Writers May Die But Characters Live On

Quote of the Day: "Don't panic! Douglas Adams' widow, Jane Belson, feels Eoin Colfer is the perfect writer to continue her husband's legacy." -- SFBC.com

Every writer dreams of creating characters and stories that will live on in people's imagination long after they're gone. But the price of such a legacy is that the writer's creation takes on a life of its own, completely out of the control of the creator, and the characters and stories continue in new iterations following the paths that others choose.

Did you know that a new book in the popular Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series is coming out? No, author Douglas Adams didn't write it. (He passed away in 2001 and his partially completed Hitchhiker's sequel, The Salmon of Doubt, was published the following year.) This new novel, And Another Thing, with his beloved characters Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect in an all new adventure, was written completely by another writer, Eoin Colfer.

Eoin Colfer isn't a hack. I actually enjoyed his previous stories, particularly his best-selling Artemis Fowl series. I think he'll do a commendable job, and he has the blessing of Douglas Adams' next of kin, but let's face it, Eoin Colfer has some mighty big shoes to fill.

This isn't anything new. Frank Herbert, for example, wrote six Dune novels while he was alive. After his death, his son Brian Herbert collaborated with science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson (who has built a fine career writing adaptations of existing franchises) to continue the saga with two prequel trilogies and a number of sequels which are still coming out (the current one is The Winds of Dune with at least two more on the way.)

If you think this is a recent trend, keep in mind that L. Frank Baum may have invented The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Edgar Rice Burroughs may have spawned Tarzan of the Apes, but those stories have been retold again and again in every conceivable medium by many others after the writers' deaths. What would Peter Pan's J.M. Barrie have thought of Steven Spielberg's Hook? Would Lewis Carroll, who gave us Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have enjoyed seeing Tim Burton re-imagine his tales in a major motion picture or the Syfy channel reboot his characters in a new television mini-series? How would Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, who died in 1991, have reacted to the television prequel Enterprise or this summer's new big screen remake by J.J. Abrams with all new actors playing the characters he imagined?

The descendants of authors sometimes commission writers to continue the stories, as the estate of Margaret Mitchell did with the Gone with the Wind followup Scarlett written by Alexandra Ripley and Rhett Butler's People by Donald McCaig. But they couldn't suppress the unauthorized "parody" The Wind Done Gone, written by Alice Randall, told from the slaves' point of view. The families of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster are battling the Warner Bros. movie studio for the rights to Superman, a character who has become so ingrained in popular culture that it seems almost impossible to completely control his use in unapproved content as references to him appear frequently in hit songs and his iconic imagery shows up in countless people's tattoos.

What will happen when some of our living writers who have created blockbuster stories in their careers pass on to that writer's haven in the sky? When Stephen King eventually leaves us, will we someday see The Return of It, The Shining Redux, and Cujo's New Litter? What will happen to Star Wars and Indiana Jones after George Lucas is gone (for worse and better)? And will the future shenanigans of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cause Walt Disney to roll over in his grave (if he hasn't already)?

Fan fiction has proven that the public connects so strongly with certain stories and characters that they feel a sense of ownership and start indulging their passion for the tales with new "episodes." They yearn for new adventures with their favorite heroes. Who can deny them? As long as there is a buck to be made and no original author around to object, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes will become an action star, Bram Stoker's Dracula will keep coming back from the dead in various incarnations, and let's not even talk about what will happen next to the characters that William Shakespeare gave us, otherwise we'll be here all night.

That's not necessarily a bad thing...is it?


The Never Fairy said…
As with most things, it can be both good or bad.

You mentioned Hook and I'd classify that as bad since it totally goes against the grain of as well as contradicts the original stories.

Here's another "good" one to add to your list. It's about Peter Pan, too, but from Barrie's notes for more. Click my name to see.

Thanks for the thought provoking post! :)
Nick said…
Thanks. Your book sounds interesting. Peter Pan is a great example. The trustees who currently hold the official rights to Barrie's original story commissioned Geraldine McCaughrean to a sequel called PETER PAN IN SCARLET (terrible title). Then there's the trilogy (by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) that tries to capture the Harry Potter frenzy: PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS. PETER AND THE SHADOW THIEVES, and PETER AND THE SECRET OF RUNDOON.
The Never Fairy said…
Yes, of course. But all of those don't stick with the original texts of Barrie, with loads of mistakes. Shouldn't a sequel or prequel be faithful, too? :)