Bookends: James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot: Why Do We Keep Resurrecting the Same Literary Characters?

By James Parker

So we’re doomed, then, to reboots of reboots of ‘Columbo,’ drifting ever farther from the source like a damaged battle cruiser in space?

James Parker
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

James Parker

Not to get too portentous about it, but this question for me points like a flaming golden arrow to a much larger question, which has to do with the health of our collective imagination. That is, are we caught in a diminishing loop of derivative creativity, some kind of stranglehold of the secondhand? Have we wandered deeper into Eliot’s Waste Land — the fragmented panoramas, the “heap of broken images,” only now with more zombies — than the poet himself could have foreseen? Can it be that our highest form of cultural expression is the YouTube mash-up?

“The originators, the exuberant men, are extinct,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1957, “and in their place subsists and modestly flourishes a generation notable for elegance and variety of contrivance.” We do not have Tolkien, in other words: We have J. J. Abrams. Or Steven Moffat, lead writer of “Doctor Who” since 2009 and co-creator (if that’s the right word) of the new BBC/Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. Nothing against Abrams and Moffat; they’re both clearly brilliant — zanily gifted reorganizers and rewirers of material. “Elegance and variety of contrivance,” yes indeed, by the bucketload. My point is that the material, for the most part, is not theirs. They work in tropes, memes, brands, jingles, known quantities, canned reactions, market-tested flavors, whatever you want to call them. The cultural critic Simon Reynolds has named this phenomenon “retromania”: He published a fascinating book about it in 2011. Tolkien, too, was of course drawing on his sources, his own scholarly vaults of inspiration, his Kalevalas and Nibelungenlieds and all that. But he was closer to the root, to the first fictive impulse. Which makes “The Lord of the Rings” a rather juicier and more self-sustaining “subcreation” — to use Tolkien’s terminology — than, say, “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

We shouldn’t discount the commercial factor here: the enormous built-in timidity of the culture industry, which will always be happier with a remake than a new thing. Once you’ve assembled a hero, a hero that works, you should keep using him. Those weird ‘70s movies about nobody in particular, with bad lighting and sort of a bummed-out feel at the end — who wants to watch them anymore? And there’s something to be said, I suppose, for reinvestigating the great fictional characters — for casting a cold postmodern or post-Freudian eye on fussy little Poirot, or druggy Holmes, or numbed-out Bond. We’re no wiser than their authors, but we are, in a sense, older — or at least we have a more developed set of preoccupations. We seem to enjoy locating (or inventing) the wounds of our heroes. We have to give them something, a niggle, a neurosis, some baggage of private pain. Bond goes all stubbly and alcoholic in “Skyfall”; Willy Wonka had an evil dentist father in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Who can touch the deep sorrow of Wolverine? And so on.

So we’re doomed, then? To etiolation, flimsification, more superheroes, reboots of reboots of “Columbo,” drifting ever farther from the source like a damaged battle cruiser in space? Not entirely. Impoverished as we are in this flattened-out, open-source age, we can take credit for at least two great and durable additions to the primary stock, two fully imagined novelties: Jason Bourne and Tony Soprano. Actually, let’s make that three: the Terminator. Four, even: SpongeBob SquarePants! Five: Nurse Jackie. See what I mean? The imagination coins these characters unstoppably. We just have to get out of its way.

James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and has written for Slate, The Boston Globe and Arthur magazine. He was a staff writer at The Boston Phoenix and in 2008 won a Deems Taylor Award for music criticism from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

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By Pankaj Mishra

Non-Western markets matter too much now for 007 to be able to fulfill neo-imperialist fantasies of power and domination.

Pankaj Mishra
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Pankaj Mishra

Marx once pointed out that “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice”: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” He was referring to the discrepancy between the original Napoleon Bonaparte and the wannabe Napoleon III. You can guess what he would have said of our culture of remakes.

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