Last Tuesday, the French Supreme Court gave its verdict in a case which has run for several years, brought by the heirs of Victor Hugo against a publishing house, Plon. Pierre Hugo had argued that François Cérésa’s sequels to Les Misérables, Cosette or The Time Of Illusions, and Marius or The Fugitive were retroactively damaging the reputation of his ancestor. From the titles alone, it’s hard not to think he had a point. And that’s before you find out that Cosette and Marius are now rich and happy and Javert did not die in the murky waters of the Seine, but became only briefly damp. Hugo had lost an earlier case, when the Court of Appeal demanded that Plon pay €1 damages. It was symbolic, said Le Figaro. No kidding.
Although this case is doubtless a triumph for free speech over censorship, I find myself siding with Pierre Hugo, and not just because his name couldn’t be more French if it tried. The Courts had argued that Victor Hugo had specifically left his work in the public domain, and not to his heirs. Probably he thought his books, like all great art, would be held sacred by those who loved them. That, I imagine, is because he never had the chance to read As Time Goes By, by Michael Walsh. Because, honestly, which of us hasn’t watched the ending of Casablanca and thought, ‘The beginning of a beautiful friendship, huh? Are you sure? I may need to know more.’ Personally, I wait every year for a follow-up novel to The Italian Job, where a mountain rescue team arrives to hoover up pieces of Michael Caine from the bottom of a cliff.
So many works of art (or craft, depending on the generosity of their critics) are ruined by sequels, re-writes or other post hoc interference. Ridley Scott famously released the director’s cut of Bladerunner in 1992, 10 years after the studio had rendered the film incomprehensible, and then demanded a voice-over, so that it made sense. Across the world, nerds inhaled sharply - he’s a replicant, and that casual origami unicorn was a vital plot device. Scott is due to release another version soon, so God knows what will be revealed in that one, but I reckon Darryl Hannah will turn out to be part badger, thus explaining her make-up.
Pierre Hugo is absolutely right – a new work, based on a classic, can make you completely reappraise your view of the original. I cite the case of Star Wars, an integral part of my generation’s childhood. Not only are the new films nine kinds of wrong, but they have also made me like the early films significantly less – Darth Vader was the helmeted asthmatic of our collective infant nightmares. Now when I watch him striding along a Death Star corridor, all I can see is Hayden Christiansen’s pouting face beneath. Still scary, I admit, but not in quite the same way.
Similarly, Silence Of The Lambs is a genuinely disturbing film. The idea of pure, intelligent evil, caged, is one which creeps right under our skin and stays there, drinking Chianti. Its sequel, Hannibal, sees the eponymous serial killer on the loose and living in Florence. His nemesis has a leather face, and a trained squadron of Pavlovian vampire pigs, and the denouement features Ray Liotta eating his own brain. Maybe this would have been scarier if his head hadn’t appeared to contain its own internal light source, as though he’d just had an particularly good idea whilst in a cartoon, but probably not.
And don’t even start me on Superman Returns (it’s like Superman, but longer, duller and an acceptable reason to self harm). Nor Jaws 4, Rocky 5, or Die Hard 2: Die Harder, every one of which has made me fix their progenitors with a newly beady eye, as though a beloved friend had produced an especially abhorrent baby in an ill-judged outfit.
This isn’t to suggest that all sequels and spin-offs are intrinsically bad. Two of the smartest and funniest TV series of all time – The West Wing, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, each of which ran for seven seasons – came from less successful films. And recently, Bafta nominations have been rightly heaped upon Casino Royale, the second film of that title. The first needed four directors, probably because the famed baccarat scene had to be shot twice with doubles standing in for the absent Orson Welles or Peter Sellers, who refused to be in the studio at the same time.
Nonetheless, we should drink to Pierre Hugo, who tried, and nobly failed, to save us from a future containing Tess of The D’Urbervilles: The Domestic Goddess, Josef K, My Life As A Public Defender, and Sophie’s Choice.