Monday 8 February 2016

Old Stories, New Settings: on modern-day adaptations of classic literature

I always used to consider myself a purist when it came to adaptations of beloved books. I have a button badge that says "The Book Was Better," and yes, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it is. And yet we book-lovers do like to watch film adaptations of familiar stories, to see the stories and characters we know and love brought to life. Woe betide anyone who gets it wrong! But can anyone really reproduce the films that play out in a person's mind when they read a book? No one ever reads the same book as anyone else, or so they say; everyone brings something new to the reading. But a good story is timeless, and so often people demonstrate this by bringing old stories to a new setting, to show how themes and characters can transcend a single place and time. It's an idea I used to frown upon, but have come to appreciate. Viewing a familiar tale in a new way can give you a new understanding and better appreciation of the original text.

The point at which I first acknowledged this was in the summer of 2010, when the BBC showed the first series of Sherlock. I recognised the brilliance of casting Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (even without a moustache) as the Great Detective and his sidekick, before I even identified that they were dressed in modern clothes. They were Holmes and Watson, there was no doubt about it. From before Holmes appeared on-screen, from the first time he spoke, his character was clearly defined, given new life free from the trappings of the smoggy setting of Victorian London and its formal language.


I didn't need to read the back blurb of Jacqueline Wilson's recent novel Katy to know what it was. A Katy on a swing? Well, that would be a modern-day telling of Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did, a classic that was inevitably a big part of my childhood - and indeed now Nick Sharratt has illustrated a paperback of the original to match, a visual confirmation that times may change but children do not.

I knew that Wilson had liked that book as a child, although to the modern or older reader, the Victorian moralising is rather unpalatable now. Jacqueline Wilson specialises in stories about dysfunctional families and flawed but believable child heroes and heroines, so adapting What Katy Did plays to her strengths. I really liked how closely she stuck to the original, especially in the first half of the book, mirroring even the minor details: the ice-house, on which the children love to sit, has become a garage roof. Aunt Izzie is now Katy and Clover's stepmother, and middle-child misfit Elsie their stepsister, while the younger ones are at least half-siblings. It was the details of the children's make-believe storytelling and games that made that story come alive for me as a child, so it's really interesting to see what their modern-day counterparts get up to (and it is really not that much different at all. Katy and her friend Cecy have mobile phones now, instead of "post-offices" in the garden, but they use them to taunt and exclude poor Elsie in just the same way.) Halfway through, at the time of the accident, the story moves away from the original What Katy Did and becomes a new Jacqueline Wilson book with 21st century values. Katy does not need to become reformed (and utterly dull) and be rewarded with miraculous healing. The world doesn't work that way, and by giving her heroine the challenges of accepting her limitations and setting herself new goals as a person with a disability, Jacqueline Wilson has written a more relatable young heroine for modern-day Katys to relate to.

Possibly the most adapted and updated story of them all is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the tale of hate turning to love that has formed the starting point of most romantic comedies. Bride and Prejudice brings a Bollywood twist to the classic tale. The world has grown smaller, but human nature remains, and the formalities and misunderstandings of Regency England translates well into the cultural divide between a rich, haughty American businessman and a bright young Indian woman whose mother wants to arrange good marriages for all her daughters. Oh, you know the story! Bride and Prejudice is a smart, funny, sometimes corny but feel-good adaptation of the old story.

Then, of course, there's Bridget Jones's Diary, based on the novel by Helen Fielding (which I think was originally published as a weekly newspaper column.) I read and watched this before I ever read Pride and Prejudice (yes, there was such a time!) and haven't seen it for ages, but although it's more loosely based on Austen's novel, there are clear parallels in this tale of a thirty-something singleton surrounded by smug marrieds, with the charming cad on one side, and on the other hand the snob called Darcy who looks like Colin Firth (the ultimate bit of meta-casting.)

The latest adaptation Pride and Prejudice heralded a new kind of storytelling in the form of the Literary-Inspired Webseries. Filmed in short episodes in video-journal format, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries give us Lizzie Bennet, a twenty-something graduate student who has moved back home with her family in a difficult financial climate, wondering what future there is in store for someone with an English degree - a painfully relatable variation on the theme. Most of the drama happens with Lizzie relating events to her video journal (with some interruptions from friends and family, and some excellent re-enactments.) Ashley Clements is sassy and expressive as Lizzie, Laura Spencer (wasn't she in The Big Bang Theory as Emily?) is sweet and lovable, while Mary Kate Wiles is lovably obnoxious as Lydia, as you'd expect, but shows more character growth than Austen allowed her, and a rare vulnerability later on. The other two sisters are relegated to being Mary the Emo Cousin who Lizzie (perfect!) and Kitty is literally Lydia's adoring cat.

