Although Hollywood has made a business out of converting classic stories into vacuous, high-def shells of their former incarnations, the literary world has been somewhat better about preserving and improving — even while in the act of pillaging. As we’ve seen in everything from Ulysses to Frankenstein to East of Eden, a well-imagined reworking can bring new meaning and relevance to an older, equally beloved story. Here’s a look at five recent literary makeovers that do justice to the original work.
Inspired by the themes of Henry James’ The Ambassadors — largely, Europe versus America — Cynthia Ozick’s newly published Foreign Bodies is at once a tribute to and fresh departure from her lifelong literary muse. Set in 1952, when continental contrast was at its most recent height, Ozick’s story follows a beleaguered English teacher sent to retrieve her nephew from self-exile in Paris. The story’s premise overlaps with that of The Ambassadors, but Ozick’s distinctive language and psychologically rich narrative breathes with its own autonomy.
John Banville has never been afraid of breaking literary rules. After all, the Irish author followed up his Booker Prize-winning The Sea with a series of pulp-friendly mysteries under a pen name. Now publishing under his own name again, his latest, The Infinities, lives up to this narrative playfulness. Banville’s novel is based on the Amphitryon, honoring the original story’s substance (a comedy of affairs between men and gods) and pop culture legacy (it has already been reworked by everyone from Sophocles to Moliere to Heinrich von Kleist to Jean-Luc Godard) with liberal self-amusement.
With a multi-tasking narrative skill unique to only a handful of writers, Zadie Smith takes E.M. Forster’s already socially complicated Howards End and turns it into an endless knot of intertwining relationships that touch on race, class, gender, and politics. At the center of Smith’s story are two families, bound through diverse passions — both compatible and in conflict — whose clashing lives offer a prism into the nuances of the 21st century’s convoluted social fabric.
A pseudo-Space Age retelling of Atlas and Heracles, Jeanette Winterson’s Weight plays with the literal and figurative implications of carrying the world on your shoulders. When asked why she chose this particular myth, Winterson admitted that she has been accused of having “an Atlas complex,” and in turn imbues an otherwise fantastical tale with surprisingly sympathetic qualities about fate and destiny. Composed as part of the Canongate Myth Series, which featured contemporary authors’ retellings of ancient myths, Winterson’s story is in good company with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and David Grossman’s Lion’s Honey.
A divisive best-seller upon release, David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle joins a whole pop culture subgenre based around Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But where Tom Stoppard upended the tragedy into postmodern black comedy with Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead and Disney transferred it into a kiddie-friendly cartoon in The Lion King, Wroblewski’s success — love it or hate it — comes from a balance of familiar elements and foreign territory that somehow skirts derivative self-parody.