A recent post by Sam Krowchenko on the subject of sequels and prequels to famous works of literature set me thinking. The articles was about the fact that DC Comics are about to release a series of sequels and prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s groundbreaking 80’s graphic novel Watchmen. There is a long and bitter history between Moore and DC Comics which I won’t go into here, but suffice to say, Moore was none too happy with the move. His response? “As far as I know, there weren’t that many prequels or sequels to Moby-Dick.” This is what Sam Krowchenko had to say about it in his post:
“Moore is simply dead wrong that prequels and sequels diminish a work’s literary quality. Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom … all grant readers opportunities to revisit characters or stories from new perspectives … Writers also frequently re-imagine works of other authors. In “Pip Adrift,” from his story collection The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, Rick Moody creates his own version of the titular character’s time lost at sea.”
The examples of sequels/prequels that Krowchenko uses in the post are for the most part erroneous. Roth, Updike, etc. wrote sequels/prequels to their OWN novels, using characters THEY created. If Moore were to write Watchmen 2 (which he has no intention of doing) no-one would bat an eyelid. It is the fact that DC are taking his characters and the world he created – in what was meant to be a finite story – and handing them over to other writers to spin non-finite stories from, that has people upset.
The one example that Krowchenko uses in the post that is pertinent to this issue is Rick Moody’s use of Moby-Dick. And I think this is where the crux of the issue lies. Moby-Dick was written in 1851. It has long since been judged as a good or a bad work of literature and has passed into the literary canon. Its author is long-dead. In other words, some would say, it is fair game. Watchmen has only been around for 25 years and its author is still very much alive.
There are examples of sequels to classic books that Krowchenko could have used: Ian Fleming’s James Bond and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to name two. Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver both wrote new James Bond books in recent years, and Alexandra Ripley wrote a sequel to Gone with the Wind called Scarlett. Both of these books were authorised by the respective estates of the late authors. A book that was not authorised was The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, a satire of Gone with the Wind that Mitchell’s estate were none too happy about and sued. Another book to take on the ire of an author’s estate was Carol Loeb Shloss’ Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake. Shloss had to remove large sections from her book after Joyce’s notoriously protective grandson Stephen set the lawyers on her.
I disagree with both decisions. And I think this is where the argument should be made for permission to use other author’s works. If I want to write a sequel to The Iliad, that’s my business. It would be crazy and stupid, but I should nonetheless be allowed to do it. The book is a classic; the author (if there ever was a single author) long-dead, and nothing I do is going to diminish its greatness. If I want to write a sequel to One Day, that, on the other hand, is not on. The author is very much alive; he may want to write further novels in the series himself at some stage, and any novel I write could end up diminishing the novels that exist already. Watchmen is regarded as a modern classic but it hasn’t as yet passed into the literary canon. And sequels or prequels could dilute the book’s effect and diminish its power.
One further point: Moore himself borrowed from three famous works of literature for his erotic graphic novel Lost Girls: Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz and Wendy Darling from Peter Pan. But again, all authors dead, all books regarded as classics. Fair game. Indeed, despite the fact that Moore had these three characters engaging in some quite uncharacteristic sexual shenanigans, the fact remains, the power of those characters and those novels will never be diminished by Moore’s book or anyone else’s.
The same cannot be said for Watchmen. Not yet.
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