Relentless Adaptations and Seamonsters and Vampires and a Latte Please

@Fangbooks tweeted today: bloggers… would love to see an opinion piece on whether the trend towards rewriting/adding to ‘classic’ works is good art or lazy writing

As it happens, I have very strong opinions on this topic, and my answer is: yes.

Of course it’s good art. Of course it’s lazy writing. Of course some of the works that have emerged from this trend are cynical, shallow texts. And of course some of them are pure brilliance. This is what books do, that is, EVERYTHING.

I wrote the story “Relentless Adaptations” (currently available from Aussie suburban fantasy anthology Sprawl, and podcasted here) in response to this topic. While writing the story, I realised that I didn’t come down squarely on one side or another – and ultimately when I did (my honey, critting the story for me, was absolutely right to tell me it wouldn’t work unless I picked a side) it was not the one I thought I was supporting when I started the story.

There are many reasons why the Classic-Work-and-Horror-Trope fad is exactly that, a fad, and many reasons why it is problematic. These mashups generally (to my mind) never get better than their concept, and once you’ve giggled at the title, or in the case of Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters, the awesome booktrailer, it seems unnecessary to wade through the actual book.

I do believe that part of the reason these books have become such a hot trend in the last year or two is not because people want to read them, but because they want to HAVE them, or gift them to people, and sadly selling books to people who don’t really read or buy books that often is the key to becoming a bestseller.

When these literature-as-gimmick books first started, I thought it was a giggle, though I giggled rather less once someone smart (whom I no longer recall) pointed out that what was actually happening was modern male writers appropriating literary works by women, and once you’ve had your brain opened by a thought like that, it’s hard to put it back in the box. Also, and I appreciate that I haven’t read more than two pages of any of these books (S&S&S was in my opinion unreadable, a grave disappointment to me) the thing that it reminds me of most is that awful Red Dwarf episode in which Robert Llewellyn (who wrote it) thought he was parodying Jane Austen when in fact he was serving up an embarrassingly ignorant “parody” of what people who have never read or even watched a Jane Austen story think they are all about.

In contrast, as I mentioned recently, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Jane Austen-inspired Shades of Milk and Honey is a smooth and elegant novel of which only one facet is the subtle parody of Austen’s books, characters and tropes. It is a work that invites people who love Jane Austen to share the joke, rather than inviting people who think Jane Austen is stupid to laugh at how stupid she is. In Doctor Who terms, it’s the difference between Steven Moffatt’s sublime “The Curse of Fatal Death” and the rather awful Victoria Wood Doctor Who sketch from the 80’s.

As “Relentless Adaptations” opened, I posited a world not too far from right now, in which bookshops have morphed into cafes and entertainment centres with printers and book menus available – you can print exactly the text you want to read with your latte while the children play, and why limit yourself to original texts when you can choose a favourite variation? Pride and Prejudice can not only come with added zombies, but also with vampires, or with modern dress and slang, or with porny bits, or with a more comfortable racial/sexual diversity than the original. I thought it was a slightly scary but quite realistic portrayal of the future of publishing and bookselling (though to be fair later parts of the story are quite… unrealistic)

As a literature geek AND a slash fan, I was on the fence about whether or not such flexibility of text was a good thing, which is why it was handy to have several characters to deal with this near future of books – an academic who can’t stand the way that original text has collapsed under the weight of so much gimmickry, and a mum who quite likes her Sherlock Holmes to come with same sex couples.

The world of the story turned, however, into a revolution against the adulteration of text, one extreme replacing another. My protagonist finds herself rebelling against this world, though she accepts the limitations of the previous one. However galling it is to see literature taken apart and exploited for entertainment, how much worse is it to prevent that (or any) kind of art from being created?

I loathe Peter Pan sequels, just as an example. I love the original work, and I love the way it opens up a world of endless sequels that are best kept in the head of the reader. I hate the way that many writers have taken Peter Pan and Wendy in particular, and told their own version of a Pan story. The main reason I detest this, I think, is not only my respect for the original, but also because I have read so MANY stories that capitalise on the original text without actually adding anything new and special. To appropriate a classic work of literature is only worthwhile when, you know, you do it with panache and awesomeness.

I loved Lost Girls, the graphic novel which completely capitalised on the mythology of Wendy and Pan, but also Dorothy and Alice, but created stories so rich and different that I appreciated them while also being discomforted by what Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie had chosen to do. The problematic nature of turning these three prepubescent literary heroines into highly sexualised adult women was indeed part of the story, and acknowledged throughout. It’s an uncomfortable, thought-provoking read which gives far more than it takes away.

More recently, I read (THIS MORNING) Sarah Rees Brennan’s story “The Spy who Never Grew Up” which took my breath away by being a sequel to Peter Pan that is fascinating and brilliant. It relies upon archetypes from books every bit as much as the original, with Peter being recruited to be a spy right out of the James Bond novels and others of that genre, and a post-modern descendant of Wendy commenting on him even as she is charmed and swept away. The dialogue crackles, there are ninja fairies, and Brennan managed to comment on the gender problems of the original as well as the racial problems (without actually using the word ‘Redskins’ which is both clever and commendable. It’s a story rife with fan service, but the kind of fan service that actually works.

