Friday, September 3, 2010

On Retellings: Novels as Remakes

One of the ongoing tragedies happening out in Hollywood these days is the glut of remakes that seem to be re-making their ways to the silver screen. The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans, and soon, Total Recall. For the love of God, wasn't Total Recall practically perfect the first time?! To me, this trend is a travesty of the same order as the epic bombing of the new 3D Clash of the Titans'.

In the literary world, thankfully, the remake/retelling is a rarity. But luckily, when a writer does endeavor to retell a tried-and-true story, it actually seems to work pretty well.

Let's take a look at a few examples. The story that has been retold most frequently in a variety of forms is Homer's The Odyssey. And the most famous retelling is James Joyce's Ulysses. That novel, often considered one of the greatest (and most difficult) novels of all time, parallels Homer's epic through the eyes of character Leopold Bloom over the course of one day. I've never read the thing, and I've never met anyone who has who's really, really liked it. Most people who have read it discuss it more as a war wound than a rewarding literary experience — which, incidentally, is how I'll feel about Gravity's Rainbow when I finish it. 

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, is a retelling of what many consider to be the best story ever written in the English language: Shakespeare's Hamlet. Wroblewski sets his novel in rural Wisconsin and follows a family of dog breeders through all the Hamlet-ey twists and turns. The novel sold really well, despite its lukewarm reviews, partly due to the Oprah Effect, partly due to the fact that it has dogs in it, and partly because people really wanted to see what the Wisconsin Hamlet might be like. I thought it was solid, if a little longer than necessary.

And, finally, Zadie Smith's third novel On Beauty is a contemporary reimagining of E.M. Forster's classic Howards End. Smith has mentioned in several interviews and essays how much of an influence Forster's been on not just her own fiction but her love of literature. And she points out in her author's note: "My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could." Both novels, which I actually read back-to-back a few years ago, include inter- and intra-family political and social friction that sets up some delicious conflict. On Beauty isn't a great book — definitely not on par with her debut White Teeth — but it's still very good. And, much to my surprise, I actually really enjoyed Howards End. 

What did I miss? What are your favorite novels that are retellings of others? Anyone else hate the Hollywood-IS-out-of-ideas remake trend as much as me?


  1. I sort of hate both the Hollywood remake thing and the novel remake thing. One of my most painful literary experiences was Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the POV of the crazy woman in the attic. It was just...awful. I've avoided retellings ever since.

  2. The upcoming Tron Legacy is a sequel not a remake.

  3. Haha! Greg, you have been usurped. There is a NEW New Dork!! (Just kidding, Billy). Yes, I've definitely noticed the surfeit of remakes and had the same idea as you--Hollywood has run out of ideas. It extends to the toys that have been brought back. Somebody my age rules the World of Entertainment and is resurrecting all of the toys of my youth. But I digress.

    I really like fairy tale retellings! I think one of my favorites would have to be Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire.

  4. A particularly good example of this literary remake genre is Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund,which has the wife of the obsessed captain from Moby Dick tell her side of the story.

    The tale she tells(which also has specially made woodcut illustrations placed in the book)is strong enough to stand up on it's own even without the Melville connection.

    If any of the Hollywood remakes were as inventive and clever as this book was,they would be more tolerable. Most of the time,those movies are just a lazy executive's greenlight.

  5. I congratulate you on a fine post! Especially enjoyed these lines, "Most people who have read it discuss it more as a war wound than a rewarding literary experience...." Many cheers, Kevin

  6. @Jane - I can see how that experience would put you off NOVEL (hehe) retellings.

    @Billy - Thank you for the correction.

    @Kathy - Fairy tale retellings! Can't believe I didn't think of that, of which there are certainly many.

    @lady T - Good call on Ahab's Wife - there are a ton of books written from the point of view of characters of classics - Geraldine Brooks won a Pulitzer for March, e.g. Those not-really-spin-off-but-kind-of books are something I didn't consider as well.

    @Interpolations - Hey, thanks for the kind words.

  7. I very much liked Howard's End so I'm going to have to check out On Beauty. I had the same thoughts about Edgar Sawtelle--chop out 100 pages and I know I would have liked that book a lot better.

  8. Good call on the films - The Penelopiad retells part of the Odyssey and was pretty good (though I have to confess, I have not read the original)

  9. Did you hear about the remake of Back to the Future? From what I hear, they are looking at Justin Bieber to play Michael J. Fox's part!! AHHCKKK!!!

  10. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres started the current trend, I think, although I have no idea why, because I don't know anyone who liked it that much.

    I did like Ulysses, a lot, when I read it in college. Some of the sentences are part of my brain now, and come out at the oddest time (I got an email last week asking in a kind of exasperated way for my answer to a question I'd already answered and I typed "yes, I said yes, I will, yes" which is an echo of the last sentence of that novel.

    Total Recall is itself a re-working of previous science fiction stories (there were precedents for the Philip K. Dick story)

  11. @Lisa - Yeah, I think you'll love On Beauty then. If you never read Zadie Smith, she's an incredibly talented writer.

    @Lyndsey - Haven't heard of The Penelopiad, but I see it's an Atwood novel - she's someone I've never read, but have always meant to. Thanks for the recommendation!

    @Jenny - My sentiments exactly: ACCKK! Gross.

    @Jeanne - If you'll pardon my ignorance, what is A Thousand Acres a retelling of? And I love the adaptation of Ulysses to real life - like quoting movies. Nicely done!

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  13. @Ken - Not popular, maybe. Wrong, definitely.

  14. I'd like to be a PC nerd and point out that in the most recent Karate Kid he learned kung fu and not karate. Go figure. Also that I was too lazy to log in because I'm really just passing through so I'll just sign my name here.