Rewriting the classics: good idea/bad idea?

Johnny Mains posed a question to me yesterday – whether it was a good idea or otherwise to take an old, classic story and rewrite it to suit modern sensibilities. Johnny has himself rewritten a few horror classics in his time, bringing them into the harsh light of the 21st century. However, most people’s immediate reaction would be, I suspect, a resoundingly loud “NO!” and, perhaps a few years ago I, too, would have fallen into that camp. Now, I find myself myself wondering if it IS such a bad thing, after all. I would venture to say that such acts of ‘updating’ stories have been done ever since the very first story was set down on bark/papyrus/paper.

Hollywood does it all the time – taking a universally acknowledged classic and bringing it up to date, without taking away the essential core of the tale. It clearly does this to make it fit in with the way the world is now, to make it relevant to today’s people so they’ll actually want to see it. After all, it costs money to make a film and, naturally, the producers want to see their investment returned. The important thing is that the heart of the story itself is retained – in other words, whatever trappings it’s clothed in, the story is still recognisable.

Some people complain about ‘messing with the source material’, so to speak, but most seem to accept the idea of reimagining a story in visual terms to suit present times. A good director/screenwriter will pick up on the essential ingredients that made the story so well regarded in the first place, and develop its themes and subtexts in such a way that modern-day audiences will immediately recognise what’s going on beneath the surface. Society, and the people in it, despite changes in mores, fashions and lifestyles, remains fairly constant, although the mindset of a member of a previous society may present something of a problem to delineate properly. However, people are generally the same, regardless of era. By transplanting it to now, the story is made more accessible and ‘readable’. Some would even argue that by updating it filmgoers are encouraged to go and read the original story. So, in that sense, one can fully justifiably say that it’s a good thing.

Conversely, others would say that it’s taking the story out of its correct context, and that perhaps the strength of the original narrative comes from its being placed within the milieu in which the writer placed it, ie his/her own times. That may be true to a certain extent, but, like I pointed out above, humans were more or less the same then as they are now – the only advantage I can see is that we have more sophisticated technology, sophisticated in this context meaning more complex and able to do things faster. Add in the fact that  I am not that interested in, for instance, period dramas (although my wife enjoys them), and it might be that modern reinterpretations will allow me to enjoy the classic story without all the trappings of bygone times (although I am immensely interested in history).

Literature, however, is a different matter. I would wager that people are much less forgiving if an author rewrites a classic story. For some people, I guess, literature is much more precious in terms of cultural value. But is this really so? None of the writers whose work eventually attained the status of classic ever had that in mind when they sat down to write their books. Most, if not all, of them wrote because they had a burning desire to do just that: write. And the stories they wrote then, certainly in terms of themes and plotlines, are the same in some respects as those that are written now.

But, and let’s be honest here, the way some of the classics have been written present obstacles to some people. I am one of those who loves how the English language has evolved over the centuries, and I find immense enjoyment from reading old stories – how the language flows, the use of broader vocabularies or words that are no longer extant, or the use of classical references or words in Latin or ancient Greek. Writing is much more streamlined and concise these days, frippery and wordiness being frowned upon. It’s no wonder, then, that there are those who think reading the classics is either ‘difficult’ or ‘boring’. The richness of the English language escapes a lot of people these days.

And I guess this is where rewriting the classics comes in to a certain extent. I am neither for nor against them per se, nor do I see them as inherently pointless. Language DOES evolve, as do societies, and there will always be people who see the past as being irrelevant to them in particular and to everything else in general (and that attitude, I think, speaks of a failure of the teachers of history in our schools to engage their students with the subject properly). In that case, I suppose that rewriting the classics serves a distinct purpose, ie bringing the ‘classics’ to the attention of modern audiences and perhaps getting them interested in researching further. I tend to go for the originals anyway, but that’s me – not everyone is motivated by language and writing in the way I am. In a broader context, however, I can’t say for certain whether this amounts to a good thing or not – that’s for each individual to decide.

Would I publish such a story within the pages of Spectral? Doubtful, although a story based on/inspired by a classic might receive consideration. For the most part, however, although I don’t see any harm in re-envisioning the classics and hauling them into the present century, it’s just not my thing in general (although, to be fair, I have read such stories and some of them have been highly entertaining and clever).

What do you think – what is YOUR stance on such literary endeavours? Do you think they’re a good thing, or a bad thing? Let’s get some debate going…

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3 Responses to “Rewriting the classics: good idea/bad idea?”

  1. Sometimes it’s nice to see the original, but I think even the classics can be reworkings of older stories, so I have no problem with the process continuing. I see no point in being precious about it all, although it’s nice to see attribution where relevant. I discussed this with my son last night as we watched The Manchurian Candidate and it slowly dawned on us that it was in the form of a classic Greek tragedy.

  2. Horror DVD…

    [...]Rewriting the classics: good idea/bad idea? « Ramblings of a Tattooed Head[...]…

  3. When someone rewrites a classic book (as apposed to the tale or theme), I sometimes wonder if that person has an ulterior motive. What would prevent the person from rewriting Huckleberry Finn and remove any reference to slavery, the “N” word or insert modern political references. The best I can come up with in regards to rewrites of classics is for those books to be clearly stated as a rewrite and not presented as an editorial of that book. At least then the reader can decide if the “re-author” has an agenda.

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