“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done” (or, The Author’s Dilemma)

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Unless you have successfully managed to live completely off the grid for the past year-and-a-half, you’ve probably heard of the critically acclaimed television series Breaking Bad. The series’ final half-season, which aired from August to September of 2013, became an entertainment and social media phenomenon that cemented the show’s status as “highest-rated TV series of all time” according to Guinness World Records. On February 8, Breaking Bad creator and show runner Vince Gilligan will return to Albuquerque with the spinoff Better Call Saul, which expands the backstory of criminal/lawyer Saul Goodman and is said to take place before, during, and after the events of the original series. While I eagerly anticipate once again seeing the familiar sights and characters of the Breaking Bad universe, I can’t help but wonder if Gilligan’s decision to expand on the storyline is a good one. If Better Call Saul is significantly inferior to its predecessor, he risks undermining the reputation of the original series, and even his own as a writer. From an authorial perspective, I think this choice poses an interesting question: how do you know when it’s time to stop adding onto or revising a completed work? And in the end, is there ever really such a thing?

In the case of an immensely popular series like Breaking Bad (or Harry Potter for a book series), writing as much as demand dictates has obvious appeal thanks to the allure of the almighty dollar. Giving the people what they want and letting their willingness to pay for more content determine when to end a popular series should end is a simplistic approach that ultimately takes the decision out of the author’s hands. Better Call Saul has already been given the green light for a second season by television network AMC. The justification for doing so is easily understood: regardless of quality, like the meth-addicted drug users of the original series, many fans are clamoring for more Breaking Bad product and will ensure even a subpar product proves to be enormously profitable.Better-Call-Saul-promo-art

The loyalty fans of popular series have demonstrated in recent memory has led to a trend in Hollywood and television in which many works, especially the film adaptations of book series, favor quantity over quality. The Harry Potter film series started a trend when the adaptation of the final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was split into two parts. The adaptations of Twilight, The Hunger Games, and even Tolkien’s The Hobbit have taken a similar approach in stretching a single novel into two or more movies. Hobbit director Peter Jackson also directed the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, which was both critically and financially successful. His decision to split the prequel novel The Hobbit, a book that has fewer pages than any single novel in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, into three separate movies has largely been met with criticism and deemed unnecessary. While some may interpret his choice as a cheap cash grab, it also stands to reason that Jackson may have simply tried to apply a previously successful formula in hopes of achieving the same results.

The choice both Vince Gilligan and Peter Jackson made to expand upon their original work is one many authors are tempted to make. While I’m sure everyone would love to face the same dilemma of potentially sacrificing the integrity of a story in exchange for millions of dollars, the rest of writers will have to settle for simply knowing when it’s time a story should end for its own good. Most of the time this is simply a matter of letting plot or narrative dictate a natural conclusion. On the other hand, there is anHuckleberry_Finn_book authorial justification for continuing a story even after its initial ending point. The inclination as a writer is to write whatever stories are worth telling, and if a completed work generates another story to be told, then let it be heard. What if Homer had decided that after the Iliad had been completed that there was no need to continue Odysseus’ exploits in the Odyssey? Or if one of America’s seminal works of literature had been omitted because Twain stopped writing about Huckleberry Finn after his appearance in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

It can be difficult to put down the pen to finally declare a personally meaningful work or the story of a beloved character “complete.” Whitman made the revising and editing process for Leaves of Grass a lifelong pursuit while J.D. Salinger spent so much time writing about the Glass family that one would be inclined to believe they were real people. Being able to identify whether or not a piece of writing has reached its full potential can be challenging, and having the discipline to leave an outstanding story in the rearview mirror can be an even more difficult task. With cases like Better Call Saul, the impulse as both a writer and the creator of a series with passionate fans clamoring for more material is to give the people what they want and continue a previously successful story. Time will tell how viewers will receive the spinoff series, but in the end maybe there’s something to be said for always leaving ‘em wanting more.

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2 Responses to “We’re Done When I Say We’re Done” (or, The Author’s Dilemma)

  1. scottr15 says:

    The desire to constantly keep reworking a story can metastasize into something truly unhealthy in certain authors. Ralph Ellison, for example, spent nearly forty years working on his second novel, and the end result is nowhere near is as powerful or meaningful as his first novel Invisible Man. One could also argue that George R.R. Martin’s inability to get out a book in less than five years is a similar example of such poisonous perfectionism.

    In most of the cases discussed in this post, however, the primary motivation seems to be just to stay on a story because the author needs to make a living. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the creator doesn’t sacrifice quality for quantity.

  2. Cara Scott says:

    You made really good points here in discussing the “what ifs.” What if there had been no Huckleberry Finn? I think J.K. Rowling handled this well with the Harry Potter series. She ended the books at what I think was their natural stopping point, yet to appease her fans she continued to release supplemental material, such as Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, textbooks from the Harry Potter universe that were mentioned in the series. And now there is Pottermore, an online platform where even now, years after the final Harry Potter book was released, Rowling is still releasing more new information about the universe.

    Spin-offs of TV shows are similar to this. Producers do not drag the original show on and on (as is the case for shows like Grey’s Anatomy), yet they provide an alternative to the fans who are still not ready to let go (such as the show Joey that came out after Friends ended.) It’s like the best of both worlds!

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