Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This really isn't complicated.

Spider-Man is a hero who fights baddies. He can carry on having adventures as long as the writers can think up baddies for him to fight. You might think that no-one ever wrote and drew Spider-Man as well as Ditko and Lee did (and frankly, if you don't think that, then I don't want to be your friend any more) but the idea of "Spider-Man stories by people other than Ditko and Lee" isn't intrinsically silly.


Similarly, once one person has had the idea of a sophisticated English assassin who hates Russians and likes martinis, it isn't intrinsically silly for a second person to invent new adventures for him.
It may be intrinsically stupid to suppose that he can continue to exist into the 21st century without getting any older, or suddenly turn into a black man, but that's not the question I'm worrying about at the moment.

And a clever modern detective story writer might conceivably be able to think up decent new mysteries for Sherlock Holmes
to solve, although it isn't quite clear why they would want to. If you've got an idea for a mystery that's worth solving, why not let your own detective solve it?

Going back to comics, were I in a magnanimous mood, I might concede that there have been one or two
episodes of the Fantastic Four since 1970 which haven't been a complete waste of space. Before everyone jumps up and down shouting "John Byrne, John Byrne", I will note that Mr. Byrne's cleverness was in being as close to Mr. Kirby and Mr. Lee as it is physically possible to be, making his comics arguably pastiches and arguably redundant, even if they are quite enjoyable redundant pastiches. But surely it was Jack Kirby's uniquely deranged concepts, embellished by Stan lee's uniquely overdone writing, that made the Fantastic Four the Fantastic Four and once you take away Mr Kirby's stories and pictures and Mr Lee's dialogue, what you are left with is four not particularly interesting adventures.

But things like The New Gods
(I'm looking at YOU Jim Starlin even though my fourteen year old self thought Warlock was profound) and The Eternals (you should be ashamed of yourself, Neil Gaiman, ashamed) derive all of their interest from being "a slice of what it feels like to be Jack Kirby in graphic form". Nothing that has been done with those characters by people other than Jack has had anything to do with the source material, and very little of it has had any merit on its own terms. (I believe that people who know about these things think that Darksied was once well-used as a villain in the Legion of Superheroes.)

But if you wanted to come up with the clearest possible example of a work of fiction whose whole interest comes from the original writer's cock-eyed way of looking at the world; whose whole interest is in being "the universe as seen through the eyes of..." then it would be The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. (If you wanted to come up with the second clearest possible example, it would be The Prisoner.) I am not saying that a story by A.N Other writer in which there happen to be characters called Ford, Arthur and Zaphod would be a travesty, or the equivalent of weeing on Douglas Adams grave or that they would somehow damage the original books.

The original books - and more importantly, the original 3-7 hours of radio footage - exist, and will always exist, as a snapshot of what 1970s earth looked like through the eyes of a particularly clever and silly man.

But still. A non-Adamsian sequel to Hitchhiker is a preposterously stupid idea.


Don't do it, guys. You'll regret it in the morning.

30 comments:

Andrew Hickey said...

They're not, are they? Dear God...

(BTW, some of Grant Morrison's work with the Fourth World characters has a lot of the feel of the original stuff, precisely because he does the *opposite* of what Starlin or Byrne would have done and is completely irreverent towards the source material).

Andrew Stevens said...

Wait, Arthur's dead. I remember reading that in the last (not very good) book Adams wrote in the series.

It's also impossible to imagine anyone doing anything with The Prisoner which was worth watching (or reading or anything else). However, I would include Patrick McGoohan.

Ben said...

Andrew H: they are. Eoin Colfer is taking the reins. Personally I'd rather read another Arty adventure.

Andrew S: Arthur may be dead but then Earth was quite definitely destroyed, which presented no real obstacle to subsequent Earth-based adventures.

The Simpsons had a fair stab at the Prisoner. Don't see it working with anyone else.

Site Owner said...

Well except that, Thomas M Disch wrote a good Prisoner novel, and so did Jon Blum (co-wrote). Two other lesser writers wrote two bad pastiches, but the issue wasn't that they shouldn't have tried to write a new Prisoner book/series but that they should have been better writers. The only issue is *can* someone write as well as Douglas Adams. If not, not doing so is its own punishment. Oh, and John Byrne's FF was great.

