Extending canonical works: what would Austen say?

We live in a time of Kirk and Spock recreated; of Gatsby according to Luhrmann; of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Whatever you think of remakes and spin-offs, they are an unavoidable aspect of creative media today, and why shouldn’t they be?

Telling fresh stories through existing characters isn’t the product of laziness or unoriginality: I for one would rather experience Regency era homicide through the eyes of Elizabeth Bennet than amidst a crowd of unfamiliar top hats and petticoats. The BBC adaptation of P. D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberly offers just that, and does a fantastic job of delving deep into the hearts and minds of Austen’s iconic characters.

Perceptions of the sanctity of original, canonical works boils down to whether we feel that there could be anything left to say about fictional worlds and their inhabitants. If J.K. Rowling wants to produce a West End prequel to Harry Potter’s story, or if a fourteen year old girl, enamoured with Edward Cullen, wants to write fanfiction about him celebrating Vampire Christmas, where’s the harm? These things don’t cancel out the author’s original work; they aren’t required reading for every literature buff.

Some could argue that through new interpretations beloved characters could be misrepresented; that the memory of respected authors could be tainted; that a new generation would miss out if they grew up with Winnie the Pooh living in East London instead of Hundred Acre Wood.

But some of mankind’s most loved tales come from centuries of copying, editing, rewording, deleting, and shifting themes to fit the ideologies of the day. The Arthurian legends, one of the few long-lasting myths that Britain can call its own, were expanded and rewritten countless times by authors whose names we don’t even remember - the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, potentially the legend’s most renowned story, was not mentioned before input from writers in 12th century France.

It’s doubtless that creative works can be of deep emotional significance to their creators, but they can mean just as much to their audience. For centuries, oral traditions allowed stories only to be passed on through the myriad interpretations of common people. The art of copyright may have made us fearful of exploring characters and worlds that are not entirely our own but, as long as respects are paid, why shouldn’t we express ourselves?

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