Sexing Up the Classics

According to the Huffington Post, the “zombies and” phenomenon of doctoring classic novels with with addition of monsters and horror tropes has moved on to a new technique, publishing versions of Austen and the Brontes which have extra sex scenes inserted into the text.

Mr Darcy was not aware that his novel was not sexy enough. You made Mr Darcy sad.

I don’t agree that publishing X-rated versions of classic novels is worse than adding zombies and seamonsters to them. I think it’s exactly as bad.

Thanks to @editormum who pointed this out to me on Twitter, comparing the real life publishing antics to a story I wrote for the Sprawl anthology a couple of years ago, in which the publishing and bookselling world allowed customers to buy and print books on the spot, espresso machine style, but also to choose variations of the text as standard options. When I wrote “Relentless Adaptations” at the beginning of the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” hype machine, I was on the fence as to whether this was a good or bad thing for books.

On the one hand, it was a clever and funny concept, and everyone was talking about it. Pride and Prejudice had sudden SF geek cred instead of just book geek cred. The Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters book trailer had been recently released and was hilarious. This was I think before the actual books were released, for the most part at least, proving that the only funny thing about the concept was, well, the concept, not than the execution, and that the whole range would have been better released as a series of fridge magnets and t-shirts rather than actual books.

But I was still on the fence. As an author I love playing with the works of others, and I absolutely agree that works should go out of copyright, and that they should become fair game for other creative people to pick up the concepts and characters, play with them, and take them apart to see what works. As a reader, I love many works that do this excellently, from retellings like Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You to the many short stories, graphic novels and other media that interrogate Oz, Wonderland or Narnia.

Hey, I’m still writing a Romeo and Juliet and necromancers novel, I’m not an innocent here!

Heathcliff would like to state for the record that if you don’t think he’s getting plenty of nookie in Wuthering Heights, you weren’t reading the book closely enough.

In the case of Austen and the Brontes, I think it would be great fun to read a book of erotica based on the classic novels. I wouldn’t have a problem about that at all. But there’s something quite creepy and invasive about the idea of publishing the actual text of the original novel, with fictive alterations. I get upset enough about the character names in Enid Blyton novels being changed. But the idea of inserting sex scenes between the characters into the REAL text of the original novel… well, it’s just as bad as tucking zombies and sea-monsters in there.

If anything, this new development is slightly mitigated in my mind because what it isn’t (which the “and zombies” phenomenon most definitely was) a case of modern male authors appropriating the work of classic female authors, which was an aspect of “and zombies” which made me very uncomfortable. There are so few female authors of classic literature who have managed to survive academic snobbery and “the canon” and thoughtless, gender-biased readers to continue to be remembered, and the idea of male authors taking the best of them over and adding zombies and vampires to make them “cool” did creep me out a bit. It didn’t make it any better when a friend who is also a bookseller pointed out that he had sold massively more copies of Pride and Prejudice to men over the last 2 years than he ever had before, purely because of “and zombies.”

The idea that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies might be someone’s first introduction to the work makes me feel exceedingly uncomfortable. And yet I wouldn’t feel the same way about a movie based on that concept. The same goes for a “sexed-up” version of one of the classics. I might not love the idea, mostly because I don’t believe you can credibly allow characters to have sex without radically changing everything else that happens in the story, but I don’t think I’d disapprove of a sexytimes movie version of Wuthering Heights or Sense and Sensibility, especially if it was very clear that the creators were aware they were taking liberties with the text. Let’s face it, the last filmed Pride and Prejudice took some massive liberties – and many purists hated it, but many more people adored it. I prefer my P&P BBC style, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get overly outraged by people who prefer Keira Knightley to Jennifer Ehle. Films often choose to appeal to a modern audience over sticking to the constraints of the text, and that’s a reasonable choice to make.

But these Classics With Sex Scenes don’t come with any particular awareness or humility, apparently. The publisher in question, Claire Siemaszkiewicz, seems to think that it was only historical mores stopping the Bronte sisters from producing erotic romance… and maybe that’s true. But the fact is, they didn’t write those scenes. Emily Bronte did not come back from the grave with a notebook full of Hareton/Lockwood slash sticking out of her back pocket and hand it over with a cheerful wink.

(Though if anyone wants to write a story about that happening, I would totally read it)

The Misses Dashwood are not going anywhere until you read them a Hareton/Lockwood fic.

It’s not the porn aspect that’s a problem here – at least, I certainly don’t feel that it is a problem of itself. It’s just that the fact that it’s sex instead of violence is making more people sit up and take notice and realise the thing that should have been obvious all along – that adding scenes to someone else’s book is just plain weird.

Fiction is a historical as well as a literary document, and these publishers and their hired hacks are doing something very invasive to that document. Unless the remodeled novels clearly indicate where the original leaves off and the fakery begins, I think it’s really quite disingenuous to present the original authors as co-creators in this new moneygrabbing enterprise. They’re not.

Write your super-sexy version of Wuthering Heights, by all means, but don’t pretend that you’re doing so with the permission of the original author, or that you can now claim equal billing with Emily Bronte on the cover of her own damn book.

5 replies on “Sexing Up the Classics”

  1. It’s a travesty i say, a travesty. Almost up there with casting Kiera Knightly as Lizzy Bennet.

  2. tansyrr says:

    It’s so true. Why couldn’t they have just got Greer Garson back? She was an AWESOME Lizzy Bennet.

  3. Faith says:

    Ew. I mean, seriously, ew. There’s a very thick line between amusing adaptation and literary wreckage, and as far as I’m concerned they crossed it with an army of the living dead. These characters aren’t actually the same characters any more if you make them do things that are so totally out of, well, character. Applying DIY raunch is just as bad as making Lizzie a zombie herself. It’s pretending she is a blank canvas. She’s not, and neither are any of the other classic characters facing a rewrite.

  4. Pao says:

    Thing is, a little change can still make the classics sound different. What more with an erotic or a zombie-fied way. Also, P&P BBC style is always the best.

  5. I don’t mind the idea of new stories featuring the old characters but the idea of insert sex/zombie/seamonster (have I just described Austen Cthulu Hentai ?) into the story irks me. It shews a distinct lack of taste and breeding.

    In truth, I feel most put out.

    @Tansy, I have not the benefit of Miss Garson’s acquaintance, but shall defer to your taste in the matter. Though I must confess I have a fondness for Jennifer Ehle who I only just realised is American.

    I would have loved to have seen June Allyson take on the role(best Jo March eva).

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