A couple of weeks ago I went to see a movie.
This may not qualify as news in many people’s lives, but we’re not really movie people; the kind we enjoy don’t need a huge screen and surround-sound to make them work (maybe aside from James Bond) so we’re usually content to wait till they come round on TV. Shifting our a***s off the sofa and going to the cinema is something that happens two or three times a year maximum.
But this one had a certain appeal, and my elderly mother wanted to see it, so to the movies we went.
None of which is especially relevant to the issue it raised which forms the meat of this post, but there you go; digression is my middle name.
The point was, this movie was a kind of triple-length remake of a TV comedy show which was so popular that the re-runs just keep on re-running, and on a terrestrial channel, what’s more. (Do you still have terrestrial channels in the US, or is everything cable or satellite? Here we have five. And actually, the inimitable Frasier keeps re-running on one of them, but that’s by the way.)
This show was pretty inimitable too, which was why I approached the movie with a certain scepticism and trepidation. What if it didn’t work? What if just wasn’t funny any more? What if they should simply have left well enough alone?
The biggest difficulty they faced was that the original is more than forty years old. With very few exceptions, the original cast are all dead, and the exceptions are now too old to play their original roles convincingly. In the event it was OK. Not a brilliant solution, because these things rarely are, but not a disappointment. We left the theatre thinking, if they were casting the TV original today, those are probably the actors they would cast.
Which, as these things do, got me thinking.
There have been quite a few attempts to revive old favourites of late. James Bond was kept alive by several pens after Fleming’s demise, and more recently has been placed in the hands of several distinguished authors, each of who produced a decent enough spy thriller. There’s a publishing phenomenon called the Jane Austen Project, which has so far tasked four authors, including two major crime writers, to rework the novels in a modern setting. I’ve read two; they’re fun, but I’m not sure they bear much relation to Jane Austen.
And of course there’s Sophie Hannah’s resurrection of Hercule Poirot. Which, I confess, I haven’t read. And I’m not even sure there’s a ‘yet’ there. Which is no reflection whatever on Sophie Hannah herself; she’s a brilliant novelist.
All these projects, and a whole lot more which appear from time to time, beg the big question: Why? When a character or a concept is so fixed in readers’ minds, so iconic, so unique, should they be left alone at their rightful point in history? Or is it OK for a new generation, with new priorities and attitudes, to put its own spin on them? Because however hard an author tries to stay with the original concept, I don’t think it’s possible to keep his or her own psyche out of it. There’s a school of thought which claims that all characters in fiction represent an aspect, however minor or deeply buried, of the author’s own personality. If that’s true, Bond is an aspect of Fleming, not Sebastian Faulks or William Boyd; and Poirot is part of Agatha Christie, not Sophie Hannah.
Don’t misunderstand me here; all the people I’ve mentioned, and most if not all authors who have undertaken similar challenges, are talented and competent writers in their own right. But so were the authors whose characters they set out to recreate. And it’s not as if the recreators (is that a word?) lack ideas and characters of their own; they all have enviable track records, and show no sign of slowing down.
So my question is this: is there any justification, any real reason apart from profit, for bringing other people’s popular and high-profile characters back to life. Or should we leave these points in literary history alone – and let sleeping dogs enjoy their rest?