Longevity of a Franchise

I've been turning over a conundrum lately about stories that outlive their creators, and creators that outlive their stories, and the things that can happen as a result. Let me share it with you.

The puzzle arose as I thought about George Lucas and Star Wars, and a similar case, Robert Jordan and Wheel of Time. Both creators made something intensely loved by millions of fans. Both creators kept working in those worlds, though, and over time made things that their original fans came to intensely hate. Perplexing. How could this be?

I have a theory, and it isn't that these gentlemen were hacks, or that they were phoning it in in later years. Artists change over time as their points of view and interests evolve. It's only a natural and human thing. And it could well be that the thing that fans loved initially in Star Wars (or in Wheel of Time) was something that Lucas and Jordan lost touch with and grew out of over time.

You can see other creators visibly evolving over the course of a long series. J.K. Rowling grew in leaps and bounds as a storyteller over the years-long journey of making Harry Potter. And even in other arts: Think of the many distinct sounds and phases of The Beatles. Or of people who love William Gibson's earlier work better, or his more recent work better -- of Steven King's, for that matter, or Danielle Steele's, or any creator who has had a long career and put out a lot of work.

In the case of Wheel of Time, upon Jordan's passing, the responsibility for finishing the tale was given to Brandon Sanderson. And speaking here as a fan: Sanderson's vision of Wheel of Time is true to what fans loved about Wheel of Time initially, and so often feels truer and better than the last few books Jordan wrote with his own words. So, too, can some of the Star Wars constellation seem truer to the initial vision of Star Wars than the most recent films. A curious phenomenon.

It doesn't always work out that way, of course. Sometimes a beloved story will fall into another creator's hands through licensing or heredity. I'm thinking here of Dune, of Amber, of Pern, all of whom had their torches passed to another creator. And none of the works created this way are well-reviewed -- certainly not beloved in the way of the original works.

There are quite a few ways to explain this. One is simply that not everyone is up to executing a pitch-perfect replica of another creator's work. (No matter how many short sentences I write, nobody will ever mistake me for Hemingway.)

But it also might be because Sanderson, for example, wasn't trying to pursue his own vision, but was instead trying to maintain a tone and stay true to a blueprint. He doesn't feel compelled to put his own stamp on the world to make it his own; he was acting as a caretaker for something that doesn't fundamentally belong to him, and never will. A curator on behalf of fandom, if you will.

But then, but then -- there's value, too, in taking a work and creating something entirely new out of it, of not staying true to that original vision, as happened with Battlestar Galactica. Where, I wonder, is the line between these things? Does it come down solely to skill of the hands the story ultimately falls into?

This is something that fandoms and creators will need to grapple with in this age of long-running sagas, aging creators, rabid fandoms, and surely necessary passings of the baton. Maybe not a solvable riddle, maybe too akin to "Why is a best-seller a best-seller?" But I think, and I wonder.