I believe – and this is the conclusion my short story also came down to – that an essential part of being human is building stories upon stories upon stories. The closing lines of the short story reflect a real experience I had, and have had many nights, when my daughter now 5 years old requests a story. When she was three and four she would often ask me to tell the story of a movie that had scared her (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, for example), over and over, only editing out the bits she didn’t like, until it was familiar enough that she could actually cope with hearing the Violet Beauregard scene.

When I read Enid Blyton to her, I will edit out particular words or terms, if I don’t feel like explaining them. Sometimes I will edit a boring fairy novel for length (there are some appalling ones out there) or when I am blindsided by a truly awful ending/moral that I don’t want her to hear – though the truth is, she can read now, and my editing days are over. When she was three, it was an important skill for me to have.

Kids are the world’s best and most active fans. They love to mix up stories, and to see the way they tangle together. They love to imagine superhero crossovers and mash ups. They will happily play Justice League and Astro Boy and X Men and Fairies all at once, in the playground. They soar over the borders and boundaries that adults put up around books.

There is a reason no one tries to divide kids books up into genres.

So yes, from very young, it is natural to think of stories having fluidity. That’s what happens when you have six completely different versions of Cinderella on the shelf – the Disney, the Rackham, the Sally Gardner, the one told entirely with Bunnies, the Kelly Link, etc.

I’ve always loved stories that grow out of other stories. For all my detestation of sequels to Peter Pan, or boring and pointless appropriative works, many of my favourite books are in some ways appropriations, whether they be inspired by fairy tales, Arthurian myth or Suetonius.

Also, you know, I’m a classicist. It just makes sense to me to have dozens of different versions of the same story, each offering something new. My favourite version of the Trojan Cycle is Euripides’ Helen, where she and Menelaus are reunited after 20 years, and it turns out she was in Egypt the whole time the Trojan War was going on (this play was intended to explain the oft-asked question of why the Trojans didn’t just give her back). My second favourite version of the Trojan Cycle is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand, which basically does to the story of Troy what Mists of Avalon did to the Arthurian legend – retells it from the point of view of women, making the story bridge the point when a matriarchal society gave way to patriarchal. Then there’s the fact that most of the more iconic parts of the story, such as the wooden horse, don’t actually appear in the Iliad at all. You have to look elsewhere for the money shots. There is no perfect version of mythology – the ancient world didn’t think that way, and I don’t really think it comes any more naturally in the 21st century to believe there is only one version of a story.

Some people do believe that, of course. Some people believe that a movie can really “wreck” a book, or that it’s a really big deal if the Dryad character appears to be three feet taller on the cover than in the text, or that fanfic in some way takes something away from the author, or that no one should be allowed to give away free knitting patterns of Adipose. Some people think that you should only read Alice in Wonderland with the original illustrations, in bound leather volumes. Obviously I am not those people. (though it’s hard to top the Tenniel illustrations, and the iPad version is, you have to admit, in some ways far superior to the original)

In short, I do think the trend of remixing classic works of literature is appropriating the work of others, and I do think it’s exploitative. And I completely support the right of writers to do that thing. Though obviously I prefer it when they come up with something that is truly awesome, and appears to have taken more than a week of frantic typing to come up with. Messing with the classics is potentially fabulous and potentially fraught with bibliographic dangers. Enter at your peril.

And, you know, they should only be allowed to charge money for it if those works are out of copyright.

In short, I am not particularly interested in reading a Jane Austen novel with movie monsters added for the laughs, because life is too short and I’d rather just, you know, reread a Jane Austen novel. But Spike Milligan’s version of Wuthering Heights in the late 90’s was a thing of genius. And I will totally be hanging out for Diana Peterfreund’s version of Persuasion retold as science fiction.

Because never mind zombies and vampires – Jane Austen novels IN SPACE!!!


[comic from Hark, A Vagrant]

One reply

  1. The Never Fairy says:

    I don’t like the Peter Pan prequels or sequels either – except one.
    All of the others, besides doing what you said about nothing ‘new’ to it, have a ton of mistakes in them as compared to Barrie’s original. That’s so horribly disrespectful. But this one is different. Really… it came about after a scholarly pursuit into J.M. Barrie and his notes and own idea for a sequel were used to make it. Wendy and Hook, for instance, aren’t even in it (except by mention.) It’s a lot of fun. So please have a read of it! 🙂 Click!

    And I should tell you about this one, too. It’s not a sequel. It’s a “What If?” which sends the story/characters on a very different path. It does so with an expert grasp of the characters and themes and expands/enriches them. Click!

    Hope you like them!
    BELIEVE!

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