Charles Dickens’ early novel Nicholas Nickleby was so popular during its initial publication that it inspired several stage versions — without the author’s permission or indeed before the novel itself was even finished (like most of Dickens’ novels it was serialized). During the course of the story, the main character befriends a troupe of theatrical actors. One night he goes to dinner with them and meets a literary gentleman “who had dramatised in his time two hundred and forty-seven novels as fast as they had come out–some of them faster than they had come out–and who was a literary gentleman in consequence.”
‘I am happy to know a gentleman of such great distinction,’ said Nicholas, politely.
‘Sir,’ replied the wit, ‘you’re very welcome, I’m sure. The honour is reciprocal, sir, as I usually say when I dramatise a book. Did you ever hear a definition of fame, sir?’
‘I have heard several,’ replied Nicholas, with a smile. ‘What is yours?’
‘When I dramatise a book, sir,’ said the literary gentleman, ‘THAT’S fame. For its author.’
‘Oh, indeed!’ rejoined Nicholas.
‘That’s fame, sir,’ said the literary gentleman.
‘So Richard Turpin, Tom King, and Jerry Abershaw have handed down to fame the names of those on whom they committed their most impudent robberies?’ said Nicholas.
‘I don’t know anything about that, sir,’ answered the literary gentleman.
‘Shakespeare dramatised stories which had previously appeared in print, it is true,’ observed Nicholas.
‘Meaning Bill, sir?’ said the literary gentleman. ‘So he did. Bill was an adapter, certainly, so he was–and very well he adapted too– considering.’
‘I was about to say,’ rejoined Nicholas, ‘that Shakespeare derived some of his plots from old tales and legends in general circulation; but it seems to me, that some of the gentlemen of your craft, at the present day, have shot very far beyond him–‘
‘You’re quite right, sir,’ interrupted the literary gentleman, leaning back in his chair and exercising his toothpick. ‘Human intellect, sir, has progressed since his time, is progressing, will progress.’
‘Shot beyond him, I mean,’ resumed Nicholas, ‘in quite another respect, for, whereas he brought within the magic circle of his genius, traditions peculiarly adapted for his purpose, and turned familiar things into constellations which should enlighten the world for ages, you drag within the magic circle of your dulness, subjects not at all adapted to the purposes of the stage, and debase as he exalted. For instance, you take the uncompleted books of living authors, fresh from their hands, wet from the press, cut, hack, and carve them to the powers and capacities of your actors, and the capability of your theatres, finish unfinished works, hastily and crudely vamp up ideas not yet worked out by their original projector, but which have doubtless cost him many thoughtful days and sleepless nights; by a comparison of incidents and dialogue, down to the very last word he may have written a fortnight before, do your utmost to anticipate his plot–all this without his permission, and against his will; and then, to crown the whole proceeding, publish in some mean pamphlet, an unmeaning farrago of garbled extracts from his work, to which your name as author, with the honourable distinction annexed, of having perpetrated a hundred other outrages of the same description. Now, show me the distinction between such pilfering as this, and picking a man’s pocket in the street: unless, indeed, it be, that the legislature has a regard for pocket-handkerchiefs, and leaves men’s brains, except when they are knocked out by violence, to take care of themselves.’
‘Men must live, sir,’ said the literary gentleman, shrugging his shoulders.
‘That would be an equally fair plea in both cases,’ replied Nicholas; ‘but if you put it upon that ground, I have nothing more to say, than, that if I were a writer of books, and you a thirsty dramatist, I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations.’
–Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (Chapter 48)