity is. What if one author clumsily destroys a planet which later becomes pivotal to another author’s plotline?
The answer in the ‘Star Wars’ case is a Vatican-esque invention called the Holocron. Maintained full-time by Lucas Licensing employee Leland Chee, this is a vast database of everything officially connected to the Skywalker universe. There are five levels of canonisation: at the top are the films, scripts and novelisations; at the bottom are irritating stories that contradict everything else and therefore need to be shoved aside or glossed over. It’s fair to say that nothing since the Bible has required a greater degree of version control.
All of these attempts at control of fictional creations – whether by literary estates or Holocrons – are undermined by the internet-enabled maelstrom that is ‘fan fiction’. Where once hardcore aficionados of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ may have scrawled their own Eeyore-related adventures furtively in notebooks, they can now write and publish them to the world within seconds. The website www.harrypotterfanfiction.com contains 68,000 Hogwarts-related stories, all penned by enthusiastic amateurs. While JK Rowling is far too smart to object to such an adoring outpouring, she would no doubt wince at some of the attempts particularly where, in true online style, fictional worlds have been brought together in a literary mash-up. A Potter fan has written a ‘CSI: San Diego’ story which features Voldermort’s servant Severus Snape; another has created the brilliantly high concept series ‘Narnia vs Hogwarts’.
What all this tells us is that authors do not create controllable, walled-off stories – they create entire universes, populated by realistic characters, and ultimately limitless in scope. Once opened up to readers, a novel cannot be owned by its author – it is released into the wilds of the imaginations of others. Literary states or corporations can (and are indeed obliged to) protect and exploit an author’s work commercially, but – as the world of fan fiction demonstrates – they cannot control the life of fictional characters beyond the pages of a book.
It’s perhaps this, rather than simple money-grabbing, that leads both the estates to license continuations of an author’s work, and other writers to take up the potentially poisoned chalice of penning the next step in a fictional character’s life. Horowitz may feel the pressure of matching up to Conan Doyle, but Sherlock Holmes will always be bigger than either.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.