Sequels and Spinoffs: serving commercial or creative interests?

What are the impacts of adding to a fictional universe?

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A shot of a sign outside a theatre showing 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.'
A sign for 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child'. Source: Flickr

“Okay cool BUT WHAT ABOUT WINDS OF WINTER”, reads the entirety of the most liked review on Goodreads’s page for George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood. The beauty of Goodreads’s semi-democratic system is that it can be relied on to yield fairly representative opinions, factoring in some degree of social media savvy required to get your review to the top. The point is, the above reviewer was by no means an anomaly: When Fire and Blood hit shelves last month, its release was overshadowed by the avalanche of voices demanding that, instead of furnishing yet another 700-page side project that nobody had asked for, Martin should get to work on the next instalment of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. The latest offering of the series that began with A Game of Thrones in 1991 has been seven years in the making with no end in sight.

Most cases of maligned spin-offs are not as overt as outright having a hand in hampering completion of the main series. There are more subtle ways they can detract from the experience of the original. Perhaps the most polarising sequel of recent years, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, drew intense scrutiny for contradicting Lee’s repeated assertions that she would never release another novel, with many wondering whether she’d been “taken advantage of in her old age” by opportunistic publishers. It didn’t help that Watchman, although chronologically set two decades later, was practically an early draft of what would eventually become the classic To Kill a Mockingbird; the most jarring transformation manifested in the complete reversal of Atticus Finch’s character from beloved civil rights near-icon to raging segregationist. While some readers pointed to red flags in Mockingbird that had always betrayed Atticus’s underlying prejudices, others argued that Watchman portrayed a prototype of a character who would evolve through revisions into the principled man they’d always loved.

Although To Kill a Mockingbird will likely remain a classic no matter what spin-offs/rip-offs are published in its name, there are lessons to be learned from the controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman. Most obviously, far from immunising works from being put under a microscope, the names of legends such as Harper Lee set an even higher bar for the novels they headline. After all, a higher-profile author means a louder, larger fanbase, and the last thing fanbases like is being told that they were wrong. Wrong about the story; wrong about the message; wrong about the fundamental beliefs of the figure they revered. To rub salt in the wound, the offending publication was barely more than a naked cash grab.

Commercialisation of lucrative book franchises makes for an easy target, but by no means do spin-offs require financial motivations to attract fire. Take the perennial childhood favourite of Harry Potter. Even after J.K. Rowling’s infamous assertion that “the story of [Harry Potter and the Cursed Child] should be considered canon”, legions of fans adamantly decry the stage play as horribly written, out of character fanfiction that butchered the spirit of the original series. As the world’s first billion-dollar author, it’s unlikely that Rowling was in desperate need of extra cash from Cursed Child. The critically acclaimed play, whose West End production picked up six Tony Awards, was more likely a product of genuine creative interest on the part of its writers (Rowling was one of several contributors). That didn’t save it from the ire of fans. Popular authors’ universes often expand beyond their control, fan theories evolving into cemented pillars of belief. If additions to an author’s universe clash with those beliefs, even if the additions are technically consistent with previous works, there inevitably arises the sense of being somehow cheated, of seeing a known truth destroyed.

Whether such a feeling is justified remains a different and not easily answerable question. On one hand, an author’s creations are theirs to do with as they please. They owe their audience nothing, the argument goes, and have the right to publish whatever spin-offs, sequels, prequels and companion colouring books (yes, it’s a thing for an increasing number of fantasy series) they wish. But this argument trivialises the amount of time and money that readers invest into a published series, which are invaluable to its success. Like it or not, the moment that an author accepts financial compensation for their work, an element of commercialisation is introduced into it. As long as creative engagement and dedication to the original canon stand alongside, rather than subordinate to, commercial interests, there should be no reason to fear the presence of monetary incentives in the publication of spin-offs. The brand power of a hit original won’t redeem shoddy writing in its successors, but a well-written, canon-consistent sequel may enjoy a warm welcome even if undertaken as a profitable venture. Spin-offs, sequels and the like are just like any other book: They stand on their own merits.

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