Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Guest Post: Jeanne on "Continuing a Series…"

Those of us who read a lot can’t help but notice how many series these days continue on with a new author after the original author has passed. Sometimes it works, but there is still a little something missing. Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Library is back today to consider that issue and a few other things…..

Continuing a Series…

Continuing a series after an author passes away seems to be quite the thing these days.  Multiple authors have taken over Robert Ludlum’s books and Robert B. Parker’s various series (Spencer, Jesse Stone, Virgil Cole)while specific authors have picked up others (Sophie Hannah for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Jill Paton-Walsh for Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, etc.)  These efforts are often met with mixed reactions.  Some readers decry the new books, saying the characters are changed or that plots aren’t well done, while others proclaim readers won’t notice any difference at all.  It’s almost like having eyewitnesses to a single incident testify:  each one will notice something different and impart differing amounts of importance to it.

To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to go outside of the mystery genre to a subject near and dear to my heart:  Star Trek.  I’m a first generation Trekfan who started watching the show in 1966.  I was fascinated with the series, which was so unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I didn’t even really understand it all.  In that era, TV programming was heavy with Westerns, comedies, and the occasional cop show.  Plus, in my area, the only TV network available was NBC: so no Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, or even Lost in Space.  I was glued to the TV every Thursday night (later Friday).

The character who resonated with me most was Spock.  Here was a character who was the ultimate outsider: part Vulcan, he served on a ship with humans, many of whom regarded him with a degree of suspicion or at least unease.  On Vulcan, his human heritage created a barrier.  He was even estranged from his parents, not speaking to his father for two decades.  There was no place he could really call home.  (I can cite episodes, if anyone’s interested.) He simply did not fit in among the crew. His friendship with Kirk
evolved over time, with Kirk seemingly bemused by Spock in early episodes, and the tart exchanges with Dr. McCoy were gradually revealed to be less antagonistic and more one- upsmanship. Kirk had his own form of isolation:  that of command, where one had to know one’s crew, build comradery and trust while avoiding favoritism and personal entanglements.  In large part, this is what drew these three men together.  In The Making of Star Trek (a book I read to tatters), it was explained that McCoy and Spock were representing emotion and logic, respectively, while Kirk as the Man of Action had to reconcile the two impulses.

Spock’s outsider status resonated with a lot of people.  In the 1960s, many people felt alienated (no pun intended) and were drawn to someone who handled his situation with dignity and calm, who proved his value over and over. He was the hero of everyone who felt shunned because he or she was too fat, too thin, too smart, too uncoordinated, too different in some way.

Over the years, I read a lot of fanfiction. Here you must understand this fiction was not fanfiction.net, but paper – and mimeo at that, at least in the beginning.  Some I felt captured the characters perfectly (Ruth Berman, wherever you are, you are still my hero!).  Others expanded the characters in way I felt were plausible.  Still others had me wondering if we had actually watched the same show, as the people portrayed were nothing like the characters I knew and loved.  Some of the differences were cultural.  For example, I was thrilled to discover there were British Star Trek fanzines, but I was puzzled to find that in story after story, the authors seemed to believe that McCoy really hated Spock.  Many were earnest attempts to show McCoy that Spock was actually someone with feelings and that McCoy was wrong to be so prejudiced against Vulcans.

Flash forward to the present, when Star Trek has been rebooted.  I’m not here to particularly praise or bash the productions, which I can sometimes appreciate on their own terms but which, to me, have lost a fundamental part of Star Trek’s appeal:  the outsider.  This Spock is shown to be very much an insider.  He’s the Academy’s prize student and he has an extremely attractive girlfriend. He remains rule bound and literal, but for me, he’s not Spock:  he’s Sheldon Cooper.

 Meanwhile, Kirk is a wild kid who comes in and upsets the system, usurps command of the Enterprise from by the book Spock, and gets the girls and the ship almost by sheer charm.  No real outsider there, either. Who is there for the disaffected to identify with?

To me, this is a huge and fundamental difference in the series.  However, not one review brought this aspect up. I was puzzled, but thought this was probably the result of later generation fan views—people for whom Vulcans were stereotypes (a clever thing for a non-existent race to be) and Spock’s status as beloved icon was so firmly entrenched that they had no idea how Spock was regarded when the series began.  (NBC reportedly wanted the character out after the pilot, believing people would think he was some sort of devil figure.)   

So imagine my surprise when another first generation fan said, “You know, I think Zachary Quinto really nailed Spock.  He’s just like the original.”

This took a great deal of rethinking on my part.  How could she have missed this, to me the most vital aspect of the series?

I conclude that the key words are “to me.”

And so it goes with all these other series and series characters.  All readers focus on a few aspects that really speak to that particular reader, be it the use of imagery, of language, setting, or facets  of characters. Others focus on different things.  Robert Goldsborough’s take on Nero Wolfe lacks the cadences and nuances that I found in Rex Stout’s version.  Brad Strickland’s first Johnny Dixon book, based on John Bellairs’ outline, I
found to be true to the original; later books seemed to lose the chemistry between Johnny and his elderly mentor, which was the part I found most appealing.  Sophie Hannah’s Monogram Murders caught the flavor of Christie’s Poirot (particularly as influenced by David Suchet) but the plotting and clues fell short. I won’t even go into all the Sherlock Holmes tales, though I will say a couple of my favorites were not written by Conan Doyle at all.

The key to enjoying any of the above, as far as I’m concerned, is to approach them for exactly what they are: others’ visions of “our” characters. I don’t expect to believe I’m reading a lost Sayers manuscript when I read Jill Paton-Walsh’s version, but if I pause to question every sentence there’s no point in reading it at all.  Instead, I just hope to have a nice visit with some vaguely familiar folks and experience the occasional flash of happy recognition when the author’s vision of the characters and mine align.  And if it doesn’t go well, it’s just back to the originals to satisfy my longing for old friends.


Laura Elvebak said...

Great post. I have read many of these adaptations and I agree with your take.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

I did read the Sayers continuation and mostly liked them. But you've made some excellent points. I'm usually pretty suspicious of these re-boots.

BPL Ref said...

I like most of Jill Paton-Walsh's books too. In one of the later books, though, the relationship between Bunter and the Wimseys was very informal, though. I understood she was reflecting the times-- the class system was breaking down-- but I still wondered if these two men, who had lived by such constraint all their lives, would feel as comfortable being as informal with each other as the book portrayed. But then, had Sayers written it, it would never have crossed my mind to wonder. I find myself questioning more when another author has taken up the stories, but that's human nature.