We may think of "reboot culture" as fairly recent, what with our lady Ghostbusters and our various Spider-Men. But in reality, writers have been stealing and updating each other's stories since the beginning of time. As long as there have been novels, there have been authors thinking, "yes, fine, but what if one of the characters had a blog?" And quite a few retellings of classic works are brilliant in their own right, so here are a few modern takes on classic books.
Now, I know that most fans of the classics can be a little touchy about modern updates. We like to think that the original language and all that imagery about windswept moors is part of what makes the story so great in the first place. But if you give some of these retellings a chance, they just might surprise you. I mean, Pride and Prejudice alone has about a hundred thousand modern adaptations (note: that number is an estimate), so there must be something to them.
Some of these books take a well-loved story and set it in modern times. Others dive deeper into the original world of the book, telling the story from a different perspective. But all of them will make you think just a little differently about the classics:
1. Great by Sara Benincasa
In this retelling of The Great Gatsby, a new girl has arrived in the Hamptons. Jacinta Trimalchio is a blogging superstar, a social media darling, and dangerously obsessed with the beautiful Delilah. (Bonus points for Jacinta Trimalchio's name, because "Trimalchio" is a character from the Roman classic Satyricon, and Fitzgerald's inspiration for Jay Gatsby. Well played.)
2. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
As Zadie Smith says 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." On Beauty is a stunning adaptation of E.M. Forster's Howard's End, updated to explore race, academia, and family dynamics in the modern world.
3. Grendel by John Gardner
Grendel, from the ancient epic Beowulf, might just be the first monster in English literature. In Beowulf he doesn't get much of a chance to speak for himself, because he's too busy ravaging villages and getting slain. But in Grendel, we get to hear the monster's side of the story. And you might just find yourself rooting for (or at least, sympathizing with) one of the most fearsome beasts in literary history.
4. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Can Margaret Atwood just write feminist retellings of every ancient epic? Thanks. The Penelopiad flips the script on The Odyssey and tells the story from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus' long-suffering wife. After all, she had a lot of time to kill while her husband was running around with cyclopses and whatnot. And this book is a witty, haunting, poetic take on her story.
5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray
Libba Bray takes on one of the most unhinged classic characters in her twisted retelling of Don Quixote. In Going Bovine, our hero is a teenager, not an old man, but he's still a bit out of touch with reality: Cameron has been diagnosed with Mad Cow disease, and his only chance at a cure lies at the end of a strange, semi-hallucinated, quixotic (sorry) quest across America.
6. Railsea by China Miéville
Moby Dick but with trains. Moby Dick but with trains. And instead of whales, they're hunting giant moles. And of course, Captain Naphi is determined to get her hands on Mocker Jack, the great white moldywarpe (that's the deceptively adorable name for the giant moles). It's a bizarre, brilliant re-imagining of the seafaring tale in a strange universe of train tracks and violent subterranean mammals.
7. The Innocents by Francesca Segal
There's nothing like a scandal to shake up a wedding. The Innocents updates Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence, transporting the story from WASPy New Yorkers in the 19th century to a wealthy Jewish community near London in the 21st century. But it's still a scandalous, passionate love triangle rife with social commentary.
8. The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd
Juliet Moreau is just trying to live an ordinary life. But H.G. Wells fans can probably guess what's in store for her: a visit to he father's island, and its horrifying inhabitants. Because Juliet's father is the famous Dr. Moreau, and his experiments on "humanizing" animals have gotten out of hand. It's a dark, disgusting, surprisingly romantic take on The Island of Dr. Moreau.
9. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
Yes, there's a book behind the musical. And it is... strange. Wicked takes place in a grown up Oz filled with bigotry and political unrest (there's at least one multi-species threesome). Animals can talk but are treated like second-class citizens. The Tin Man is in an abusive relationship. And Elphaba, the little girl born with green skin, is smart but dangerously misunderstood.
10. Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
If you're unfamiliar with The Aeneid, allow me to explain: Ancient Rome was jealous of Ancient Greece, so they ripped off The Odyssey and The Iliad with their own propaganda-filled epic. And poor Lavinia, Aeneas's third and final wife, is caught up in the middle of a wild battle for Rome's future. Le Guin tells the story from Lavinia's perspective, since the man she chooses to marry will decide the fate of the ancient world.
11. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
What's a list of updated classics without Bridget Jones? Bridget Jones's Diary is the too-real, self-deprecating retelling of Pride and Prejudice that we all need in our lives. It's still a comedy of manners, but in a world of dieting and bad dates. Jane Austen would no doubt approve.