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From Classic to Contemporary: Pride and Prejudice into Epic Fail

Classics–whether they are novels, plays, or epics–offer us great characters, interesting plots, and lots of things for discussion … but sometimes they can be a little tough to tackle. Sometimes we adore them, but sometimes we can’t get past page 3, let alone the requisite 50. That doesn’t mean that we should give up what they have to offer, though, does it? Many of today’s authors try to use these classic works as a starting off point to write a more modern version. If done well, these contemporary versions can have a huge impact and impart the same wisdom that made the earlier story gain its classic status. Jessica Miller and I decided to find and examine some great pairs of classics and their contemporary rewrites to see if they are successful … or maybe not.

Cover of Pride and PrejudiceThe Classic: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice has been rewritten, updated, adapted, reformed, reworked, and redone countless times in the twentieth and twenty-first century. You might recall my post about fanfiction, or maybe you remember reading about the original here at The Hub, where it’s been mentioned as a YA novel disguised as a classic, or when its most recent graphic novelization was discussed. In the case that you still haven’t read it (and believe me, even if you’ve watched the 6 hour miniseries, “seeing the movie” is still not quite the same), here’s a bit of an intro.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. […] However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

In Hertfordshire, England, there stands a house containing the seven members of the Bennet family on a patch of land called Longbourn. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live there with their five daughters, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Lydia, and Catherine, who is often called Kitty by her friends and family. While all of the daughters are “out,” meaning they can attend balls and the like, it is mainly Jane and Elizabeth (those old spinsters! Over twenty and still not married!) who are pressed upon by their mother to find husbands.  While the two oldest sisters are often embarrassed by their outrageous mother and younger sisters (and even sometimes their father, who is usually a pretty smart guy), they love them because they are family.

Enter Misters Bingley and Darcy. Two unmarried gentlemen (guess what, girls, they’re rich, too!) in the neighborhood means everyone in the country gentry is going to be throwing their daughters at them.  Who does the friendly Mr. Bingley begin to fall for? Why, the sweet and demure Jane, of course. And everyone in town is perfectly happy with that … except one Mr. Darcy, who can’t seem to stop thinking about a pair of fine eyes in the face of an unfortunately “poor” and unsuitable young lady. The rest? Well, you know the story.

I’m just going to say it. I love this book. I read it the first time when I was fourteen and have encountered it in countless forms (and two languages) since then. Jane Austen can be a slog to get through: her descriptions can be wordy and some of the archaic language is occasionally too much for a pleasurable read. Or at least that’s what people tell me. But Elizabeth Bennet was everything I wanted to be as a teenager: smart, literate, musical, athletic … though a bit naive and quick to take the first impression as the correct one (hey, did you know the first draft of Pride and Prejudice was called First Impressions?). This novel definitely left an impression on me. And it was one of the novels that began my foray into constant reading.

The Contemporary: Epic Fail by Claire LaZebnik

There have been countless contemporary rewritings of Pride and Prejudice. Even in the past few years, there have been at least three YA novels with close association to the theme, like Prom and Prejudice (mentioned exactly a month ago in a prom post) and Pride & Popularity, which can be directly correlated with their original source material — even down to the names, in the case of Prom and Prejudice. For Epic Fail, however, the source material is hearkened, but the connections aren’t quite so direct.

Elise and Juliana Benton are new students at Coral Tree Prep School in Los Angeles, CA, where Chase and Derek are students (so there! The first difference! They’re the new people and the boys are already established!). Elise, who has Googled the school, is immediately ready to verify an online comment that it was “basically a country club masquerading as a school” just a few minutes into her first day. What makes it even worse? Her mother is the new principal. High School Shenanigans ensue while Elise and Derek try to figure out if they trust each other — though they don’t get along as badly as they want to.

Claire LaZebnik has redeveloped a few of Jane Austen’s characters in a way that makes them immediately more likeable (and sometimes dislikeable); Elise is one smart cookie and Derek is more standoffish than sneering. With those dastardly character traits out of the way (though they are still there to cause problems on occasion), the plotline of Epic Fail is less that of drawing room intrigue and more about dealing with choices. There were times when I kept thinking, “This is too easy; Jane Austen’s plot devices are getting figured out and stripped away too fast.” But there were other things to get around, and maybe trimming the fat from the original Bennet-Darcy angst was helpful in figuring out those problems. As a whole, the novel didn’t turn my life upside down, but it certainly provided me with a few hours of smiles and giggles. Go read it.

What are your favorite Pride and Prejudice reboots of any form or format? Are there any other contemporary updates of classics that you’ve read and loved recently?

— Jessica Pryde, currently reading Invisible Sun by David MacInnis Gill

2 Comments

  1. Laura C Perenic Laura C Perenic

    I looked at the cover of Epic Fail and realized it looks familiar because its in the stack on my desk. I was never a big fan of Jane Austen but maybe reading the modern twist will get me to try them again.

  2. Clueless is, of course, one of the first big updates (of Emma) and still a classic, as is Bridget Jones. I also love The Mischief of the Mistletoe, which isn’t so much an update as a rollicking and comedic historical adventure/romance with Jane in the role of spunky best friend.

    I often find it hard to get into updates and continuations, however. There’s a fine line between taking inspiration from Austen (or Shakespeare, or Connan-Doyle, or…) to create something innovative yourself, and using their writings as a crutch for a limp plot and poor characterization, or, even worse, as a marketing gimmick. Alas, far too many books fall into the latter categories – even when the authors should know better (P.D. James I’m looking at you).

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