The recent release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) got me thinking about long-running franchises and today I’d like to look at crime fiction franchises, series, reboots and remakes. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a crime fiction film, even I would struggle to stand behind that assertion. It is, however, the latest film addition to a long-running multimedia franchise which began with La Planète des Singes (1963) by Pierre Boulle, a novel made famous by its iconic 1968 film adaptation starring Charlton Heston. Since Boulle’s film, the franchise has gone on to include books, films, cartoons, reboots, remakes and re-imaginings. If the quality of the latest output is indicative of the strength of the franchise then we look set to be overrun by apes for a good while longer.
The pages of this blog are full of examples of long-running crime fiction series from individual writers or teams of writers. The likes of Philip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are iconic characters. All were created by a single person and all have gone on to appear to in a format different to that in which they were originally imagined. None more so perhaps than Sherlock Holmes, whose capacity for reinvention knows no limits. History will record the many different interpretations and representations of these characters and in my view, there is nothing wrong with this. It has helped these characters, and many more like them, to find new audiences across different types of formats, and that, surely, is a good thing.
The nagging question that remains, however, is what was wrong with the original premise? Clearly, the packaging can be refreshed and brought up to date, and in this regard, digital publishing has a stand out advantage over its mainstream rivals. But other than that, what needs to be done? Sometimes the title needs to be altered to reflect changes in the acceptability of certain words (And Then There Were None, published originally in 1939 under a very different title is a good example) but broadly a good story will remain so for a long time. Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins are excellent examples. Whether you are reading them for the first time or revisiting them after many years, the quality of the writing and storytelling is obvious and has no need for modern re-imagining. For me, this is where we drift into the commercial aspect of storytelling. Once you’ve read a story and you own the book, or maybe you’ve downloaded it, it is yours forever. You might re-read it, but there aren’t that many reasons, except maybe for a new 50th-anniversary edition release, which might persuade you to buy it more than once, unless you are a collector.
Let’s explore the notion of remakes and re-imaginings. The French film Rififi (1955) paved the way for the Ocean’s Eleven franchise long before Danny Ocean planned to rob a casino. Crime fiction film fans will argue about whether they prefer the 1968 or 1999 version of The Thomas Crown Affair until they pause to reflect how good Faye Dunaway is in both. Hollywood studios seem hell-bent on remaking every single piece of Scandinavian crime television, firstly to avoid the need for subtitles, a tricky concept for US audiences, but primarily because they want to realise commercial value. Take James Bond who is still going strong long after Ian Fleming’s 12 novels set the tone. In recent years the Fleming estate has commissioned the likes of Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver (hardly jobbing staff writers) to continue the character in novel form. There have been numerous offshoots, authorised and unauthorised, and that’s before the long-running and phenomenally successful film interpretations. There is a difference between retelling stories for pleasure, and commissioning writers to continue someone else’s work for commercial reasons. Again, not wrong, just worth reflecting on.
There are many examples of writers who have grown tired of their creations but carried on writing them because of their mass appeal (Agatha Christie grew to despise Hercule Poirot but kept him alive) and also of writers who have chosen to sell the rights and move on to other projects (Dashiell Hammett and Nick and Nora Charles is one of the earliest examples). I can understand both positions and my view is, not for the first time, that the merit, value and worth of a story are driven by whether it finds an audience and not by how it gets there. So does any of this actually matter? Is it important that there is an apparent lack of genuinely novel ideas any more? For me, this relates to both the content of the story and the way in which it is told. It is worth discussing how recent a problem we think this is. I’d argue that it is more long-standing than we imagine. I’d argue that Shakespeare overused the mistaken identity routine long before he was awarded national treasure status and yet we continue to flock to his work. I’d argue that 24, which is often held up as an example of innovative storytelling, borrowed its use of the split-screen technique from a raft of earlier productions, not least the 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair. I’d also argue that the documentary breaking-the-fourth-wall style of shows like Modern Family can trace this technique back further than you might recall. Watch When Harry Met Sally (1989) and you’ll see what I mean. I do not think though that any of these things undermine the basic concept and the fact that audiences like them. To me, that is all that matters. Audiences, in any format, genre and style, know when too much of a good thing has been had and for me, that is driven by one thing. Scandinavian noir, teenage vampire fiction, and English-speaking apes will always find an audience. The size of that audience will be driven by the quality of the product being offered.
Producers and publishers will undoubtedly be influenced by commercial factors like trends. There is nothing wrong with this, except when those commercial influences scratch away at the quality of the product. There is a fine line between a re-imagining of original work, and poorly thought through copy. Consumers of the product always know which side of the line the output is on and their job is to hold those of us who aim to produce it to account.
I’ll leave you with that thought. Enjoy the summer (those of you in the Northern Hemisphere).
inkjockey® will return in the autumn.