Simon BJ

Andrew Rilstone said...

What I was trying to say -- doubtless not very clearly -- was this:

The "Prisoner" is Patrick McGoohan. Whatever merit it has (and I am by no means its biggest fan) comes from Patrick McGoohan saying stuff that he believed about the 1960s. Take that away and you are left with some bicycles, some blazers, some Cornish architecture and some catch phrases. Yes, certainly, if you brief a good writer to writer "A novel based on 'The Prisoner' " there's a chance that he'll come up with a decent piece of work. But what on earth is the point? Hell, J*A*C*K K*I*R*B*Y started to do a comic book adaptation of "The Prisoner". (He also ripped it off for an episode of the "Fantastic Four", at the stage when he and Stan had stopped talking to each other.) But you can bet that it would be a Jack Kirby story, not a "Prisoner" story. I'm rather a big fan of the shortly lived Kirby "2001: A Space Odyssey" comic book, actually. Because I love it when Jack gets to just free associate and be cosmic and wierd. Point of connection to Arthur C Clarke? Nil.

It isn't a question of finding someone who can write "as well" as Douglas Adams. I can easily think of a dozen people who can write as "well" or "better" than him. (Salman Rushdie. Martin Amis. Simon Hoggart. Terry Pratchett.) The question is whether you can find someone who can write Douglas Adams material as well as Douglas Adams, to which the answer is "No, of course you can't, because what makes a writer's "style" isn't a few verbal mannerisms, but everything he has learned about the world, and about language, in his whole life, and no-one in the world has led the same life as him, which is why it's writing and not just typing." Yes: quite possibly the person who gets the licence will come up with an amusing little book. And their amusing little book will sell oodles of copies by virtue of having "official" stamped on it by Adams survivors, but it will not have anything whatsoever to do with "Hitchiker" so I can't see the point.

John Byrne did a very good nostalgic re-creation of Lee and Kirby, yes. I said so. My question is whether there is any point in this kind of affectionate forgery when the original is freely available.

Phil Masters said...

Italianate architecture. Transplanted to North Wales.

(Sorry.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Do you realise that means I've spent 20 years believing Portmerion is in Cornwall, when it's really in Wales? What did I have it confused with, I wonder. (St. Ives?)

Andrew Stevens said...

It's worse than that. Believing Portmeirion was in Cornwall is a mistake anyone can make. Believing Portmeirion represents Cornish architecture is baffling. And, of course, you didn't mention weather balloons.

I happen to love The Prisoner, but McGoohan pretty much finished it. What's the point of doing more fiction set there when there's nothing left to say? I haven't read the Disch or Blum novels, but there's nothing interesting they can say which ought to be told in The Prisoner format. The new TV show in development hell sounds like a similarly bad idea. For one thing, The Prisoner has dated very well, thanks to its high production values at the time. And if you're going to "reimagine" The Prisoner, why not just write your own show?

culfy said...

Is it really that bad for some other than Adams to write a Hitchiker's work. After all a precedent has already been set with the movie, which Adams died before being able to complete the screenplay. Therefore, we already have an example, with the Hitchikers Movie, of someone trying to write in the Adams' style......oh hang on, I see what you mean now.

NickPheas said...

I always rather assumed that the stage play, records, novels, TV series, films etc were fanfic anyhow. Admittedly, often by a very qualified fan, but not really canonical.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think the extension of the word "fan-fic" to mean "any work I personally dislike" could eventually be a source of conflict.

The stage play, and I'm one of only about 16 people who saw it, was pretty much the text of the first radio series done as 3 hours of theatre, but (if I remember correctly, and why, at a distance of thirty years, wouldn't I) with the "Disaster Area" material substituted for the Hagamemnons.

culfy said...

with the "Disaster Area" material substituted for the Hagamemnons.

Which was the routine for the records, novels and tv programmes.

For the very good reason that the Hagamemnons were not written by Douglas Adams but by John Lloyd.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Is that right? Didn't know that. I've always thought "Do for Darwin what a fleet of Acturan stunt apples would have done for Newton" is a wonderful line. (Raising the question of why the Guide has heard of Darwin and Newton, of course.)

culfy said...

