Who Wants to Rewrite a Classic?
By Jeff Salter
Topic: If asked to rewrite/modernize a classic novel, which one would I want to adapt?
This week’s topic was a real struggle for me. While I have, indeed, read and studied MANY classic novels over the course of my K-12 school years – and as a “Lit” major in college – I’ve arrived at several conclusions that interfere with a cogent response to this topic.
1. I find I’ve forgotten most of the fiction titles / authors I read — whether as class assignments or for my own enjoyment / enlightenment.
2. of the titles I do remember, I realize I cannot recall enough of their plots or characters to make a stab at how I might alter them now.
3. of the titles I do remember, have retained a bit of detail from, AND enjoyed at the time… I guess I can say I wouldn’t want to change much of anything. [A good example: “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. Loved the book, read it twice… but wouldn’t change a thing.]
So, as I sometimes do on Hound Day, I’m gonna fudge a little… and approach this topic NOT by the front porch entrance… but by sneaking through the garage door, so to speak.
What if I took a story like William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and switched the characters from British boys to a group of American GIRLS? And instead of an uninhabited island… shifted the setting to a vast forest in the northwest U.S. Then I’d slide the timeframe from the early 1950s to, say, the early 1980s (before cell phones). [We could keep the scene with the wild pig.]
What if I took one of William Faulkner’s titles and EDITED those ponderous, convoluted, 200-word sentences… into intelligible dialog or simple declarative sentences? Instead of the reader having to struggle to comprehend what the heck Faulker’s narrator / character is trying to express, the reader could focus on the POINT / substance of their exchange!
What if I took one of Shakespeare’s plays and updated all that courtly Elizabethan English into modern conversational wording? Sure, we’d lose some of the beauty of the best speeches… but we’d also be able to hurry along those lengthy stretches where characters can’t quite decide what they’re going to do or what might happen when they do it. Imagine, for example, if I condensed Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy into a simple sentence or two. Instead of all that irresolute hand-wringing, maybe it could read like this: “Hmm. Life really stinks, but death probably stinks as bad or worse. I don’t know which is nobler and I can’t quite make up my mind. Maybe I’ll just muddle along and see what havoc and misery I can cause.” My approach could transform a six-hour production into a 90-minute made-for-TV movie!
What if I took “The Beast in the Jungle” (by Henry James) and stripped away all the agonizing doom and doubt… and cut all the dreary anguish of that period’s societal mores? What if John Marcher simply accepted the possibility of a future catastrophic “end” to his life… and decided, “what the heck? I’m still alive and healthy NOW. Maybe I should hook up with May Bartram and we can enjoy at least a few years together.” What if John and May had simply “opened up” to each other, in plain language, and expressed their fears and doubts… and feelings for each other? At least that would’ve cleared the air and perhaps alleviated some of their oppressive guilt and regret.
Obviously, most of the above is tongue-in-cheek. Although I did fall out of grace with a college lit professor who ADORED Henry James… when I basically said to her what I wrote here about “The Beast in the Jungle.” She was so aghast at my heresy that she was momentarily speechless. And my grade that semester clearly reflected my heretical views on her literary idol (James).
What about YOU? Which classic book would you like to overhaul? What would you change?
[JLS # 555]