Just as "Joanie Loves Chachi" and "Laverne & Shirley" spun off with a focus
on minor characters originally seen in the original television series "Happy
Days," so too are there literary spinoffs. A spinoff is different from a sequel in
that it does not continue the protagonist's story, instead it is drawn either
from the backstory or from the viewpoint of a secondary character who appears in
the original tale. In literature, as in life, every well-drawn individual can be
the star of their own show. In A Vengeful Longing Morris takes the
relatively minor-yet-key character of the police magistrate and makes him the
center of his own set of novels (consisting so far of
The Gentle Axe and A Vengeful Longing). It is, to my limited
knowledge, the first spinoff inspired by a Dostoevsky novel.
Although I know there must have been dozens if-not-hundreds before it, the first literary spinoff I recall reading was Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, inspired by none other than William Shakespeare's Hamlet. More recently there's been Finn by John Clinch, the backstory of Huckleberry Finn's despicable father; Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, about Aenias's second wife; and March by Geraldine Brooks, about the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Surely everyone is familiar with Gregory Maguire's take on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and more recently his Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister inspired by Cinderella. Finally it is obvious that Sena Jeter Naslund plodded through Melville's Moby Dick and came up with a story about the crazed captain's little known spouse in Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-gazer.
It seems, however, that no two authors have inspired more spinoff novels than Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen. Little wonder. A quick internet search reveals that between characters such as Holmes's mentor Dr. Joseph Bell (The Patient's Eyes by David Pine), the notorious Irene Adler (who bested Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia and stars in a series of more than a dozen novels by Carole Nelson Douglas) and Mary Russell (Holmes's partner in detection and wife as found in Laurie R. King's series), to say nothing of the multitude of books penned about the infamous Moriarty there is a lot to draw from. Austen's literary creations too have spawned their share of spinoffs with novels such as These Three Remain: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman by Pamela Aidan, and Lady Catherine's Necklace by Joan Aiken, both inspired by characters in Pride and Prejudice and both part of their own series.
Sometimes the spinoff is a hit "The Facts of Life" had a longer run than "Different Strokes", and "Wicked" went on to become a hit Broadway play. Sometimes the spinoff is a miss "Baywatch Nights" sank after only two seasons and most Moriarty books languish in bookstore bargain bins.
In any case there is no limit to what an author can spin off given an active imagination. Is it the highest form of praise or a lazy rip off? You decide.
This article is from the July 11, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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