Where do Ideas Come From?

Dave Webb David Webb

The question that people love to ask writers, and the one they famously hate to answer, is “where do you get your ideas from?”

Often the answer is “I don’t know, they just sort of turn up”, but occasionally you can trace the origins of a book to another book or story.


A Day in The Life

James Joyce is often held as the gold standard for literary endeavor. His works are the perennial topic of discussion on Literature courses, each reading of a Joyce novel producing a very personal experience of his work. Ulysses takes place over 24 hours in the life of Leopold Bloom as he wanders Dublin on June 16th 1904. The novel had such an impact that Joyce fans now mark June 16th as Bloom Day. Surrounding the book is a swirl of controversy - including an Obscenity trial in the USA - but all of this just serves to hide the fact that Ulysses is based, at least thematically, on Homer’s epic tale The Odyssey. The original covers the end of the Trojan War and Greek hero Odysseus’s attempts to get home. If you read Ulysses after having read The Odyssey, the similarities are pretty clear.

Living Your Best Life

Another novel dogged by claims of obscenity was Madame Bovary by French author Gustav Flaubert. In this case, though, the attempt at prosecution stems from Flaubert’s attention to realism in the book. Flaubert talks about the mundane aspects of living in the Northern French countryside, setting them up as a contrast to the romantic fantasies of Emma Bovary (the madame of the title). According to the prosecution, these realistic depictions of life should have nothing to do with art and literature, but Flaubert won his case and Madame Bovary sets the standard for narrative and realism that modern novels now adhere to. Since the book is so important to literature, you’d expect it to be a wholly original work. There are readers who believe that Bovary is in large part based on Don Quixote by Cervantes. My recommendation would be to read both, and make your own mind up, but the main point of parallel is that both novels feature a protagonist who retreats into a life of fantasy to escape a humdrum rural existence.

Dear Reader, I Married Him

On a more populist, and more modern note, everyone is probably aware that Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding is a thorough modernization of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. If you haven’t read the books, you’re bound to be aware of the assorted adaptations. The movie, starring Renee Zellweger, was a huge success. The casting of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy cements the links, since Colin Firth had also - rather memorably - played Mr D’Arcy in a BBC TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. A modernization is perhaps the most blatant example of adapting an idea from other books. Helen Fielding did such a good job that her novel stands on it’s own very well, but it opened the door to some other, stranger, adaptations.

For example, you might have missed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Graeme-Smith. Keeping most of Jane Austen’s original story, it turns the Bennett girls into capable zombie killers. Austen, credited as co-author, might have been amused by the notion that the onset of a Regency era zombie apocalypse makes little difference to the trials and tribulations of securing a good marriage. The book is just one of a number of novels and stories that take Pride and Prejudice as a jumping off point. In fact, the number of adaptations, parodies, continuations and sequels means that if Jane Austen were alive she would either never need to write another word or be forever embroiled in copyright litigation.

To Be Or Not To Be

Sometimes, a novel or play offers the opportunity to tell a story that remained untold in the original. Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead follows Hamlet’s two university chums as they make their way through Shakespeare’s play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make an honest attempt to diagnose Hamlet’s madness as well as their own increasingly strange situation. There are regular interruptions from the parent play and this only complicates matters for the increasingly confused duo as they are propelled towards their fateful trip to England. If you’re familiar with Hamlet, you’ll know what happens to them when they arrive.

The First Mrs Rochester

On a similar note, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhyss explores the story of Antoinette Cosway. She is better known as Mrs. Rochester, appearing in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Mrs. Rochester - also known as Bertha Mason - spends most of Jane Eyre locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Her husband, Edward, is unable to cope with her increasingly violent mental illness and locks her away. Wide Sargasso Sea tells Antoinette’s story. It was written in 1966, and deals with issues like colonialism, feminism and the oppressive society that Antoinette finds herself in. The novel stands on it’s own merits, since it adds so much more detail to the life of someone we only see as a mad woman in an attic in the parent work.

The idea of books begetting other books is old and established. Sometimes they’re reactions, sometimes continuations of an idea, sometimes they re-imagine an older work entirely. When you read, even the classics, keep an eye out for those telltale signs that the author of the book you’re reading had taken inspiration from another novel entirely.


David Webb is a freelance writer, working on at least three things at once.


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