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 Pryde 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.
This summer, we decided it would be great fun to tackle the movie versions of many of the classics that show up on summer reading lists. In researching classics that had been retold in movie format, we actually found enough to break it down into two posts! Last month, we tackled the Bard’s greatest works, and this month we decided to venture into some other great authors and the modernized versions of their epic works.
The Classic: Emma by Jane Austen
Wealthy, young Miss Emma Woodhouse is bored with her station. In an attempt to make life more exciting, Emma befriends a new, less-well-off girl in the village and seeks to find a great match for her. Emma’s attempts, though, simply lead her from one matchmaking mishap another. When things threaten to spiral completely out of control, it is always the steady voice of her neighbor, Mr. Knightly, that is there to calm Emma’s panic.
The Contemporary: Clueless
Set in Beverly Hills in the 1990s, Clueless is the story of high school princess, Cher. Privileged, pampered and bored, Cher decides to take a new girl under her wing. When her protÃ©gÃ© becomes more popular than Cher ever dreamed and Cher’s life begins to spiral out of control, “Whatever!” her wiser, older ex-stepbrother is there to help her through the mess.
The Classic: Dangerous Liasons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Written in a series of letters, this book follows the exploits of two bored aristocrats who pursue a twisted game manipulating the lives of others with their own pleasure as a prize. This tangled web of desire, scandal, seduction, and corruption is considered a masterpiece from the 18th Century.
The Contemporary: Cruel Intentions
The hot, steamy, contemporary version, Cruel Intentions, scandalized a whole new generation. Bored, rich step-siblings Kathryn and Sebastian place a bet. If Sebastian can de-flower the new headmaster’s daughter, virginal Annette, he can have his way with Kathryn, but if he fails, Kathryn gets to take his sleek classic Jaguar. As Sebastian and Kathryn spin their wicked web, several other victims fall by the wayside.
The Classic: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
While chasing a white rabbit, young Alice falls down a mysterious hole and finds herself in a wonderland full of strange sights and creatures. Her journey through this land with prophetic caterpillars, strange twins, interesting lawn games and a murderous Queen (“Off with her head!”) mirror the inner anxieties that Alice is facing in her daily life.
The Contemporary: Syfy’s Alice
This TV mini-series on the Syfy channel is a modernized, science fiction version of the fantasy classic. Alice is a martial arts instructor whose fiancÃ© disappears. When she follows him through a mysterious portal, Alice finds herself in a devastated kingdom called Wonderland. Flamingo-shaped flying machines, bottled emotions distilled from humans, and a strange man they call the Hatter are only some of the things Alice finds in this dangerous place.
The Classic: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
In Austen’s most famous novel, the headstrong Elizabeth Bennet enters the marriage market unwilling to bend to make an advantageous alliance. She meets her match in the eminently suitable Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. The two lead each other on a merry chase before their pride and prejudices about each other bend enough for the two to find love.
The Contemporary: Bridget Jones’s Diary
At New Year’s Bridget decides to change her life. She will find love and she will chronicle her search in a diary. Though Bridget’s year seems to start off with a bang when her rapscallion boss suddenly shows an interest in her, she cannot seem to avoid running into Mark Darcy, a man who drives her absolutely bonkers.
Another Contemporary, you say? Bride & Prejudice!
The four daughters Bakshi live with their parents in India, where mogul Will Darcy is visiting with his friend Balraj. The oldest daughter, Jaya, immediately hits it off with Balraj, which unfortunately leaves the younger Lalita constantly bumping heads with the arrogant Will. What makes this one so great? Well, the Bollywood soundtrack, of course! Bride and Prejudice has song and dance (the theme of last year’s Fabulous Films for Young Adults) and beautiful sets and costumes.
The Classic: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Easily considered one of the greatest American classics, Hawthorne’s tale addresses morality, guilt, redemption, and societal interaction in the American colonies. Hester Prynne, who has borne a child out of wedlock, is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A,” decreeing her adulterous ways for all to see. The young minister who has fathered her child is harassed by Hester’s husband, who was thought deceased, until he confesses his guilt on his deathbed. In the end, Hester has the dignity to suffer her daily trial and emerges stronger for her suffering.
The Contemporary: Easy A
When Olive lets a little rumor about losing her virginity circulate through school, she soon finds herself embroiled in a scheme to help a friend cover up his homosexuality. As the rumor mill pumps out more and more stories about Olive’s “exploits,” Olive finds herself ostracized as a slut, just like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. At first thumbing her nose at the school, Olive soon finds that she cannot control the situation anymore and must turn to friends and family for a little advice and a clever solution to her notoriety.
The Classic: Snow White by the Brothers Grimm
A beautiful princess is devastated by the loss of her parents and the coldness of her step-mother. When the Queen decides that Snow White has grown more beautiful than she, she commissions her loyal huntsman to kill the princess. Snow White flees with his help, and goes to live with seven dwarves in the forest. The Queen continues to pursue her, though, and eventually poisons Snow White. When a prince passes her body laid out in a coffin, he determines he shall have it and arranges to take her home. When the coffin is accidentally dropped, the apple piece that was choking Snow White falls out and she awakens. The prince and Snow White marry and force her evil stepmother to dance herself to death in red-hot shoes at the wedding.
The Contemporary: Snow White and the Huntsman
This modernization finds Snow White locked away for years in a tower after the evil Queen Ravenna murders Snow White’s father on their wedding night. Reliant on the immortality and power that she derives from her beauty, Ravenna decides to kill Snow White when her beauty threatens to eclipse her stepmother’s. Snow White escapes and then, with the help of a surly huntsman, navigates herself not only to safety, but to the head of an army, looking to reclaim her rightful kingdom and throne.
As you can see, Shakespeare was not the only great classical author to have his work reinterpreted in modern day Hollywood. The above examples are a great way to tackle some of the greatest classics in an easy to digest (and fun to watch) way this summer! Have you seen any great adaptations that we might have missed?
— Jessica Miller, currently reading Prized by Caragh O’Brien and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jaqueline Kelly.
— Jessica Pryde, currently reading Tempest by Julie Cross
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