Once in a lifetime: is one great book in an entire career really enough?

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Harper Lee is eighty eight years old and is the author of one novel and one novel alone.  You’ve probably read it. To Kill A Mockingbird was published to huge acclaim in 1960. The book remains a classic and was made into a successful film in 1962. Lee did, in fact, work on a second novel in the Sixties entitled The Long Goodbye but eventually abandoned it. At the end of the day, To Kill A Mockingbird came out when Harper Lee was in her thirties and has never had a novel published since. She probably never will now.

Lee is not the only member of the “one novel only” club. Oscar Wilde wrote many plays, poems and stories but only one novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890. Other famous cases are, like Lee, female. Emily Bronte also wrote poems but unlike her sisters, only one novel Wuthering Heights in 1847 Anna Sewell only ever wrote Black Beauty (1877) Margaret Mitchell only ever wrote the massive Gone With The Wind (1936)

None of these examples are quite like Harper Lee though. Of these four, only Anna Swell made it past the age of fifty. Sewell, was in fact, well past that age, when her book was published but died soon afterwards.

Joseph Heller wrote five novels after the massive success of his debut antiwar satire Catch-22 in 1962. But none of them recaptured the magic of his debut novel. His sixth book Closing Time (1994) was actually a somewhat belated sequel to his most famous book. His last, Portrait of An Artist, as an Old Man focused on an elderly author trying to repeat the success of his earlier work. It was published in 2000, the year after Heller’s death.

Heller was never modest about his early success, however. Asked why he had never written anything as good as Catch-22, he would typically respond: “Neither has anyone else!”

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JD Salinger, increasingly reclusive in later life, wrote nothing for publication after the 1960s and nothing as good as 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger only died in 2010 and left several stories which he insisted, only wanted published fifty years after his death. So be patient, Salinger fans. More is on its way in the year 2060.

Donna Tartt’s story is happier, however. The Secret History was a big success in 1993 and since then she has published one novel a decade The Little Friend in 2002 and The Goldfinch, just last year. The latter, a very long book, was almost as well received as her first. The thriller writer Thomas Harris writes at a similar rate, publishing an average of a novel a decade (including the four Hannibal Lecter novels) since his first non-Hannibal book Black Sunday in 1975.

I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, if you are a writer shouldn’t you damn well write? Harper Lee clearly has a major talent. Imagine all the novels she could have produced in the fifty years since! What a waste.

On the other hand, she certainly wouldn’t have needed to write from a financial point of view: To Kill A Mockingbird remains very popular, although she had no way of knowing it would continue to endure so well when it was first published. Not every classic book does

There is also something undeniably cool about writing just one sensational hit and leaving the reading public wanting more.  Particularly, as any subsequent novels would undoubtedly have been compared to her first and however good they were, found wanting.

Besides, if Lee didn’t feel inspired, why should she not write anymore? It is unlikely any other book would have ever been as well received as her first.

And let’s face it: would we think more or less of Salinger or Heller had they only ever written one book? I’m guessing, we would probably esteem them more. Like a bad film sequel, their later works although by no means awful, slightly diminish the reputation of their early respective masterpieces.

That said, Harper Lee could now have produced a wealth of books. Like Daphne du Maurier or Donna Tartt, her debut might have overshadowed her other works. Daphne du Maurier will probably always be chiefly remembered as the author of Rebecca. But she also wrote Jamaica Inn. And the stories which inspired the classic films Don’t Look Now and The Birds.

Harper Lee certainly deserves the rich praise she has received. One truly great novel is more than most people, indeed most novelists, ever achieve.

But what more could she have done? We will probably never know now.

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First Among Prequels

Once stories had a beginning, a middle and an end. Not anymore! Today, the trend is for the middle and the end to come first, then the beginning to come along later. For this is the age of the prequel.  Stay tuned for Part One of this feature next week…!

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The Hobbit (Book: 1937. Films: 2012-2014)

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a “prequel” to the Lord of the Rings saga in the sense that we’re using the term here. The book of The Hobbit was published well before the later trilogy (1954-55). But the films (the second Hobbit film is due out in December) are a different matter appearing a full decade after the Rings saga came to the screen (2001-2003). Got that?

Does it work?: Gandalf is greyer, Gollum a shade less green and Bilbo is Tim from The Office (Martin Freeman) rather than the one from Alien (Ian Holm). But so far, most complaints have been about the Hobbit saga being needlessly padded out into three films rather than about any inconsistencies n the chronology.

