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Saturday 13 July 2019

Literary adaptations

To be continued…

Purists don’t like new authors taking over old authors’ characters. The novelist Sophie Hannah says they should relax

Andrew Davies’s television drama Sanditon, based on a fragment of a novel that death prevented Jane Austen from finishing, is due to hit our screens later this year. My first thought on hearing this news was: are we going to have a crisis of definitions on our hands? What should we call this miniseries – a continuation, an adaptation, or something else? Given that Jane Austen wrote the first part of the story, can we really call this “Andrew Davies’s Sanditon”? Well, yes, surely we can a bit, because his TV drama will provide a middle and ending for the story that Austen started.

Will purists object to a living screenwriter taking a work of Austen’s and adding to it in order to produce something that must necessarily be viewed as a joint creation? Is there something morally suspect about compelling the late Miss Austen to collaborate creatively when there is no way of obtaining her consent for such a project?

The first page of Jane Austen’s unfinished manuscript for ‘Sanditon’

I first realised that This Sort of Thing might be seen as a contentious issue when it was announced that Sebastian Faulks was to publish a new Jeeves and Wooster novel, reviving PG Wodehouse’s beloved duo. I was particularly interested in the response to this news because I had skin in the game: I’d just agreed to write a new Hercule Poirot novel at the request of Agatha Christie’s family and estate.

The Faulks announcement, and the responses to it on social media and in the press, were an eye-opener for me. While I had been aware that some readers might wish to read books of this sort and others might not, given that they’re not by the original creator of those characters, I had naively believed that that was as far as the disagreement went — that one might say, for example, “Ooh, a new Heathcliff and Cathy novel, by Will Self this time, not Emily Brontë! How exciting!” Or one might say, “Sorry, but when it comes to Heathcliff and Cathy stories, Emily Brontë’s the only writer for me.” Then one would either read or not read Will Self’s North-London-based Wuthering Heights sequel (in which Hindley Earnshaw posits grumpily that the novel is dead) depending on which of the two above positions one had adopted.

I saw how wrong I was when the world at large responded to the Wodehouse/Faulks news as if a heinous act of depravity had occurred. A prominent literary critic tweeted, “Shame on Sebastian Faulks and shame on the Wodehouse estate” (though he must later have deleted the tweet, as I couldn’t find it at the time of writing this). At least three national newspapers ran condemnatory columns, all approaching the Faulks book as if it were a moral violation rather than simply a book that some might want to read and others would not. The Spectator declared that history would judge Faulks harshly, accused him of arrogance and said that he “must spend a good deal of time staring at himself in the mirror”. The Telegraph suggested that for Faulks to write a new Jeeves and Wooster novel was “an impertinence”, and accused Faulks of exploiting Wodehouse for commercial gain.

P.G. Wodehouse reads himself

I found it fascinating that exploitative and cynical motives were so clearly present in the minds of so many commentators, when I knew first-hand that they were not necessarily motives found in the hearts of continuation novel writers. I had not met Faulks at that point, so I had no idea how he felt, but I was willing to believe that it was possible he felt about Jeeves and Wooster the way I did about Poirot. As I said in many interviews shortly afterwards, I was so excited to be asked to write a new Poirot novel that I’d have done it for twenty quid and a packet of Maltesers. I honestly didn’t mind whether I got paid for this project or not (and I regularly said so, much to my agent’s consternation); I saw it as an opportunity to write a love letter, in book form, to Dame Agatha, my hero and favourite author.

Hilariously, some newspaper columnists carried on as if the expectation that one might make some money from one’s writing was something unique to the writers of continuation novels; it occurred to me that I had never noticed any commentator questioning whether Bestselling Author X was genuinely and uniquely inspired by a story that was simply bursting to be told when he wrote his twenty-fourth bestselling thriller in twenty-four years. Once a year, those flashes of inspiration seize and consume writers of non-continuation commercial fiction and it has nothing to do with a need to earn money, of course; the same cannot be said for us nefarious authors of continuation novels.

Let’s get some definitions sorted out before we go any further. A continuation novel is when a living writer writes a completely new story featuring a much-loved character created by a famous (and almost always dead) writer. Anthony Horowitz’s Bond and Sherlock Holmes novels are continuation novels, as are David Lagercrantz’s Lisbeth Salander books.

Agatha Christie ponders a new mystery

Continuations aren’t the only species treated as despicable moral transgressors, you’ll be glad to hear. It can happen to adaptations too – books that were completed by their authors, and that are subsequently turned into TV dramas by screenwriters, sometimes having plot and character details significantly altered in the process. Many Sherlock Holmes fans think that the recent Sherlock TV adaptations are a form of sacrilege. Sarah Phelps’s Agatha Christie TV adaptations cause controversy each Christmas – Agatha purists are left reeling when both the murderer and the motive are different from the ones in the original novel.

