The Last Word
Sequels: art or commerce?
Apparently with some books there is an unquenchable desire for the story to go on. Thus the sequel. Sequels appear with exceeding regularity in the film world. Men In Black followed by Men In Black II. Rocky by Rocky I, II, III and what is it now, Rocky XX? The reason, I would suggest, is that the original work was so lucrative, only repeating the formula can ensure more lucre. It ain't about art, here folks, it's about commerce. Last month Motoko Rich, writing in the New York Times, reported that there would be another sequel to Margaret Mitchell's one-off masterwork, Gone With The Wind. A few years ago The Wind Done Gone made headlines with its version of the famous story. This was not a sequel, but a send-up by Alice Randall, who tells the story from the slave perspective. The only previously authorized sequel was written in 1991 by Alexandra Ripley and titled simply Scarlett. Evidently, the heirs weren't pleased with Ms. Ripley's work, despite decent earnings, but that didn't stop them from pursuing another sequel. After vetting other authors, including Pat Conroy, the heirs and St. Martin's Press will, in November of this year, release Rhett Butler's People, by no less a writer than Donald McCaig, best known for his Civil War novels.
What's telling in this striving for equal-sequel is that Margaret Mitchell to her dying day (albeit a premature one) refused to write one. GWTW was penned as she recovered from a broken ankle and was meant as self-entertainment. She only reluctantly had given GWTW to an editor looking for southern writing, and then nearly asked for it back. It isn't unlikely that Margaret, a journalist, had had enough of novel-writing. Her telling of the story of Scarlett and Rhett was, in her mind, done. Fini, no more to say about those people. The War was over.
I know what she meant. After Beauty came out I was pestered, okay, not pestered, but urged, to write a sequel. I demurred. After all, what more could I say about those characters? My protagonist had learned to love himself by way of the love of a good woman, who died at the end of the novel - at the insistence of an editor who thought my original happy ending was, well, too happy. Nothing more to say, except that there was a child. Would she, or wouldn't she, inherit the genetic illness of her father? Eleven years ago I really didn't have the interest or the strength to find out. I had new fish to fry. However, I don't think I would want anyone else to take Alex and Lee and their daughter and re-cast them into a new story without my control. I may be done with the story, but it's my story. A sequel is defined as: A literary work complete in itself but continuing the narrative of an earlier work. A series is "a group of thematically connected works." In young adult literature, Walter Farley's Black Stallion stories are sequels. Rawling's Harry Potter tomes are sequels. John Updike's Rabbit novels are sequels. In light fiction, Laurien Berenson's dog-centric Melanie Travis books are a series. Each one tends toward the next. In all of the above, it is the original author who writes the books; it is his or her imaginative follow-up to the story - and his or her choice.
A couple of years ago I lucked into a hilarious sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Linda Berdoll's Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues. The author had picked up the story immediately after Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett are married. All of the surviving characters from the original novel play a role in this decidedly irreverent tale of what happens next to our lovers, with an absolutely modern sensibility. Berdoll had free rein as Austen's characters belong to the public domain, defined as 70 years after the death of the author, and are fair game for any upstart writer who wants to use them. It is likely that Jane Austen might seek out the closest fainting couch to think what this author has done to her heroine's innocence, but it is equally tempting to think that Austen might get a kick out of it. (What I didn't realize is that Jane Austen, who wrote six books in her lifetime, has got to hold the record for the most sequelized writer on earth, coming in at something over 68 books written as sequels to her novels. There is even a collective fan club called Janeites who monitor these things. Who knew?
It's interesting to note that English writer, Emma Tennant, respected author of a series of Austen sequels, was fired from writing the next GWTW sequel after producing 575 pages. The editors thought her version was too "British." Recently Victor Hugo's great-great grandson has been involved in preventing an unauthorized sequel to Les Miserables, but Berdoll and the many authors who have co-öpted Austen's characters have no Austen heirs to litigate against them.
A decade plus after its release, I am beginning to think about revisiting Beauty. No longer Alex and Lee's story, it would have to center around the daughter. Perhaps coming to terms with her genetic history; perhaps trying to discover who her mother was; maybe just growing up the child of a recluse. I think that the big question must always be on whether or not she carries the gene for acromegaly and what will happen. Maybe I'll leave that for some future writer - in the 22nd century, assuming my heirs find the right writer.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist. She lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at www.susanwilsonwrites.com.