How to take a classic and retell the story

For long, classics have been reimagined and reinterpreted. At times, stories are taken forward or given a twist. At times, embedded characters are extrapolated and given a new life. Why do writers feel the need to fall back on books that were written in a different era — and that upheld different value systems?



By Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta

Published: Sat 16 Apr 2022, 11:52 PM

Art is vulnerable because its success is entirely dependent on its acceptance by others. Art is powerful because, when accepted, it can be a catalyst for inspiration and change. That is why creators are often on tenterhooks: the tug of war between the need for acceptance and the desire to express one’s own ideas is never-ending. This is part of the reason why ‘remixes’ are so popular — especially in cinema and music. One can lean back on the familiar, while retaining the freedom to say something new, something unique.

And even though, traditionally, the adjective ‘remixed’ isn’t often paired with books, ‘remixed books’ are now taking on a life of their own.

One of the most remixed books in the world is the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice. There is Linda Berdoll’s version, Mr Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues, that takes the story ahead. Elizabeth and Darcy are delighted to discover that their compatibility extends far beyond their matched wits, as they navigate new twists in an entirely new plot. Another one is Abigail Reynolds’ The Last Man in the World. It imagines what would have happened if Elizabeth Bennet had accepted Darcy’s proposal the first time around, instead of telling him that she wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man in the world.

An ethnically reimagined remix would be Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin — set amid the Toronto Muslim community. “While I did not set out to write a straightforward retelling, I think the themes in Pride and Prejudice are echoed in my book, namely class differences, family expectations, and the search for identity mixed in with the search for love,” Uzma has said about her book to indulgexpress.com. One might estimate at least a hundred such retellings of Jane Austen’s famous novel.

Uzma also went on to write a book inspired by the Meg Ryan movie You’ve Got Mail — written and directed by Nora Ephron — titled Hana Khan Carries On. The entire idea of renaming the characters, placing their outspokenness and their courage into a more conservative ethnic milieu has its own place in social relevance and feminism.

Sometimes, all it takes is a matter of perspective — a new one

Margaret Atwood’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective is called The Penelopiad. Now, Homer is not easy reading. The original features Odysseus, his faithful wife Penelope, and her cousin, the beautiful Helen of Troy. Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen (he was one of Helen’s original suitors after all!).

Atwood looks beyond Helen and Odysseus to start with. In Homer’s original, when Penelope is left all alone for 20 years, she proves to be quite resourceful. Not only does she bring up her wayward son, she also manages to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca. Atwood trains the focus on Penelope and her 12 maids who were murdered upon Odysseus’s return. In The Penelopiad, Penelope is talking to us after her death, to tell her side of the story with the benefit of hindsight.

Atwood also gives voice to the 12 maids who were killed, because they were treated unfairly in the original. Vulnerable and voiceless, many of them experience rape and abuse from suitors who gather to court Penelope during the absence of her husband. In that sense, maybe The Penelopiad is a significant retelling.

Atwood has also remixed Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Hag-Seed. Which brings us to the indubitable fact that, on the whole, there is no doubt at all that the great Bard is the most remixed author of all time. Lisa Klein’s Lady Macbeth’s Daughter is probably a great place to start. In Shakespeare’s original tragedy, the Macbeths are childless. The premise of Lisa’s book is that Lady Macbeth gave birth to a girl, who was rejected by Macbeth because he desired a son. The girl, named Albia, is raised by the three Wyrd sisters and eventually makes her way back into the court. Specific lines from the original play feature in the novel, whenever Albia is in the presence of her parents. It is written with such conviction and research that it seems impossible that Albia was not part of the Bard’s original story.

In another book titled Ophelia, Klein picks out her favourite character from Hamlet and makes it about her. She has openly maintained that she has hero-worshipped Shakespeare. “My own rewriting of Shakespeare’s stories is an effort to understand and participate in his creativity… I want to retell the play from the perspective of female characters that I don’t think Shakespeare understood very well — or cared all that much about, except as they set off his tragic heroes,” she has been quoted by www.thecompulsivereader.com.

Remixes: making them appeal to another generation

Shakespeare has been reimagined and retold for teens as well as small kids. There’s Michelle Ray’s Falling for Hamlet, which is really light. In this merry teeny-bopper remix, the vodka-loving Ophelia’s ring tone for her father Polonius is “Papa Don’t Preach”.

