Re-writing a Dead Author’s Legacy

I know I’m getting ahead of myself here, worrying about what would happen to my characters after I’m dead given that a) I’m not even published yet and b) I’m alive (as of this writing), but re-inventing or re-interpreting or re-imagining another’s masterpiece feels wrong.

Doing it after they’re dead and can’t respond, is worse.

I’m not talking about West Side Story (a re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet). I’m talking about Wicked, a story that completely redefines the roles of good and evil in The Wizard of Oz. If Frank L. Baum had wanted the Wicked Witch of the West to be a sympathetic character, he could have written her that way. If the author of Wicked wanted to write about misunderstood, sympathetic witches, he was free to do so, but doing it within Baum’s universe feels incredibly disrespectful, like peeing on a grave.

I clearly remember the first time that I heard about a different author writing a sequel to a famous book. My first thought was ‘how the hell can this happen?’ The book in question was Wuthering Heights. Someone wrote a sequel, called ‘H’ about Heathcliff. Now, I’ve never read Wuthering Heights but even I know that Healthcliff died in it. Well, it turns out that there is a 3 year absence in the middle of the story and this author decided to fill it.

I guess in some ways James Bond got away from Ian Fleming, so seeing myriad books written by a string of writers shouldn’t be to surprising, even if they lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. The movies have long since run past Fleming’s stories, so a proliferation of books clouding the character?s history doesn’t feel as much like a violation.

For me, Dune is the saddest and greyest example of a new writer changing the original writer’s intent. Sadly, in this case the new writer is the son of the original author, Frank Herbert, and expanded the saga with his blessing. Dune – the original book, and to a lessor extent the completion of that trilogy – could have and should have stood the test of time as a paragon of world building, of political intrigue, of the idea that themes and subtext were not only acceptable n science fiction, but a sign of a great story. Unfortunately, Frank started picking away at that legacy with a second trilogy that lacked the gravitas of the original. That deterioration in quality was continued by his son, Brian, until we get to the point where Bene Gesserit no longer know the litany against fear (Hunters of Dune).

There have been some authors, or their estates, that have refused to allow any continuance or in-universe extensions. JRR Tolkien’s estate is known to be litigious against anyone who tries to write stories in Middle Earth. Terry Pratchett’s daughter has stated categorically that there won’t be any non-Terry Discworld stories. I had expected the same from Douglas Adam’s estate, but they have allowed a continuation of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘And Another Thing’

It’s scary to think that after an author is gone, someone else can tinker with their legacy. As we saw with Wuthering Heights, even if an author kills off their characters that’s no safeguard against later meddling.

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