It happens to the best of literary franchises, especially in Hollywood. Robert Ludlum’s professorial Jason Bourne is reborn as a magazine-wielding, robotic assassin in a trilogy of wildly popular films. The cartoonish Batman & Robin with George Clooney’s chin and Joel Schumacher’s family-friendly sense of The Dark Knight stands in stark contrast to director Christopher Nolan’s gritty vision of a savage, snarling avenger for Gotham City. And let’s not even get started on the differences between the tuxedoed smooth talkers of the James Bond franchise compared to Daniel Craig’s chilling portrayal inspired by the character we find in the original Casino Royale by Ian Fleming.
If film and other media franchises can be rebooted, why not literature? Now we’re not suggesting the sort of miserable ret-con suffered in recent years by everyone from Jane Austen to Mark Twain. But there are definitely some literary franchises that are either long stale or getting a little long in the tooth to be relevant to modern audiences already disenfranchised by e-books, media conglomerates and a generally short attention span.
Here are five franchises that could benefit from some imaginative reinvention:
Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt. In the mid-’70s, Cussler’s daring underwater explorer was the king of the airport novel—a marine engineer with the National and Underwater Marine Agency who was tough as nails and capable of wild feats of adventure. Launched in 1973’s The Mediterranean Caper, the series reached pinnacles with Raise the Titanic! in 1976 and Sahara in 1992, both turned into dismal movie adaptations. The series has continued to dwindle as the wealthy Cussler begins turning over his creation to his son, Dirk’s namesake. Better perhaps to turn the series over to a fresher writer, someone in the vein of Tom Cain, whose Accident Man novels are far more thrilling, while maintaining a much more urgent velocity.
4. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. The Clancy-verse has been suffering for more than a decade, likely due to an acrimonious divorce settlement that has been followed by dozens of terrible branded novels that have little bearing on the universe of Jack Ryan and John Clark. It’s a shame, too, because Rainbow Six remains one of the best action-oriented procedurals, following the exploits of a multinational anti-terrorist squad with set pieces that rival any Hollywood blockbuster. While the recent Dead or Alive (rumored to be ghostwritten by longtime collaborator Grantwood Black) beats the prequel Red Rabbit by miles, the potential in a character like John Clark are endless, if the reins can just be handed to a writer with Clancy’s research and a better sense of the franchise’s potential.
3. James Clavell’s Shogun. OK, you can’t fault Clavell for volume, for all 1,152 pages of the author’s classic 1975 epic are worth savoring. But the man did leave us hanging. At the end of the novel, Toranaga has achieved his goal of become Shogun, military ruler of all Japan, while the karma of its hero, John Blackthorne, is never to leave Japan. It is a rich, incredibly fertile milieu in which to tell further stories, and Clavell’s subsequent novels never reach the height of Shogun. Turn this one loose to mystery novelist Don Winslow, who recently inherited the mantle of another Asian-oriented novelist, Trevanian, by writing Satori, a sequel to the assassin novel Shibumi. Winslow’s unique worldview and cutting-edge writing has the potential to seed the world of Shogun with plenty of new tales of karma and intrigue.
2. Diana Galbaldon’s Outlander. It’s the series that seems like it’s never going to end. The first three books in the series are triumphs of romance and adventure. The first introduces a time-traveling British doctor named Claire Randall who winds up married to a Scots highlander named Jamie Fraser. Its first pages hinted at the long road the pair would have to travel throughout their long life. Its sequel is largely a political thriller while the third is a seafaring adventure. But with the fourth novel, Drums of Autumn, it seems that Gabaldon no longer has an editor, and has rambled through four increasingly lengthy novels, a companion, a graphic novel and a dozen stories of a lesser character, Lord John Grey. Fans of the series are legion but if this is ever successfully translated into other mediums, it will need a much narrower focus in scale and character in order to succeed.
1. Ian Fleming’s James Bond. We’ll admit that this has been tried multiple times with mixed results. Since Fleming’s death in 1964, the series has been handed over to a wildly diverse range of novelists, starting with Kingsley Amis and a little-known 1968 entry called Colonel Sun. Others include British spy novelist John Gardner, who held reign over the franchise through the ’80s, and aficionado Raymond Benson who held sway through the Pierce Brosnan years, as well as comedian Charlie Higson, who’s done well with a series of Young Bond novels.
But Ian Fleming Productions blew it when it came time to celebrate Fleming’s 100th birthday. Sebastian Faulks (Charlotte Gray, etc.) was hired to write Devil May Care in the voice of Fleming, resulting in perhaps the driest Bond entry ever. Next up is crime novelist Jeffrey Deaver (The Bone Collector, etc.) who gets his shot at reimagining Britain’s most famous hero in Carte Blanche (June). Set partially in Dubai, the writer has revealed that the new book delves into the personal and professional crosses Bond has to bear, and where the lines are really drawn in the world of today’s crises. Fingers crossed that Deaver gets it right the first time. But maybe someone should put Lee Child on retainer, just in case.