Is that right? Didn't know that. I've always thought "Do for Darwin what a fleet of Acturan stunt apples would have done for Newton" is a wonderful line. (Raising the question of why the Guide has heard of Darwin and Newton, of course.)

According to 'Wish You Were Here" by Nick Webb, Douglas Adams had reached a stage where he was writing not only Hitchikers but also Doctor Who and desperately needed a collaborator so he turned to his room-mate John Lloyd "at least one long Narrator's speech in episode six was entirely down to John, who also dreamed up the Haggunenons".

Phil Masters said...

I thought that there were more than 16 people in the theatre the night I saw the stage play.

Though admittedly I didn't see all of it,due to having to catch the last train and the play lasting longer than scheduled, due to Ken Campbell deciding to insert some deeply boring second-rate rock music at one point for no apparent reason.

Gavin Burrows said...

But still. A non-Adamsian sequel to Hitchhiker is a preposterously stupid idea.

Isn't at least part of the stupidity of this idea the fact that Hitch Hiker is primarily a comedy? Science Fiction writers pick up each others' concepts and even terms all the time, without anyone worrying about it too much.

But comedy's about somebody presenting you with their quirky, quite individualisd view of how everything is.

culfy said...

But comedy's about somebody presenting you with their quirky, quite individualisd view of how everything is.

The argument could be made that a lot of american comedy is somebody's quirky individualised view of how everything is transcribed through the medium of other writes (The Simpsons is Matt Groenings view done by other writers, 'Seinfeld' is Larry David's view done by other writers, 'The Office - An American Workplace' is Ricky Gervais's view done by other writers in an American context).

But then the argument is that Douglas Adam's view is so individualised that no other writer could pick up - a few people could come up with the idea of using a fish as a translation device, only Douglas could examine the philosophical implications of this enough to show that should a device would ultimately prove the non-existence of god.

Gavin Burrows said...

culfy said...
The argument could be made that a lot of american comedy is somebody's quirky individualised view of how everything is transcribed through the medium of other writes (The Simpsons is Matt Groenings view done by other writers, 'Seinfeld' is Larry David's view done by other writers, 'The Office - An American Workplace' is Ricky Gervais's view done by other writers in an American context).

Well at least your first example would indeed be a very good counter-argument to what I said. Of course The Simpsons still maintains the appearance of individuality. As has often been observed, those dayglo orange concoctions feel a lot more real than most flesh-and-blood characters. You laugh at something Homer says not just because it’s so funny, but because it’s so Homer. (You can see that tailing off in the later, less focused series.) How you can do that by committee I’ve really no idea.

But then the argument is that Douglas Adam's view is so individualised that no other writer could pick up - a few people could come up with the idea of using a fish as a translation device, only Douglas could examine the philosophical implications of this enough to show that should a device would ultimately prove the non-existence of god.

Of course translation devices have always been a staple of SF, and they normally translate between writers fairly liberally. As they’re just a handy get-around to propel the story, you don’t really notice who thought them up first. I doubt I’ll ever get used to the fish in the year, even if a translation website’s now named after it.

I also suspect Hitch Hiker was at its best when it was structured like a comedy routine rather than a plot, free-associating more and more strange encounters and kooky concepts. You follow it to see what Adams will come up with next, not whether Arthur will ever get off with Trillian or return to Earth. In the later episodes even written by Adams, he returned much more to earlier themes and things were generally the poorer for it...

culfy said...

Well at least your first example would indeed be a very good counter-argument to what I said. Of course The Simpsons still maintains the appearance of individuality. As has often been observed, those dayglo orange concoctions feel a lot more real than most flesh-and-blood characters. You laugh at something Homer says not just because it’s so funny, but because it’s so Homer. (You can see that tailing off in the later, less focused series.) How you can do that by committee I’ve really no idea.

