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The Many Options for Rewriting a Classic
Written by
She Writes
December 2018
Written by
She Writes
December 2018

This guest post is from this month's guest editor Soniah Kamal. She is the author of Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan. Be sure to also check out NPR's recent review of her book that also examines her rewrite of the timeless Jane Austen classic. 

The Many Options for Rewriting a Classic

Writing a novel based on a classic can take many forms:

  • the pure retelling
  • an inspired by/based on
  • continuations (prequels/sequels)
  • and variations 

A retelling hews closely to the plot and character developments in the source material. The excellent 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, which made Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy a household name, is as pure a retelling as there is. The 1995 film, Clueless, is also a faithful retelling of Austen’s Emma. However it also transports the 1815 Regency era novel to a California high school and exquisitely updates Austen’s concerns to mirror teenage life in 1990’s Beverly Hills.

Choosing to retell a classic, or write an inspiration, continuations or variations is dependent on each author’s vision.

As a post colonial child of the British Empire grown up on the English language and British classics, I’d forever wanted to read my everyday Pakistani life in the pages of a book and so my desire to remap this favorite classic onto a Pakistan physically and emotionally was born.

Clueless gave me confidence that I could pull off setting Unmarriagable in a contemporary Pakistan and Muslim milieu.

The Challenge of Writing a Retelling

The great challenge in a faithful retelling is to stay within the bounds of the original. Unlike in Regency England 200 years ago, Pakistani women are now educated and free from having to fish for a husband just for financial security. My Charlotte Lucas is a school teacher and, as much as I would have liked for her to remain single and travel the world, as per Pride and Prejudice, she had to marry Mr. Collins and I had to provide plausible motive.

Another hard stricture of a contemporary retelling is to find modern plot equivalencies. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet orchestrates her eldest daughter’s stay at Mr. Bingley’s house by sending her on horseback during a downpour. In our modern world of public transportation and in a Pakistan where no reason is good enough for a respectable single woman to stay overnight with a veritable stranger, finding a reason for my Jane and Bingley to spend the night together was not easy.     

Benefits of an Inspired By/Based On Form

In contrast, an inspired by or based on has freedom to loosely follow plot lines and characterizations. Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Eligible is billed as a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice (it is part of the Austen Project which commissioned updates of Austen’s six novels) and takes the liberty of splitting Mr. Wickam into two characters.

It’s is an interesting choice that remains true in terms of character and yet not.

In Unmarriageable, I made the choice of having my characters aware that Jane Austen and her novels exist. In fact, the opening chapter is set in a classroom with students rewriting Pride and Prejudices’s iconic first sentence.

Does the presence of the source novel within the retell break the fictive dream?

I certainly thought suspension of disbelief would be completely gone if my characters knew they were living life parallel with Pride and Prejudice and so I chose to keep that wall intact.

An example of an inspired Pride and Prejudice is the film, Bridget Jones’s Diary. Bridget Jones’s Diary pays homage to the original through naming the main love interest Mark Darcy-- Fitzwilliam may have been too easy a laugh or too hard a sell in our times-- even as it plays fast and loose with the plot line. While the friction between the love-interests remains, Bridget Jones’s ditzy character is a far cry from the practical Elizabeth Bennet, and there are no corresponding characters for Mr. Collins or Charlotte etc. As such, an inspiration runs the risk of straying too far from its source material.

Continuations and Variations

Does simply naming characters after those in Austen’s novels, or sticking an Austen quote in front of a story, or protagonists who bicker, qualify a work to be categorized as Austenesque?

A recent 2018 Hallmark film, Christmas at Pemberly Manor, drummed up excitement by saying it was inspired by Pride and Prejudice. As a Janeite, I eagerly tuned in only to conclude that sticking Pemberly in a title, or quotes from Austen’s novels, or character names, or billing anything in which love-interests spar is, simply, a marketing ploy, and certainly does not an Austen, or any classic, re-make.

Continuations and variations offer a nice blend of staying true to the source material as well as allowing the author freedom to play with the text.

Two examples are Jo Baker’s excellent Longbourn, a parallel narrative, which is Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ points of view and Kathleen A. Flynn’s smart novel, The Jane Austen Project, the protagonists travel back in time and straight into Austen’s life with the purpose of getting her to write more novels which leads to an unexpected conclusion. The British TV drama, Lost in Austen, is another fun time-swap variation in which an Austen fan from present day London actually steps into Pride and Prejudice while Elizabeth Bennet finds herself in London. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an American adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, uses YouTube videos and social media to give the classic it’s most modern update yet.  

Recently a 2018 Facebook live conversation took place to celebrate Jane Austen’s 243rd birthday and was held between Alison Larkin, novelist and award-winning audio book narrator, and Jane Austen’s fifth grand niece, Caroline Knight, the author of the memoir My Austen Heritage and founder of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. In it, Knight stipulates that there must be around thirty-five thousand books inspired by Jane’s work alone.

Please digest that.

Modern Retellings 

In fact, for anyone wanting to attempt any type of homage to Austen’s work, this is a cornucopia of examples to dive into.

For short stories, the anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress. There’s Cassandra Grafton’s A Quest for Mr. Darcy where Austen’s iconic hero is convinced he’s over Ms. Bennet. Sonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors which gender switches Elizabeth and Darcy. Ibi Zoboi’s Pride set in Brooklyn. P.D. James’s Death at Pemberly about Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s marriage and a murder. Katherine Chen’s Mary B from Mary Bennet’s perspective. Ella Katharine White’s Heartstone with dragons. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus that braids Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Pride and Prejudice.  

Recent times have seen a bounty of contemporary novels inspired by a wide array of classics. There’s Minae Mizamura’s A Real Novel on Jane Eyre. Winter on Daphne Sarah McCoy’s Marilla of Green Gables on Anne of Green Gables. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad on The Odyssey. Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire on Antigone. Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young on King Lear. Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl on The Taming of the Shrew and Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy based on Othello.

Though it may seem daunting to take on a classic and even choosing between writing a retelling, continuation or variation, it is well worth the challenge to attempt this dialogue between books.

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