One of the more intriguing aspects of fiction is how the creation of a make-believe world with fully-formed characters is enough to tempt audiences and artists alike into constantly wishing to re-enter that world and find out more about the part of the character’s life that exists just out of sight of the viewer. A key marker is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, with the implication being that it fills in the pre-story of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. There are many more stories in this vein that take us right up to the present with The Meursault Investigation which reframes Camus’ The Outsider through the brother of the eponymous outsider of the title.
However as post-modernity and a self-reflexive irony envelops our culture, we have seen the focus change from adding to the original to reworking the source material so that it is framed in possibilities that would seem absurd to the original authors. Poor Jane Austen has suffered greatly at the hands of others. Indignities heaped upon her characters. Like murder mysteries? Like Pride and Prejudice? Well, try Death in Pemberley! Love zombies? Love Austen? You’ll love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!
That is not to imply that there is anything wrong with this. Quite the contrary, in part this is just a conscious acknowledgement of what has been going on for centuries. Playwrights, novelists, storytellers are continually retelling the same stories through different prisms. This was brought home watching the Oresteia and discovering that the events set in motion by the return of Orestes are mirrored with startling similarity in Hamlet’s return to Elsinore.
The advantages are clear; by using an existing text, you can trade off brand recognition to attract an audience and you avoid the accusation of plagiarism because it is implicit in the process. Yet it comes weighted with great risk; audiences are interested in part because they are emotionally invested in the original characters. Toy with their emotions at great peril.