Mark Gatiss, creator of the new Sherlock TV series, boldly rejects all accusations of moral turpitude. He believes that adaptors have a duty to make their adaptations different and new. In an interview he said, “I feel very strongly about not just drearily reproducing the book. You are duty-bound to think: ‘Here’s an idea, why don’t we flip this round,’ especially if people know it well. It doesn’t spoil the original. No one burns the manuscript.” When I read that, I smiled at his use of the word “duty”. Good on him. Why not bring a suggestion of moral obligation into the proceedings, when the other side is going all out to suggest that adaptations which stray too far from the original constitute a serious ethical transgression?

Andrew Davies, who is adapting Austen’s ‘Sanditon’ for television

So, we have continuations and adaptations, and then we have Andrew Davies’s Sanditon, which falls into a third category: the same one that contains Money in the Morgue by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy, and Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy L Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh. All three living writers – Davies, Duffy and Paton-Walsh – have completed fragments of works by deceased writers. It would make perfect sense to call these continuations, were it not for the fact that the term “continuation novel” already means something else. Perhaps we need a term like “Finish-ations” to describe this third variety of works to which both past and present writers have contributed.

As to whether continuations, adaptations and finish-ations are heroic or villainous, everyone is free to decide for themselves whether to vote yay and consume, or vote nay and ignore. What strikes me as a far more pointless endeavour is to try to assert what should or should not happen when it is not our decision to make. That would be as futile as if I were to have strong views about where Danielle Steel ought to position her dining room table – it’s not my decision to make and none of my business, and it would therefore be morally wrong of me to try to insist that my opinion ought to prevail when others (Steel in particular) might strongly disagree.

Where a work is still in copyright, it is the family or the estate of the original author that has the power to decide. The Wodehouse estate wanted and commissioned Faulks’s continuation novel; Stieg Larsson’s partner did not welcome David Lagercrantz’s books, but she didn’t own the copyright – Larsson’s father and brother did, and they took a different view. Vladimir Nabokov asked his wife to destroy his book The Original of Laura and she ignored him and published it; the 2015 publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which paints hero Atticus Finch in a less flattering light, was regarded as a transgression by many critics at the time (Lee had insisted over the decades that she would not release another novel following To Kill A Mockingbird; the announcement to publish this one came when her health was in decline).

Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera go chasing butterflies

The thing is, though, that people read all of the above listed books – and presumably they did so because they wanted to. Who is any of us to say that they should have been deprived of the opportunity to do so, when the people whose actual decision it is think differently? If anyone thinks a continuation or an adaptation is terrible, or not something they want to watch or read, the sensible thing is to a) accept that it exists, and b) not read or watch it. Saying that something shouldn’t happen when it already has reveals a worrying degree of control-freakishness that does no one any good. And surely the only correct answer to “Whose story/character is it anyway?” is “Whoever owns the copyright in those characters”.

I firmly believe that death, though it has its downsides for sure, has some advantages too. One of the things I’m most looking forward to about being dead is never trying to control any outcomes. That’s going to be amazing! Trying to control outcomes is exhausting, and usually pointless too. And, while I would never dream of collaborating creatively while I’m alive with That Writer I Have A Massive Grudge About, if I die with an unfinished novel on my desk and my heirs decide to contract that same writer to finish my book, I want them to know in advance that that’s absolutely fine with me. Once nothing is up to me any more, I’m very happy to let the still-alive people make all the decisions. (And do all the tidying up.)


All photographs Getty Images

Further reading


Wide Sargasso Sea, which is Jean Rhys’s more Bertha-friendly approach to Jane Eyre and a brilliant novel in its own right.

William Shakespeare’s King Lear is a retelling of The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three Daughters, an anonymous 16th-century play.


Money in the Morgue by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy; a fantastic new Inspector Alleyn mystery with a Golden Age beginning supplied by Dame Ngaio herself.

Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy L Sayers and Jill Paton-Walsh; a seamless blend of old and new wonderfulness.

Screen Adaptations

West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein; in my opinion, the best Broadway musical of all time. Oh, and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

House MD is the best TV drama ever. Mystery-based, and a version/re-interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, but set in the world of medicine.

Witness for the Prosecutiona black-and-white movie starring Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, based on Agatha Christie’s stage play of the same name – absolute perfection!

Sophie Hannah headshot

Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah is a Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling writer of crime fiction, published in 49 languages. In 2014, with the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family and estate, she published a new Poirot novel, ‘The Monogram Murders’. She has since published two more Poirot novels, ‘Closed Casket’ and ‘The Mystery of Three Quarters’.