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31 August 2013


Tag(s): Languages & Culture
As part of my holiday reading I enjoyed Death comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. I once had lunch with the Right Honourable Baroness James of Holland Park when she was a mere stripling in her 70s. Now 93 she remains active with a formidable intellect. Many will remember when still a Governor of the BBC in 2009 she guest edited the Today programme in which she gave the then Director General Mark Thompson quite a grilling in an interview. Presenter Evan Davies commented that “she shouldn’t be guest editing, she should be permanently presenting the programme.”

She is best known for her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries but Death Comes to Pemberley is a departure from her normal style in that it purports to be a sequel to one of the most famous of all novels, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The year is now 1803, Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years, and the orderly world of Pemberley seems unassailable. But all this is threatened when, on the eve of the annual ball, a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley’s wild woodland. As it pulls up, Lydia Wickham – Elizabeth’s younger, unreliable sister – stumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered.

Phyllis James captures the style of her illustrious predecessor well though the drama of a murder mystery is perhaps an unusual type of sequel. In an epilogue to the novel she confesses that after the publication of her latest Dalgliesh story, The Private Patient, in 2008, she decided that she could be self-indulgent and turn to an idea that had been in her mind for a long time: to combine two lifelong enthusiasms, namely for writing detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen, by setting her next book in Pemberley.

She admits to a certain ambivalence about sequels because for her the greatest writing pleasure is the creation of original characters. But the attraction of continuing the story of Elizabeth and Darcy overcomes her reluctance to take over another writer’s people or world. She thinks that Austen’s characters take such a hold on our imagination that the wish to know more of them is irresistible. Many other writers must have felt similarly because there have been at least seventy other published sequels to Pride and Prejudice.

It is not really surprising that less talented writers seek to cash in on famous literary characters by writing so-called sequels to the original books while by contrast the original writers sometimes become overwhelmed by the monsters they have created and kill them off only to be forced by public demand to bring them back to life again.

One of the most famous of all literary creations must be Sherlock Holmes in the novels and short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes first appeared in publication in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet which was first published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The second story, The Sign of Four, was featured in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. After that the character grew tremendously in popularity with the first series of short stories in The Strand magazine beginning with A Scandal in Bohemia in 1891. But by 1893 Conan Doyle, who saw himself as a serious writer, wanted to concentrate on his historical novels and killed off Holmes in The Final Problem. He resisted public pressure to bring him back for eight years before publishing The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 but implicitly setting the story before Holmes' death. But in 1903 he wrote The Adventure of the Empty House set in 1894 in which Holmes reappears and explains to a shocked Watson that he had only faked his death in The Final Problem to fool his enemies.

So popular is Holmes that there have been hundreds of works based on his character. I have read many of these and while some are good often expanding references in the original works and writing as closely as possible in Conan Doyle’s style others are dire taking only the characters and setting them in unlikely scenarios, utterly failing to use Conan Doyle’s tone of voice. Only one of these has been authorised by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. The House of Silk was published in 2011. Written by the prolific novelist Anthony Horowitz, also writer of the excellent TV series Foyle’s War, it is a good effort. I met Anthony at a book signing. The queue for his signature was so long I had read half the book before I got to him and joked that I had worked out the ending. I write an annual Christmas Newsletter always trying to find an original theme. One year I wrote it as a Sherlock Holmes story and found it not too difficult to find the tone of voice though the plotting was more challenging.

Holmes has also been featured in countless plays and films. Guinness World Records states that Holmes is the character most featured in films with over 200 films and more than 70 different actors including John Barrymore, Clive Brook, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Roger Moore, Robert Stephens, Nicol Williamson, Jeremy Brett, Christopher Plummer, Christopher Lee, Michael Caine, Robert Downey Jnr and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Another character who was killed off prematurely by his creator was James Bond. Ian Fleming, an intelligence officer during the War, planned to become a writer and persuaded Jonathan Cape to publish the first novel featuring James Bond, codename 007, in 1953. A series of novels became best sellers but in From Russia with Love Fleming decided it was time for James to go. At the end James has captured Colonel Rosa Klebb of SMERSH, styled by Fleming as the official murder organisation of the Soviet Union. Mathis from the Deuxième Bureau is coming to relieve him. As Mathis arrives Klebb kicks Bond with her boot concealed in the toe of which is a steel dagger.

Numbness was creeping up Bond’s body. He felt very cold. ….There was no feeling in his fingers….His hand fell heavily to his side. Breathing became difficult….Now he had to gasp for breath. Bond felt his knees begin to buckle…Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed headlong to the wine-red floor.”

The book ends here and the reader is left sure that Bond is dead. Again there was a public outcry and within a year Fleming had written Dr No in which M, Bond’s boss explains that Bond had been poisoned with fugu poison that comes from the sex organs of the Japanese globe-fish and paralyses the central nervous system.

‘ “Lucky he got away with it.”
“Miracle. Thanks entirely to that Frenchman who was with him. Got your man on the floor and gave him artificial respiration as if he was drowning. Somehow kept his lungs going until the doctor came. Lucky the doctor had worked in South America. Diagnosed curare and treated him accordingly. But it was a chance in a million.” ‘

And so James has survived through a one-in-a-million chance and is sent off to the Caribbean for another adventure.

There were twelve novels and two books of short stories featuring James Bond written by Fleming before he died in 1964 aged just 56. Six other authors have written authorised Bond novels or novelizations: Kingsley Amis, Christopher Wood, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks, and Jeffery Deaver. A new novel written by William Boyd is planned for release this year.

The Bond character has been the centre of the longest continually running and second highest grossing film series to date. There have been twenty-three films in the Eon Productions series as well as two independent productions Casino Royale, a 1967 spoof, and Never Say Never Again, a 1983 remake of an earlier Eon-produced film, Thunderball, following a legal dispute over copyright. This franchise has long since exhausted Fleming’s works and the character has changed several times with six different actors and many directors and writers. But still the public flock in to see the latest Bond.

Thus sequels are at the heart of the movie business. Most of them fail to recreate the excitement of the original film that started the sequence but a look at the movie schedules suggests that studios are increasingly filling our summers with loud, stupid sequels with little originality and no wit. There are various reasons for this.

Firstly, the international box office accounts for over two-thirds of total revenues. Familiar characters and noisy explosions translate better for overseas audiences than subtle plotting and witty remarks. Second, box-office receipts wouldn’t be increasing at all if it wasn’t for 3D. 3D is more suitable for explosions and special effects than for really three-dimensional characters. Third, Hollywood loves sequels because the moviegoers do. Moviemaking has always been a hit or miss business. William Goldman, the distinguished screenwriter of films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men  and Marathon Man, wrote a superb book called Adventures in the Screen Trade in which he said “Nobody knows anything.” But the one thing they know is that they must make as much money as possible out of the hits. Hence sequels. Fourth, sequels allow the studios to make more money out of spin-off merchandise. This is where the real money is made and so it makes sense from a commercial point of view to bet a very large sum of money on a very small number of films. Last, films are for boys aged 12 – 15. That is the audience. This may be chicken-and-egg but film goers as a percentage of the demographic reach a peak in the teens and decline sharply after that.

Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved

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