Thursday, July 2, 2009

Messing with the classics

I was talking to a writer yesterday that had just finished RHETT BUTLER'S PEOPLE and it got me thinking about all of those writers out there, both published and unpublished, who return to the "classics" to get their inspiration. Does it work on doesn't it?

In the case of this writer that I spoke to yesterday, it didn't. She is an avid fan of GONE WITH THE WIND. She loves the movie but she knows the novel inside and out. Play GWTW trivia with her and she will kick anyone hard. When she had heard about this new book, she ran to the book store to get that copy and was fuming by the time she reached the end. Although this is supposedly Rhett's view of things, she found it frustrating that there were things that deviated from the original story in GWTW. What made her even angrier is that the author, in her opinion, missed the boat by ignoring the previously authorized story SCARLETT and had Rhett and Scarlett doing things after the story that were completely different. Was this right or wrong? That is up to the views of many. This is, however, what writers will face when "messing with the classics."

Frequently a writer will approach me with a new version of the Arthurian legends. Now, I am all into different takes, but I often struggle with the approaches. Mostly because, in an effort to find something new, the author has had to deviate from the original so much, that as a reader, I have a hard time swallowing it. In the case of the Arthur legends, there are so many scholars out there, both professional and hobbiest, that seeing a story deviating from what they would call the "correct version" would be too much.

For myself, I cringe when a director decides to mess with Shakespeare. I have always agreed with the premise these directors have when they say Shakespeare is timeless, but some of the versions I have seen, where a director takes a show and places it in time periods it just doesn't fit kills me. I was never a fan of the Dicaprio Romeo and Juliet. Sure, it got people hooked on Shakespeare and that, as a lit-major and as an English instructor is always thrilling, but I simply struggled with the approach. It just didn't work. Regardless of how good the acting may have been, it made it too hard to recall what I enjoyed about Shakespeare.

Now, does this mean a writer shouldn't play around with the classics? No. Go for it and see what happens. If the story is honestly good enough, there is a chance it can make it over the hurdles and onto the book shelf. Just understand, there may be many that scream in agony as you take their favorite character to a place they don't believe he or she belongs.

This same approach can be taken with true examples of historical fiction. Showing your take on a historical figure is a great practice in research and hypothesis. As a historical writer, if you really want to challenge yourself, see what you can do with a real character. You have to insure all of the facts that are known about that character make it into the book, and then you build around it. Philippa Gregory is fantastic at this.

Today's post is not about what you can and cannot do. It is simply something to chew on as you think about your next project. If you are reader that picks up one of these books, decide what it is that you like or hate about it? Were they true to the original?



  1. I love to read, Scott, and will read almost anything...except books based on the classics. I think Shakespeare is the only exception. But a book based on Gone With the Wind, or a continuation of Rebecca, or anything based on Jane Austen turns me off immediately.

    In my mind, I see it as cheating. I think writers should develop their own characters, their own worlds, and not build upon the work of other authors.

    The exception - Shakespeare - is fun when I see a writer take a classic tale such as Hamlet and put it in a modern context. But then, the writer isn't using the world Shakespeare created or the characters, merely the theme.

  2. Hmmm...what to do? Should I leave messing with Shakespeare alone, or do as you suggested and 'just write!'

    I am actually working on a prose retelling of "The Taming of the Shrew", one of the bard's more controversial plays. I am trying to stay true to the play, while at the same time using a spin that I feel is different from the traditional interpretation. It is set in the same time, and with the same social mores.

    I listed it as a work-in-progress when I submitted another work to one editor (she requests such a list as part of the package), and got a nibble of interest.

    I hesitated when I first considered this, precisely because I dislike other authors who have trod in the classics territory. I never did read Scarlett, and I have studiously avoided the Jane Austen wannabe's.

    But when I realized I felt that my interpretation of the play was one that had been repeatedly missed, I knew I had to write the story in my heart. In doing so, I have to say my thoughts on messing with the classics has changed, though I still hate to see stories that stray from the original plot.