By Russel D McLean
The news this morning that William Boyd is to write the next James Bond novel (I've never read Boyd, so can't speak on his suitability) has got me thinking about series characters outliving their creators and how in novels, as in very few other media outlets, certain characters seem intertwined with their creators.
I've recently been reading some of Titan's New Adventures of Sherlock of Sherlock Holmes. Some are good – maybe even very good. Some are not so good. But none of them feel Conan-Doyle-ish. Much of this is to do with distance. Doyle was a product of his time and place and much as one might replicate his choice of word or sentence structure, one cannot carbon-copy the essential essence or “the voice” of his work. Something like that is beyond mere mechanics.
When I read comic books or watch TV shows, I am usually fine with a change of creative team. Yes, the Spidey of Stan Lee is different to the Spidey of JMS or Bendis or whoever, but I can roll with that, perhaps because the character has just rolled on and on. There was no gap between Lee leaving the character and another writer taking him on. And the same goes for a number of different comic series with some noteable exceptions (If Groo were to return for a new number 1 issue with a creative team that was not Arargones and Evanier, I would weep like a menidcant).
On US TV, different creative teams write different episodes of long running series. I can take JUSTIFIED having a new writing crew each week, or THE WIRE using different scripters in different episodes (albeit under the strict control of a creative showrunner – although, while THE WEST WING was certainly a little different when Aaron Sorkin left, I still found it enjoyable, perhaps because the actors retained the essence and voice of the characters).
I think sometimes we have to know when to leave well enough alone. And as much of an honor as it might be to play in, say, Flemming's sandpit, do we really need anyone to do it? Did we ever need any more Bond beyond what Flemming wrote? Could anyone ever really re-create that special thrill that came from reading Flemming's original novels? In filmic terms, Bond works well with different interpretations from different creative teams at different times, but in the literary, he had always been Flemming's creation.
Let's say that now that Rankin has let him go, someone else took up the mantle of Rebus. Would we be accepting of that? Would anyone really be able to write Rebus books in the way that Rankin did? Or would anyone be able to write Lincoln Rhymne like Jeffery Deaver? I could ask the same of a thousand different creator-owned series characters. And I think we all know that the truth is no one can replicate their voices or the thrill that readers got from discovering these characters for the first time. Not even a skilled writer like Faulks could fool anyone into thinking he was Ian Flemming. But why is it so different from film and TV creations or certain literary series that were always written by varying creative teams?
The thing is, I'm not decrying writers who play in other's sandboxes. I have often talked about the fact that I'd love to write a Doctor Who novel (in fact the first novel I ever submitted was for Virgin's New Doctor Who Adventures) but I do think that things are different where writer and character have become so utterly connected. Holmes and Conan Doyle are linked. Flemming and Bond are linked. Ludlum and Bourne are linked. These series and their authors share a very special chemistry. And in the case of something like Who, the world and the brand were created by multiple creative teams rather than one in isolation and the very essence of the brand relies on reinvention and the injection of new and unique voices.
I realise that in the modern world, brand is all. Audiences, so they're told by those who feed them, like the familiar (something I would ardently disagree with – audiences, even if they don't admit it, like to be surprised) and nothing is more familiar than a strong brand. But what happens when a brand is not just about the character or the setting but the creator? I don't pretend to have the answers, but I find it odd that I feel differently about characters associated with a single author than I do about those who are the product of an evolving creative team.