There’s also Exposure by Mal Peet, in which Othello becomes ‘football star Otello’, who lives in South America. The book won The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 2009.

Touching upon the evergreen Pride and Prejudice again, in Vanessa King’s 2021 book A Certain Appeal, her female protagonist Liz Bennet works for a living and the story is set in modern-day New York. Liz Bennet has a day job in a local office and plays ‘Kitten Caboodle’ by night, at Meryton, Manhattan’s top-tier burlesque venue. Her co-worker at the club is Jane Okogu (in the original, they are sisters).

Are you still with me?

Will Darcy attends one of Liz’s burlesque shows and sparks fly. Darcy’s profession? Wealth manager, of course, and he is advising his friend (you guessed it right — Mr Bingley) on buying this Meryton club, which is up for sale. That’s why he’s there so often, get it?

Vanessa said during the promotions of her book, “The biggest challenge with this project was deciding which story beats from Pride and Prejudice to keep and which to leave unexplored. Ultimately, I picked the ones that would best progress the relationship between Darcy and Bennet.”

There’s also Prom & Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg, which as the name suggests is set among teenagers in high school and is extremely light and breezy. Purists may shudder at the inappropriateness and puerility of some of these remixes, but the truth is that art tends to find its own audience… or not! Arguably, the credit for the most successful re-imagination of a book for successive generations must go to the many screenplays based on the four novels and 56 short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, featuring his character Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch almost refused the opportunity to play the detective in one of the more recent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes because, “I heard about it and thought that sounds like an idea to re-enfranchise something to make money. It could be a bit cheap and cheesy.”

It is true that some remixes could be just that. However, every new adaptation with an experimental approach to the basic story expands its audience and its legend further and further.

And then there are authors who remix their own books...

Ben Okri’s 2008 lyrical masterpiece Starbook tells the tale of a prince and a maiden, who is a sculptor in a mythical land. He said he felt the need to rewrite it because a few themes — especially the one about the slave trade — had not been picked up well enough, by readers and reviewers alike.

An entirely new version, complete with a new title and cover, is to be published as The Last Gift of the Master Artists and expected to release in August 2022. Okri won the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road in 1991.

He’s not the first to engage in a rewrite of his own work. Mary Shelley first published Frankenstein in 1818. However, she created a much darker version of the original book and reprinted it in 1831. During this period, Shelley was beset with personal tragedies: she lost her daughter, son and husband. This had an impact on how she visualised her main character, Dr Victor Frankenstein. In the newer version that we know today, which is extremely popular, Dr Frankenstein is fatalistic, he feels that destiny is pressing down heavily on him. Universal Pictures made Frankenstein into a movie in 1931 and followed it up with The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 — which, at the time, was rather a new way of remixing a book into a movie.

How difficult is it to remix a book?

Himanjali Sankar, editorial director of Simon & Schuster India, says, “I don’t think it’s daunting as much as an exciting, innovative exercise and, finally, the end result will be a book that should be judged for itself rather than in comparison with the original. I don’t think I can name a classic that deserves to be re-written… it’s really up to an author to choose a book she loves and reimagine it in a way that’s not been done before.”

Himanjali’s own favourites are Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth, Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key, The Missing Queen by Samhita Arni and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea which provides a fascinating post-colonial prequel to Jane Eyre.

Sequels by far might be the easier way out while writing a remix because they offer considerable freedom to set up a whole new plot. For instance, in After the Death of Don Juan by Sylvia Townsend Warner, the story opens in Seville, Spain. Don Juan has been snatched by demons, in retribution for his attack on Dona Ana’s father. Don Juan’s own servant was witness to the event. Grieving for her father, Dona Ana finally marries her betrothed Don Ottavio — though her mind seems more taken up with the fate of Don Juan.

The book explores whether Don Juan has really been taken by demons or whether he has fled to pursue his notorious ways elsewhere! (Don Juan of course is originally Lord Byron’s legendary libertine.)

The oddest of the remix tribe would be books that borrow only the name of a very popular character. Cinderella Goes to the Morgue by Nancy Spain has nothing to do with Cinderella. Breakfast at Darcy’s by Ali McNamara has nothing to do with Will Darcy; in fact, Darcy McCall is the woman protagonist of this book. However, such titles cleverly capture the reader’s interest with a popular character as a hook.

The bottom line seems to be that remixing is a great way to cut through the clutter and get noticed… and perhaps there are many more waiting in the wings.


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