As authors age, and pass away, sometimes they leave behind a body of work that their families and publishers and fans want to see continue. The most famous example is probably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is as busy now as he was a hundred years ago. (Ironic, of course, since Doyle “killed” Holmes and only reluctantly brought him back.) Star Trek, originally the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, has continued and evolved well after his death.
Which brings us to today’s topic: the evolution of characters and concepts by other authors subsequent to the author’s passing. Who safeguards the author’s intent (if anyone)? How important is that intent? Does anyone have the right to make fundamental changes to an iconic character other than the author?
Some authors, like J.K. Rowling, take steps to make sure their intent is not thwarted; she purposely added a coda to her last book so that it would be harder for others to take her characters into unwanted directions. And some media, such as TV and film, assume that control will never lie with one creator. But let’s stick to books where the author has simply “left off,” for whatever reason.
Getting back to Holmes, because besides being famous, he allows for an obvious example. There have been spoofs and homages postulating different ideas on Holmes and Watson, but none of those were intended to be canonical, and no one took them for such. But what if an “official” continuation were undertaken under the authority of his estate? (Ignoring the fact that some of the earlier works have passed out of copyright.) What if (taking the obvious example and making no value judgements), a new, canonical, novel set forth the idea that Holmes and Watson were lovers? Does the new author (or the estate) have the right to make such a drastic change?
Yes, social mores have evolved (even Victorians were certainly aware of homosexuality (see Oscar Wilde)), and our understanding of such a relationship would be far different from the understanding of Doyle’s original reader. But would it be right? It’s unlikely that Doyle intended it, but Watson’s notebooks were sufficiently incomplete that you could probably interpolate practically anything you liked. Still, left to his own devices, the author (we can safely assume) never would have gone down that road. And you can extend this idea to most any famous book or series. (Jane Austen: “You tell them, sir!”)
It’s natural to want to continue profitable and popular series. And it’s natural to want them to evolve to fit current tastes. But as Victor Frankenstein’s example posits: Just because we can do something, does that make it a good idea?