Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Modern Make-Over: The Classics Retold

As a former English Lit major, I must admit that I’m somewhat of a classicist – I love those drafty old novels that made their way into the literary cannon. Shakespeare, Faulkner, Joyce . . . I read them all. For fun.

And while I feel as protective of them as a mama bird with her eggs – and thus should probably scoff at and reject any adaptation that strays even the slightest from the original text – I have to admit that sometimes I enjoy modern retellings of these classic tales. Like the movie Clueless. Sure it’s a silly 90’s teen flick, but it’s also an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Here we're able to watch high school teen queen Cher struggle with the same issues as her 19th century counterpart. But, you know, with cell phones and credit cards.

I think it’s interesting to see these stories that we revere and study in school in a new context. To see them taken a little less seriously. Some might call these retellings irreverent, some say they’re pandering, but at the end of the day, I just think they’re fun. Here are a few you might (or might not) have recognized:

- Cruel Intentions – Based on Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses
- She’s All That – Based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion
- Bridget Jones’s Diary – Based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
- Never Been Kissed – Based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It
- She’s The Man – Based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
- Ten Things I Hate About You – Based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew
- West Side Story – Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
[Clearly Shakespeare is a favorite of modern storytellers.]

Did you recognize any of them? Some of them are a bit more, uh, freely adapted than others.  Here are five more - the five that I consider my favorite modern retellings. Check them out:

My Fair Lady – 
It’s George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion set in Edwardian London. It’s got musical numbers, and dancing, elocution lessons and, of course, the incomparable Audrey Hepburn. It won eight Oscars and danced its way into the hearts of movie-viewers worldwide.
The Lion King – 
The one and only animated movie to make my list, Disney’s The Lion King is a wonderful retelling of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It's got catchy songs and beautiful depictions of the planes of Africa. Not to mention anthropomorphic animals struggling for power and to find their rightful place in the animal kingdom. It does Shakespeare proud. 
Scotland, PA.
If there’s a more bizarre combination than Shakespeare and fast food restaurants, I don’t know what it is. And yet somehow it works. Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play, and this is my favorite of its adaptations.
Easy A – 
Puritan Massachusetts, the setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, was a ruthless and vicious place. So what better than to re-imagine it in modern day high school - the most ruthless and vicious place there is. It gets an easy A+ in my book. 
O Brother, Where Art Thou? – 
Last but not least, from the brilliant mind of the Coen brothers comes Homer’s The Odyssey set in 1930’s Mississippi. It is my all-time favorite modern retelling, and one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Best line ever – "Well, ain't this place a geographical oddity. Two weeks from everywhere."

Are you a fan of seeing you favorite classics retold in a modern setting, with modern problems and situations? What are some of your favorites?


  1. I loved "O Brother, Where Art Thou." Clooney was masterful.

    I believe Shakespeare is emulated in a sense vis a vis retting a story is twofold: 1. No one is going to hit a writer up for stealing the idea; and 2. he is arguably the best writer ever, next to perhaps Moses. lol

    By the way, I am running a Blog Fest Aug. 10-12 called the Dog Days of Summer. I'd love to see you there.


  2. Well, you know, it's not like Shakespeare made up most of his stories, anyway... heh

    It's late, or I would try to figure out which ones I've liked and which ones I didn't. Maybe tomorrow.

  3. O Brother was awesome. I've also seen too many of those chick flicks to admit here (not through my own volition) but I didn't realise that so many were based on classic literature.

  4. I just recently watched O Brother with my teenage daughter. She heard about it from her English teacher. I'd seen it before, but it was funnier watching it with her.

    I'm not familiar with Scotland PA and Easy A, but now I'm going to go look them up on Netflix. Thanks!

  5. I love modern retellings, my favourite has to be 10 Things I Hate About You - it's one of my favourite movies. I haven't really seen many of the others - I love Cruel Intentions, and I liked Easy A when I saw some bits of it. :)

  6. I admit, I'm not a big fan of the classics, but The Lion King was well done. I did like the movie version of Much Ado About Nothing, probably because of the humor.

  7. I knew some of those were retellings, like "Easy A" (which gets an A+ in my book, too) but I didn't know about others, like "Never Been Kissed." Interesting!

  8. My Fair Lady is on my top 3 favorite movies of all times list. It's one of the rare movies I don't mind watching over and over again.

  9. I think you hit most of mine in your lists. But with those high school Shakespeare throwbacks, you forgot about "O." Not that it was a good movie, but it was one of them.

  10. O Brother is a favorite of mine, too. What about the hundred thousand versions of Hamlet (Olivier, Gibson, Branagh, Hawke)?

  11. Ok, that is the third reference to Clueless I have read about in two days. Is it their anniversary or something? I liked that movie and most the others your mentioned. And, couple I need to add to my to watch list. I was going to mention O, but Joshua beat me to it. I really liked that movie. Martin Sheen, Josh Hartnett and Mehki Phifer.

    Would you count Much Ado, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet w/Leonardo in the genre you are talking about. I think they are remakes, not make overs.

  12. I've seen My Fair Lady, which I loved (who doesn't like Audrey Hepburn?), and Brother Where Art Thou? which I also loved - but again who doesn't like the Cohen bros?

  13. I guess there really is nothing new under the sun. Just told in a slightly different way maybe.

  14. Yes, O, Brother is definitely one of my favourite films. I think it's great to see books/plays adapted and reworked. Doesn't harm the original at all.

  15. 10 Things I Hate About You is my fave adaption of Shakespeare, and I love O, Brother! Several years ago, we happened to be in the town where it was filmed - so fun.

  16. Yes, I am a fan of the retelling of a classic— when it's done right. I used them a lot when I was teaching English. We'd read Hamlet and then we'd watch The Lion King. Everybody wins!

  17. S.L. I never thought of Hamlet as being Lion King. I'll never watch it the same again.

  18. Easy A was such an unexpectedly funny movie! I missed it at the theatre and rented it based on my budding girl-crush on Emma Stone. Super funny.

    Around the same time I saw From Prada to Nada which is a modern turn on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility; although it almost doesn't work. I think the premise was forced a bit at the start but I thought it was overall pretty cute, and I liked the mix of latino culture.