Parodies and pastiches

By Sally Carpenter

The theater in my town recently screened “Galaxy Quest” as part of the Friday night retro-film series. It’s one of my favorite movies. Trekkies consider it the seventh best Star Trek film because it’s a spot-on parody of the fan universe spawned by the Trek franchise.

Parodies abound in literature and cinema. If a movie becomes popular, a parody is bound to follow. “Star Wars” led to “Space Balls.” James Bond begat “Our Man Flint,” “The Ambushers,” “Get Smart” and Austin Powers. TV soap operas inspired the movie “Soapdish.”

The dictionary defines parody as “a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule,” and also, “a feeble, ridiculous imitation.”

Parodies work best with attention to detail and a deep knowledge of the original subject matter. A successful parody is full of in-jokes that only the most committed fans get (such as in “Galaxy Quest” when Alexander says to Jason, “I see you managed to get your shirt off,” a reference to Capt. Kirk’s frequent and gratuitous tearing of his uniform).

I enjoy a good parody. It’s like being part of an in-group that understands the jokes and allusions that outsiders miss. A good parody will stand on its own, but is more worthwhile for those who know the original subject.

Parody differs from pastiche, which the dictionary says is “a literary, artistic, musical or architectural work that imitates the style of a previous work.” A pastiche does not poke fun, but rather, pays homage to the original.

Over the years the Sherlock Holmes stories have spawned countless imitations from fans. The pastiches attempt to add additional cases for the great detective to solve. These stories stay true to Doyle’s literary style and format. Often the pastiches use other characters besides Holmes as the protagonist, such as the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King and the Amelia Watson stories of Michael Mallory.

I can read a Holmes pastiche if it bends the canon a little, but not if it beaks it. Some authors go so far off track that the book is Holmes in name only. He’s even traveled in time and outer space!

The arrogant and aloof resident of 221B is also ripe for parody. My favorite parody is “Schlock Homes: the Complete Bagel Street Saga” by Robert L. Fish in which the detective’s keen observations always lead to the wrong conclusions. The stories are also full of word play and puns, which I love.

Hard-boiled private eyes like Sam Spade and Mike Hammer were imitated to death in B-movies and pulp fiction magazines. The stories were not so much homage as a means to cash in on a hot topic without violating copyright laws.

Sometimes beginning writers will pen pastiches as a way to learn the craft while their own style/voice develops. Some write parodies for amusement (as Fish did with Schlock Homes) or to poke fun at pretensions.

I love a good parody, but eventually I always go back to the original. With pastiches, I feel that an author should eventually create her own characters. Hundred of other detectives exist beyond Holmes and Spade and they deserve to have their stories told too.

What are your favorite parodies and pastiches in film and books?

2 thoughts on “Parodies and pastiches

    1. Why, thanks Marilyn. I admit it’s a challenge to think up a new article every month about a topic that will appeal to a broad group of people–and not repeat myself!


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