Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College. His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), his collected poetry, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised and expanded, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).
Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality, or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.
Also, check out Dr. Williams’s latest book: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016)!
Since I’m reveling in my recent purchase of the complete Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, I thought I might do a few posts involving Holmes’s erstwhile creator: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was thinking the other day about a common thread between Doyle and a much more recent storyteller, George Lucas. The two of them shared a difficulty, and, frankly, if I ever face it too, I will be a very happy (and rich) man. Both of them ran into the problem of the accidental magnum opus: A creation so popular, so huge, that it completely overshadowed all their others, even ones they thought were more creative.
For Doyle, Sherlock Holmes was at first just a character, like several others he had created. Holmes soon grew to literally take on a life of his own. Given the way Doyle used Dr. Watson to tell the stories in a believable, firsthand way, it really isn’t surprising that people the world over actually came to believe that Holmes was an actual person, a consulting detective practicing in Baker Street.* The tales are told in such a descriptive, witty way that people then, and now, are desperate for more. The problem was, though, that Doyle himself eventually tired of Holmes. He wanted to move on to other topics, other characters, but people frankly didn’t seem to connect with anything else that he wrote. For instance, it’s a pretty good bet that all but the most fanatical Doyle aficionados have never heard of the “Professor Challenger” stories or any of his plays, let alone actually read them!
In what has alternately been described as evidence of his extreme frustration and a very intelligent business tactic, Doyle tried to solve the problem by killing Holmes off with his fateful encounter with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. It was salvation and suicide at once. Holmes was gone, but no matter how Doyle tried, nothing else seemed to take off. Still, by the time he brought Holmes back in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” people were so desperate for more Sherlock Holmes stories that the Strand Magazine in which they were published flew off the shelves.
Alas for George Lucas, Star Wars followed a similar path (Indiana Jones not withstanding). The first movie was a low budget “space western” not expected to do all that well, but it took off to such a degree that most Americans don’t know that Lucas had ever done anything else. It also didn’t help that some of his later movies were forgettably bad: just think of Howard the Duck, and we need say no more.
In Lucas’s case, he didn’t actually kill off his cash cow, he simply dropped the subject and let the fans run wild with memorabilia in his absence. He did re-re-re-release the movies, and each time a literal cult following would come out of the woodwork to fork over more millions. Unlike Holmes, no one actually thought Star Wars was real, they just so desperately wanted it to be that they literally tried to recreate it in basements and movie theater foyers across the country. By the time Lucas finally got around to rolling out Episodes 1-3, even those profoundly mediocre offerings parted millions of people from billions of their hard-earned dollars.**
The same thing happens on smaller scale in Hollywood when an actor does such a good job playing a character that he or she essentially “becomes” that character in the eyes of the public. Amanda Tapping will always be Samantha Carter (Sorry Dr. Magnus!), Mark Hamil is Luke Skywalker***, and Brent Spiner is Commander Data, no matter how many roles they take to separate themselves from the part.
I say that this is a problem that I wouldn’t mind having for a simple reason: It may be frustrating at the time, but in many ways this level of devotion from an audience is the ultimate compliment. If people ever become this attached to something that I write–to the point that I have a hard time following it up–I’ll know that what I have produced is a work that will probably stand the test of time, just as Doyle and Lucas have. It will also probably help if, like them, I make a good bit of money in the process! 😉
*I once heard that Baker Street STILL receives more than 2000 letters a year asking for Holmes’s help!
**At least with Doyle, most of what he came out with was quality work (“The Lion’s Mane” being an example of an exception), but there’s just no creative excuse for Episodes 1-3.
***This is so true that Hamil has had to reinvent his career…as a voice over for cartoons. Anyone who sees him still thinks “Luke”, but he can disguise his voice. He’s really quite good at what he does now.