One or two of you might have read By The Sea, my Gothick Bodice Ripper with Detectives, which was originally serialized by my Occam’s Typewriter Compadre Jenny Rohn on her LabLit website, but now published in book form and available on all good e-book platforms, and even as a paperback. One of the readers was my friend Mr J. W.-V., a fellow Norfolk resident, musician and newsroom journalist. Like me, Mr. J. W.-V. is a Driven Man, who simply must fill every minute with sixty seconds’ distance run, so in addition to doing — oooh — all sorts of things, he has decided to learn how to write an adapted screenplay, and, blow me down, he chose By The Sea as a text to adapt, egged on by Mrs L. W.-V., who had first devoured enjoyed the book.

Mr J. W.-V. sent me the completed treatment, adapted for some future televisual emission — full of apology that he had had to condense a somewhat ruminative, detailed story full of internal monologue into a zippy screenplay. I have to say he’s done a terrific job — and I can say publicly that no apology is necessary.

Here’s why.

Many years ago when I was a graduate student I found myself engaged in discussion with a literature major who told me what, then, to me, seemed an outrageous notion. That is, although an author might put their name on a work, it doesn’t really belong to them. Over the years I have come to believe she was right. It’s a view that authors as diverse as Tolkien and Borges certainly would have acknowledged.

Tolkien wrote that authors should hold on to their works but lightly, as, once they are in the world, people might well seek to embellish them in other means or media. Indeed, it is the failure of a jealous creator to allow others to share in their glory that is the driver of the Silmarillion, the root tale of his legendarium, and the debatable relationship between creators and their works is a theme that runs throughout his stories. When applied to literature, then, it follows then that if other people bring their thoughts to bear, even changing essential parts of the story, it is their right to do so. One might not agree with such changes — but in publishing a work at all such that others might read it, one has no right to complain. Borges, for his part, riffed on the idea of influence-spotting in his characteristically playful essay Kafka And His Precursors. So, if all this was good enough for Tolkien and Borges, it’s good enough for me.

For one thing, authors draw material out of their influences; things they have read; ideas that have in turn been influenced and shaped by myriad other influences, or just out of the air. Nothing is ever created that’s entirely original or new. When asked about the influences for his remarkable Ents – those strange humanoid mobile trees – Tolkien admitted that he didn’t know whence they had sprung, except, perhaps, from an array of influences that might have composted and mixed together in his mind.

Second, a book is no more than an pile of inert scratchings until and unless someone else reads it, and their picture of it might be very different from that in the author’s mind, bringing to it a raft of ideas and associations which are all their own, and nothing to do with the author. A book is an ongoing, ever-changing, protean conversation between author and reader.

The consequence is that once a book is let out into the world, the author really has no license to criticize what anyone else does with it, especially in another medium. So, if Mr J.-W.-V.’s screenplay gets taken up and actually realized, I’ll be the first on the sofa with the popcorn.

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
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