10 of the Best “Makeovers” in Literature


Yesterday, Emma Straub’s excellent debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures waltzed onto bookshelves everywhere. We loved the book, which follows a young girl’s rise to stardom in Old Hollywood, as she transforms from a sunny country bumpkin to a savvy brunette bombshell to something else entirely. Inspired by the novel, which is full of many transformations, both literal and somewhat more metaphorical, we’ve put together a few of our favorite makeovers in literature — from the kind achieved with a little spit and polish to the sort that requires a vast internal sea change. Click through to see which we picked, and let us know if we missed your favorite in the comments.

Pygmalion , George Bernard Shaw

The non-English majors among you may know this play better in one of its more modern incarnations: My Fair Lady and She’s All That, among others (though of course the play itself is based on the Pygmalion myth, in which Pygmalion falls in love with a sculpture of his own making). But Shaw’s play, meant as commentary on the British class system in the early 1900s, is the original story of renowned linguist Henry Higgins, who bets his friend that he can turn a Cockney street rat into a charming lady. He succeeds, of course, but (unlike in any of the film adaptations) he does not fall in love with her. How refreshing.

The Great Gatsby , F. Scott Fitzgerald

Gatsby’s makeover happens off the page, and it happens before the drama of the novel, but it’s still one of the most memorable makeovers in literature. Maybe it’s the whole American-ness of it that appeals to us — a young Gatsby, horrified by the indignity of poverty, reinvents himself, getting rich by hook or by crook (mostly by crook) and then re-emerging into society as a man of high birth and old money. The veneer may not be perfect, but what veneer ever is?

Orlando: A Biography, Virginia Woolf

There’s no makeover montage in Woolf’s novel, no harried trainers, no years of personal growth. Orlando simply falls asleep (for several days, we admit) and wakes up as a woman. Then, she must negotiate her new form, realizing all the wonders (and discomforts) of female-hood, before settling into a life of fluid gender roles, switching between men’s and woman’s dress as she pleases.

Cinderella , The Brothers Grimm

But of course. The folk tale of Cinderella has been told and retold by many people over the centuries, but we’ve always been partial to the slightly-bloodier-than-average Grimm version (all that foot slicing), in which it is just a bird with a dress and some shoes that transforms Cinderella, not a full-on fairy godmother. Sure, it’s less of a classic “makeover” if you have to do your own hair, but it’s much more impressive.

Martin Chuzzlewit , Charles Dickens

Well, color us impressed. In one of Dickens’ own favorite novels, roguish scam artist Montague Tigg manages to parlay his one attribute — a pocket watch Martin Chuzzlewit tossed his way — into a whole new Montague Tigg. Er, Tigg Montague that is, respected businessman, and perpetrator of one of the first Ponzi schemes (much before Ponzi himself was born, of course).

The Hunger Games , Suzanne Collins

Now, Katniss’ makeover is a true makeover in the classic teen-movie sense — professional, if grotesque, beauticians crowd around her, plucking every stray hair and designing an entire new look, a stylist makes her clothes to suit her particular body shape and personality. They’re made out of fire, which is slightly less classic, but much more interesting than just a black tube dress or something. And like any good tomboy, Katniss resists at first, but then, hey, kind of likes what she sees. Which doesn’t stop her from kicking ass in it.

Les Misérables , Victor Hugo

When the novel begins, Jean Valjean has just been released from a 19-year prison term (to which he was condemned for stealing a single loaf of bread to feed his starving family, natch). Touched by the kindness of a Bishop, he makes a promise to do good with his life — cut to six months later, when he is Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy and benevolent factory owner and the mayor in Montreuil-sur-Mer. His epic strength, however, threatens to give him away. That’s what you get for saving people from carts.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , J.K. Rowling

We know, we know. But come on — that moment when nerdy, bushy-haired Hermione comes down the stairs looking like the prettiest girl in school (which she’s always been, really, under all those books), and Ron’s jaw hits the floor? It’s like crack for nerdy bookworms everywhere.

The Count of Monte Cristo , Alexandre Dumas

After Edmond Dantès escapes from prison, he makes his way to the island of Monte Cristo, finds his buried treasure (just where the Mad Priest said it would be), then buys himself a yacht, a title, and oh yes, the entire island of Monte Cristo, and there you go: Count-in-a-box. Easy as escaping from prison in someone else’s burial sack.

The Little Mermaid , Hans Christian Andersen

You all know this story — but perhaps not the Hans Christian Andersen version. Indeed, the Sea Witch gives the Little Mermaid a potion that will transform her into a human (minus her tongue), but what the girl is really, truly after isn’t the trappings of humanity, or the love of a prince, but the soul that comes with a pair of legs. She gets it, in the end, but not in the way you might think.