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Star Wars Prequels (1999-2005)

This attempt to explain the origins of Darth Vader was less well received than the original trilogy (1977-1983), many fans finding it more boorish, cartoonish and perhaps even racist than the original three. The last film Revenge of the Sith (2005) does wrap things up neatly though, ending around twenty years before 1977’s A New Hope. This trilogy also probably did spark off the modern fad for prequels too.

 Hannibal  (2013-?)

This acclaimed recent TV series focuses on the life of Thomas Harris’s serial killer Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), before the events of the very first book, Red Dragon (1981).

 Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

This film does cheat a bit imagining Watson and Holmes meeting at school: in fact, they clearly first meet as adults in the first Sherlock Holmes story A Study In Scarlet. But it is a fun film and features the first ever computer animated film character (a stained glass knight who is hallucinated at the start). The movie was a flop though.

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Young James Bond (2005-2008)

The adventures of the future 007 have been depicted in five books by Fast Show star Charlie Higson set in the 1930s when Bond was still at Eton. The books are: Silverfin, Blood Fever, Double Or Die, Hurricane Gold and By Royal Command.

The Magician’s Nephew (1955)

This was actually the sixth of CS Lewis’s Narnia novels but is actually set much earlier than the others. It opens in late Victorian England and explains the birth of Narnia. Some Narnia series today rank it as the first book in the saga, order-wise.

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Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005)/Star Trek films (2009-?)

The Star Trek franchise was briefly killed off by the unexciting Scott Bakula series which chronicled the early days of the Enterprise in the 22nd century. The JJ Abrams series of films which detail the early lives of the characters from the original series (including a previously unmentioned liaison between Uhuru and Spock) have thus far proven far more popular.

Smallville (2001-2011)

Despite, rather oddly, being set in the present day, this TV show starring Tom Welling as the young Superman proved remarkably popular and enduring.

Endeavour (2012-?)

Before Lewis, there was Morse. And before even that, this recent 1960s set ITV series sees Shaun Evans playing Endeavour Morse at the start of his police career.

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Monsters University (2013)

Monsters Inc ended rather neatly. So this prequel flashes back to Mike and Sully’s (child-friendly) college days.

Muppet Babies (1984-1991)

The Muppets in cartoon-form in one nursery supervised by a giant nanny. Basically rubbish.

 

The Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1996)

Taking its inspiration from the short sequence starring River Phoenix as a teenaged Indy at the start of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this star studded  TV show saw the young adventurer played by several different actors (notably Sean Patrick Flanery) enjoying high jinks across a range of early 20th century locations. A pre-Star Wars example of Lucasfilm prequeling.

 
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X-Men Origins Wolverine(2009)/ X-Men: First Class (2011)

The first X-Men prequel (exploring Wolverine’s past) wasn’t great. The second one set in the Sixties (and featuring a cameo from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) was better. Despite James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier (the young version of Patrick Stewart’s character in the original X-Men trilogy (2000-2005) occasionally spouting lines like: “I suppose I am a real professor, aren’t I? Next thing you know, I’ll be going bald!” Ooh! The dramatic irony!

 

Prometheus (2012)

Very clearly a prequel to the Alien films despite various official attempts to deny it. Still not very good though.

 

The Godfather Part II (1974)

A sequel and a prequel, unusually. On the one hand, we see Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) continue to build his crime empire in the 1950s following on from the first film. On the other, we flash back to the start of the century and see his father Vito (Robert De Niro when he’s an adult) coming to America and slowly getting the family business started. Unlike the Michael stuff, these early bits are in fact derived from Mario Puzo’s original novel. The film ends just after Pearl Harbor (1941). The first film starts just after the war’s end (1945).

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

An excellent prequel set in the near future which explains how the apes of Planet of the Apes (1968) managed to usurp humans as the dominant race on Earth.

 

First of the Summer Wine (1988-1989).

Prequel to the long running comedy set just before the Second World War. Peter Sallis (Cleggy) plays his own character’s father and Seymour appears even though none of the characters met him until a mid-80s episode of the original series. Not as bad as it sounds, as the young actors are well cast (including an extra one called Sherbet who we can only presume was killed in the war). It does rather miss the point though as “young men acting like children” isn’t quite the same as “old men acting like children”.