Since The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Youtube has been rather overrun with modern-day video-diary versions of every classic imaginable: all the Austen, I think, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Little Women, and my beloved Anne of Green Gables has got not one but two webseries inspired by it. Green Gables Fables came first, starring Mandy Harmon as Anne, and in September returned for its second season. I think it took a little while to get really good, as the actors grew into their characters. It is very faithful to the book, although I wasn't quite sure that some of the substitutions quite reflected the original - having a manicure at the salon, for example, doesn't quite have the same importance as finally getting to wear nice clothes, and the hair disaster and the cake disaster less dramatic. But by the time Gilbert Blythe turns up in the middle of the first season, it got into its stride, and it is notable for its amount of "transmedia" with Youtube channels for supporting characters, who all have regularly-updated Twitter accounts interacting with each other for things that can't be shown in a five-minute video diary once a week. Tanner Gilman is a magnificently lovable, nerdy Gilbert Blythe, who is more important to get right than a Mr Darcy (and I'm sorry, women everywhere, but I still don't get the appeal. Not when I've grown up with Gilbert Blythe.)

Between the first and second seasons, Green Gables Fables filled in with some of the events of Anne of Avonlea updated and the stories told through their social media. Season two focuses on Anne of the Island, which follows Anne at Redmond College. It diverged a little from the book at the beginning with a subplot about Diana, who never went to university in the book, and yet it seems mostly to remain true to their characters - the growing distance between two friends, Diana being more of a homebody while Anne is academic and ambitious. The format doesn't always quite work; how do you show intensely private moments in a "Hello world, this is what happened to me today" video diary? And fitting four years' worth of events into one academic year also has its occasional uncomfortable juxtaposition of events happening too close together (notably Anne's romantic woes.) But I'm so glad to see Anne of Green Gables being talked about more - and discussions use the books as a starting point, instead of the (albeit excellent) 1985 TV miniseriesGreen Gables Fables is an immersive storytelling experience, putting the viewer into the story and living through it as it unfolds. There's been some extraordinary writing and acting, and Ruby Gillis's last video made a fine adaptation of a particular scene in Anne of the Island. 

And I'm completely spoilt in having Project Green Gables as well. This Finnish-made adaptation re-imagines Anne Shirley as a black foster kid in a mostly-white community, a decision that gives added weight to the story in a contemporary setting. Like her ginger counterpart, Anne has her own hair woes, though with its natural texture rather than colour, and this change gives a deeper, more serious interpretation than mere vanity. Gilbert is going to have to work very hard at repentance for his hair taunts, and you can't blame Anne or laugh about her unforgiveness under these circumstances. This isn't a petty matter any more. As I write this, the story is up to the point of the Great Hair Disaster, and in Project Green Gables, Anne's rash mistake is buying a cheap chemical hair relaxer from the internet, with devastating results.

Project Green Gables may be less polished than Green Gables Fables, but it is more adventurous when it comes to adapting scenes and chapters of Anne's life to a modern setting, and by doing so it better retains and underlines the nuances of the original. It is not a brooch that Marilla accuses Anne of stealing, but her prescription medicine, an accusation that cuts much deeper and has potentially far-reaching consequences. She's not an orphan any more, but a foster child of unreliable parents. And just her gossip about Avonlea school goings-on makes me think about the original, so-familiar text in a different light. Laura Eklund Nhaga plays a very different Anne Shirley to Mandy Harmon - and yet they both are Anne, bringing out complementary sides to her personality. Both Annes are aged up to about sixteen or seventeen, whereas in the book she first appears as a precocious eleven-year-old. Laura Eklund Nhaga brings out her innocence, her passion and enthusiasm, her non-stop joyful chatter, instantly convincing me that she was Anne. The supporting cast are also wonderful, and like Anne, they are the book characters come to life but in a very different way from Green Gables Fables. A special mention for including the hilariously obnoxious Charlie Sloane, not a character who tends to be very prominent in film adaptations. The series shows a deep knowledge of the source material, easily making reference to the little things as well as the defining events.

With two webseries adaptations as well as a film and a new television adaptation in the works, I'm over the moon. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Anne of Green Gables is the book that defines me, and although I can hardly fault the best-known television adaptation, as far as I'm concerned, the more Anne, the better.


  1. I really should read Katy at some point. I loved What Katy Did as a child, more for the imaginative elements than the moralising. I especially liked all the magical things she managed to do for her family from her bed - that amazing Christmas, and the little poetry notes. They made me want to be a better little girl, and I don't think that's EVER a bad thing. Sounds like the new updated version might be right up my street!

    I don't know how people keep up with the transmedia web series and accounts and bonus content, it makes my head spin, but the first Anne one sounds lovely!

    1. I HAD to buy Katy when I saw it. The best bits of the original book were the games they got up to and later, the Christmas presents and Valentine's poems, I completely agree - so much imagination and detail (and in the sequel their storytelling game and the Christmas food parcel.) A lot of that has been kept in Jacqueline Wilson's retelling and updated, which was excellent.

      I limit myself to following the two Anne webseries; I dipped into a couple of the others but there are a LOT out there. But on Twitter I follow two Anne Shirleys, two Diana Barrys, Ruby Gillises and Gilbert Blythes - it can get a bit confusing. And I love how they are all different and yet easily recognisable from different angles. I'm particularly thrilled that Green Gables Fables has gone back to the books to adapt "Anne of the Island" because the '80s miniseries pretty much skipped over that one. There was an adaptation in the '70s, and it was okay, but not fantastic. It's great to be able to see Philippa Gordon (who is perfect!) and finally be able to tell Stella and Priscilla apart. Also there is Roy Gardner. But never mind.


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