Let Rebecca rest: A sequel to the great novel is one thing, but David Lister is dreading the movie

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The Independent Online
SHAKESPEARE had the right idea. Once he'd extracted the full mileage out of his characters, he killed them off.

Academics postulate that this was tragic inevitability. Nah. He just had the foresight to realise what 20th-century publishers would do. Find a living author and write the sequel. Romeo gets an attack of the male menopause, leaves Juliet for another woman. Dead authors, beware publishers desperate for the follow-up. There ought to be a law against it. Scarlett O'Hara has not been allowed to remain in our imaginations beautiful, wilful, self-deluding, and Vivien Leigh. The lure of the bestsellers list was too much.

And now the late Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca is to have the treatment. The novelist and playwright Susan Hill has reportedly been promised pounds 1m by the Du Maurier estate and we will learn if the Cornwall county fire brigade managed to put out the flames at Manderley and whether Mrs Danvers escaped the blaze to return to plague her mistress.

What worries me is not so much the book. Susan Hill is a prize-winning novelist and a lover of Du Maurier's work, so one need not lose too much sleep about the end result. No, what worries me is the certainty of a ghastly movie.

Gone With The Wind and Rebecca are two of the few wholly successful attempts by Hollywood to translate great works of literature to the screen. The likelihood of the follow-up films achieving that quality is virtually nil.

No dark, brooding Laurence Olivier this time, no exquisitely vulnerable Joan Fontaine. Come to that, no Alfred Hitchcock. Julia Roberts will preside over Manderley, Jason Robards will play a grey-haired Max De Winter. Anjelica Huston in her Addams Family get-up will guest as Miss Danvers. Perhaps Michael Winner will direct to ensure they all really do burn alive this time.

Susan Hill points out, justifiably, that she was approached by the Du Maurier estate and felt that if she didn't do it then someone else with less respect for the original would. But what possible reason, apart from greed, can the estate have had for requesting a sequel? Du Maurier wrote Rebecca in 1938 and did not die until 1989. If she had wanted to follow her characters' fortunes through life she had more than enough time to do so.

But the temptation to cash in on household names must be strong; and with every death of a famous writer no end of scope for sequels opens up. If there are those with pounds 1m to fling around when more of our great authors depart then I am available for sequels to The Catcher In The Rye (Holden Caulfield decides that the anti-Vietnam war protest is phoney and becomes an intelligence officer in the FBI) or To Kill A Mockingbird (young Jem rebels against his father's liberalism as he grows up and joins the Ku Klux Klan).

'Sons of' Scarlett and Rebecca could be the start of a most unhappy trend. If publishers are to see the lucrative gains in returning to the classics then in a few years the bestsellers list is going to resemble the pop charts - golden oldies reworked by modern singers in search of a theme.

The classics are not untouchable. The great works of literature, like traditional folk songs, are open to new interpretations. But taking the protagonists and simply fast-forwarding them in the same locations with the same emotions, loves and lifestyles shows a dearth of imagination.

Surely the way to approach the classics is to do what Tom Stoppard did with originality in his play Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. Take secondary characters and develop a separate life for them.

Even take a major character like Mrs Danvers, the vengeful housekeeper in Rebecca, whose background is largely unexplored. Her childhood would be a legitimate subject for a modern novelist. Inventing a husband for her could be quite a fruitful exercise in explaining her psychology.

But let the great heroes and heroines of 20th-century literature rest as their creators left them, undisturbed and forever young.