I imagine that the difference between The Simpsons and Hitchikers is that the former depends upon the interplay between the characters and the density of jokes and cultural references. You can easily imagine Matt Groening saying to his team 'Homer's stupid, Bart's rebellious, Lisa's smart go away and write some storylines on that basis and add a load of film references". Whereas I doubt any other writer could come up with a phrase such as 'The ships hung in the sky in much the same way as bricks don't" or 'The art of flying is the art of throwing yourself at the ground and missing" (I quote from memory)

I also suspect Hitch Hiker was at its best when it was structured like a comedy routine rather than a plot, free-associating more and more strange encounters and kooky concepts. You follow it to see what Adams will come up with next, not whether Arthur will ever get off with Trillian or return to Earth

Indeed. My whole problem with the film of Hitchikers was that it did indeed assume that the point of the story was to care whether or not Arthur and Trillian got together.

Gavin Burrows said...

Culfy said...
You can easily imagine Matt Groening saying to his team 'Homer's stupid, Bart's rebellious, Lisa's smart go away and write some storylines on that basis and add a load of film references".

Well, I’d argue there was much more of a richness to the characters than easy stereotypes. I like the way, for example, Homer is full aware how stupid he is but still able to talk himself into his next hairbrained theme. Or the way Lisa snaps back into being an 8 yr old girl when you least expect it. That’s the stuff I can’t imagine being done by committee, though (as you rightly point out) it is!

My whole problem with the film of Hitchikers was that it did indeed assume that the point of the story was to care whether or not Arthur and Trillian got together.

I never bothered to see the film. But even in the later Adams stories you get, for example, the return of the girl who dreams up a way we can all live together in peace and harmony with no-one nailed to anything. First time round, it’s a great gag. But what we want is another gag just as good, not the convoluted in-joke of her returning.

culfy said...

Culfy said...
You can easily imagine Matt Groening saying to his team 'Homer's stupid, Bart's rebellious, Lisa's smart go away and write some storylines on that basis and add a load of film references".


Well, I’d argue there was much more of a richness to the characters than easy stereotypes. I like the way, for example, Homer is full aware how stupid he is but still able to talk himself into his next hairbrained theme. Or the way Lisa snaps back into being an 8 yr old girl when you least expect it. That’s the stuff I can’t imagine being done by committee, though (as you rightly point out) it is!


Indeed. I never intended to suggest that the characterisation on the Simpsons was two dimensional, merely that it is easy to imagine the basic characters being laid out for other writers to run with. It may even be that the characteristics you suggest (Lisa resorting to being a seven year old) were developed by another writer and fed back into the overall series bible with the approval of Matt Groening.



My whole problem with the film of Hitchikers was that it did indeed assume that the point of the story was to care whether or not Arthur and Trillian got together.

I never bothered to see the film. But even in the later Adams stories you get, for example, the return of the girl who dreams up a way we can all live together in peace and harmony with no-one nailed to anything. First time round, it’s a great gag. But what we want is another gag just as good, not the convoluted in-joke of her returning.


True. A bowl of petunias thinking 'Oh no not again" as it falls to its doom is a funny joke. I think the joke is lessened when a convoluted explanation as to why this happened is created. But then Douglas Adams isn't the first writer to fall into the trap of trying to retroactively explain and justify elements of his own creation rather than trying to develop new creations.

Thursday, 09 October, 2008

Gavin Burrows said...

I couldn't agree with these comments more!

(Those who log onto the net hoping for a punch-up are not entitled to a refund.)

culfy said...

"I couldn't agree with these comments more!

(Those who log onto the net hoping for a punch-up are not entitled to a refund.)"

Where I come from, them's fighting words.

Gavin Burrows said...

Phew! That's a relief.

Andrew Stevens said...

Perhaps we could talk about the German influence on American Matt Groening's humor. His father Homer Groening, grew up in a Mennonite Plattdeutsch-speaking humor. It could easily be the German influence which makes Americans better at humor-by-committee.

Andrew Stevens said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Stevens said...

That should have been family, not humor in the second sentence.

Gavin Burrows said...

As the English are forever insisting that the Simpsons is honorary British and that the Germans have no sense of humour, this appeals to my sense of mischief.

Whether there's anything to it is another matter!

culfy said...

As the English are forever insisting that the Simpsons is honorary British

Really? I haven't heard this before. Is this a sort of 'no true scotsman" "The Americans don't understand irony or subtlety" "What about The Simpsons?" "That's not American, it's honorary British"

Gavin Burrows said...

It's more implicit than explicit. But yes, as you describe...