My first experience of it was years ago, when I first read Jean Rhys's novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea. In it she told the story of Mrs. Rochester from Jane Eyre — from Mrs. Rochester's point of view. In this story, Mr. Rochester was the villain. It was a fascinating read, and I really enjoyed exploring a well-known and loved story from a totally different point of view.
These days the taking of a long established, beloved work of fiction and rewriting it from a different point of view, in some other style, or with new elements added to the mix has almost become a genre in its own right. It's a very post-modern phenomenon.
Of course it's always a famous novel that's being parodied, recycled or rewritten from a different angle. Part of the appeal is the audience's familiarity with the original work of art. There's not much point in parodying a work that few people have read.
Dead authors or those who have no living heirs or estate trustees are the most vulnerable, as they have no protection. It's doubtful whether living novelists would allow their works to be used for this purpose.
A Swedish author whose book was promoted as a "sequel" to Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, was blocked from having a US release "because it too closely mirrors Salinger's classic without adequate parody or critique, a judge ruled." The book showed the Holden Caulfield character 60 years on from the original story, breaking out of a retirement home instead of a prep school. (source)
A spin-off of Nabokov's famous novel LOLITA is introduced on amazon.com thus: "After much legal wrangling with Nabokov's estate, Pia Pera's Lo's Diary has found its way to America." The Italian author, who was forced to split the English royalties with Nabokov's heirs, rewrote the novel from the point of view of the young girl character in the original Lolita. Emily White said "This is clearly Pera's mission--to vandalize the literary institution that is Lolita, and in this she has succeeded. Her novel is like cultural graffiti that won't wash off the walls for a while, for at least a month or two." (source)
Under English (and I think American) law, copyright protects the words and form in which ideas are expressed, not the ideas, or characters and not even necessarily the plot. So you can pretty much take someone's story, setting and characters and rewrite it and it's not regarded as plagiarism, but if you copy a handful of sentences from someone's novel or non-fiction book, it is. I've always thought that strange. I suppose it boils down to what's "provable" and copied sentences are.
It's different if you're dead. Books like The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, all cash in on the fame of long-dead authors.
Jane Austen's handful of novels have, in particular, achieved an unprecedented popularity and have sparked a truly amazing number of spin-offs. Her books, life and writings have become the raw material for an entire new industry.
It's not only her characters and settings and plots that have been recycled. In many cases it's her words. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, described as " by Austen, Jane (author) and Seth Grahame-Smith (author)" is described as an “expanded edition” of Pride and Prejudice in which 85 percent of the original text has been preserved but fused with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem.” For more than 50 years, we learn, England has been overrun by zombies, prompting people like the Bennets to send their daughters away to China for training in the art of deadly combat, and prompting others, like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, to employ armies of ninjas." (source)
I must admit I haven't dived into the Jane Austen spin-offs. I've seen some of the movies, such as Lost In Austen, which left me luke warm, I admit. But there seems to be no end to the possibilities — Jane and zombies, Jane as a regency-era Miss Marple, even "lost sex scenes" from Jane Austen.
According to Elsa Solender, past president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, by Arielle Eckstut & Dennis Ashton spoofs Jane Austen’s fiction by adding explicit, New Age sexuality to the ‘mix’ of issues she presented. At the same time, it pays implicit homage to its source by echoing her incomparable style with astonishing fidelity. In addition, the authors managed to retain the consistency of the Austen characters as they explored their erotic potential. While nothing is predictable, everything is supportable. Thus, we have some clues as to how Charlotte Lucas survived sex with Mr. Collins.
Admittedly that last is intriguing. But what next?
I have a "top ten" list of Austen spin-offs here from Sarah Sibley.
1. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, by Pamela Aidan, a trilogy of novels based on Mr. Darcy’s perspective of the events that conspired during Pride and Prejudice, namely his relationship with Elizabeth Bennett.
2. The Diary of Henry Fitzwilliam Darcy, by Marjorie Fasman This is very much a prequel to Pride and Prejudice, an exploration into Darcy’s character that may give the reader some perspective on exactly what made Mr. Darcy tick.
3. Mr. Darcy’s Daughters, by Elizabeth Aston This is a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, focusing on the married life of Darcy and Elizabeth. Darcy has been sent on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, leaving Elizabeth with their five daughters in London.
4. Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley, by Linda Berdoll True to form, Elizabeth’s marriage to Mr. Darcy is just as she had hoped—full of passion.
5. Darcy’s Passions, by Regina Jeffers
6. Suspense and Sensibility or, First Impressions Revisited: A Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mystery, by Carrie Bebris
7. Jane Austen in Boca: A Novel, by Paula Marantz Cohen If Austen’s Jewish fans are feeling left out, then this one is for them.
8. Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, by Arielle Eckstut, Dennis Ashton
9. Lions and Liquorice, by Kate Fenton In this modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the roles are reversed.
10. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
I really don't know what to think about this phenomenon. In some ways I hate that people — some of them very mediocre writers — are riding Jane Austen's coat-tails to fame and fortune, mining and re-mining her books, life and letters and twisting them to their own purpose in the quest for new stories — and sales. I'm pretty sure I'd hate it if someone started writing sequels and prequels of my books, using my characters and the world I'd created. Yet I also think people are entitled to celebrate something they enjoy, adding fun elements and playing "what if." So I'm ambivalent. I'm not sure I understand the appeal, but would be very happy to be enlightened.
I haven't read any of the above list. Have you? What do you think about the endless revisiting of Austen? Had enough? Enjoying it? Want more? What's your favorite?