The world may be completely swoony over The Avengers and the X-Men now, but, for most of us, our first real superheroes came in the form of Tom Sawyers and Pippi Longstalkings. Tom's bold adventurousness was just as heroic as Captain America’s good-hearted save-the-world level heroics. Some literary characters like Pippi had straight-up superpowers (super strength in Pippi’s case) to go with their heroic personalities. But what made most of these classic protagonists was their strong, distinct personality traits and they ways they got themselves out of (and often into) trouble.
You may think that, compared to Superman or The Hulk, literary characters are kind of soft. Sure, the adventures these lit heroes come up against can seem a little ordinary compared to the galactic-level wars and doomsday scenarios comic book heroes tend to face. But, as a regular ol’ human yourself, you know just how tough those everyday problems can be, and these (usually) non-powered literary characters handle them like nobody’s business.
It often seems to be the case that even the super-jacked, super-powered superheroes only manage to save the world because, behind all that extra magic stuff, they’ve got the will of Huckleberry Finn or the smarts of Sherlock Holmes. So, it's easy to image what would happen if literary characters magically turned into superheroes. In fact, here's exactly who they'd become:
Huck Finn from Huckleberry Finn : Captain America
This might not seem quite right at first thought, but give a moment to contemplate what makes both of these good ol’ American guys heroes. Huck Finn’s trickster personality might seem like a far cry from Captain America’s goody goody nature, but, in fact, the major issue in Huckleberry Finn is Huck’s grappling with the moral code given to him by society (to turn in the runaway slave Jim) versus his not being cool with treating Jim like a piece of furniture someone ran off with instead of an actual human. That might not seem like a tough call today, but for a Christian boy in the antebellum South, that’s pretty much as hard a decision as it gets. Captain America’s biggest strength is just how damn moral he is, BUT, like Huck, he’s at his most heroic when he has to question those morals and do something about it.
Pecola Breedlove from The Bluest Eye : Mystique
Pecola Breedlove is what Mystique looks like in real life. It actually works quite well that Mystique, varying in the comics between hero and supervillain, isn’t the most heroic of heroes. Neither is Pecola Breedlove exactly. Pecola is no villain, but with the way life treats her she pretty much ends up developing a particularly useful case of the crazies. The X-Men movies give us a version of Mystique that faced serious insecurity about her appearance, until she embraces it and “goes natural” (actually, full-on au naturale for some reason. She seriously was never naked in the comics. I still don’t get it). In real-life, an “ugly” Mystique might have ended up just like Pecola… and if Pecola had had the option of shapeshifting, maybe she would have eventually come to embrace her own appearance, too.
Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre : Kitty Pryde
Jane Eyre is so subtly strong. Her strength isn’t like the brashness of a Jo March, but it’s definitely there. She manages to tough it out through an abusive childhood home, an equally miserable orphanage , and finally through the heartbreak with Mr. Rochester. In each situation, she breaks through the circumstance and emerges in a better and better situation… all without breaking much of anything actually. So, who’s a better comparison than Kitty Pryde who can phase through walls and barriers? Also, you can’t tell me that the brutish powers of Kitty’s romantic interest Colossus isn’t a kind of perfect match for Mr. Rochester’s brazen manner.
Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter : Luke Cage
As much as I want to say Scarlet Witch (for obvious reasons…), it’s clear as day that Hester Prynne’s superhero equivalent is Luke Cage. Branded with that scarlet “A” and forced to bear the shame and judgment of her whole town, Hester Prynne stands tall and defiant, owning the punishment for her “sins” to make herself a better Puritan. She also has no time for any of the nonsense from the judgemental townsfolk or her broken up lover. She just might have thicker skin than Luke. Luke comes from a bit of a shady background himself, but, like Hester, he served his time and went on to use that unbreakable skin of his to make his community better. Also, just look at that stoic, defiant expression on Hester's face... ain't nothing getting past that mean mug.
Tituba from I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem : Scarlet Witch
Scarlet Witch can alter probability. So, it’s basically kinda like having really really good luck, or, you know, witchcraft. Now, Tituba is an actual person, who was the first to be accused in the Salem Witch Trials. But she’s also probably the luckiest woman on this list, because, despite being a slave and admitting to being a witch at the height of paranoia in the trials, she managed to avoid getting hanged, drowned, stoned, or any of the other horrible ends that the other accused women met. In Maryse Conde's novel, Tituba is imagined to have practiced some traditional healing and communicating “magic” that she learned from an African woman in her native Barbados.
Dana from Kindred : Zatanna
It’s sooo hard not to go with Misty Knight for Dana, because of the whole arm thing, but, seeing as Dana doesn’t actually get her arm replaced with a Tony Stark super-strength bionic arm, and seeing as time-travel is kind of the major aspect of Kindred, clearly, Dana’s superhero counterpart has to be... Doctor Who! But let’s keep it classic. Dana’s gotta be Zatanna. Not only can Zatanna move back and forth in time, but her main power comes from her (backwards) words. Dana is a writer, and while she doesn’t have any magic behind her words, it is often her words that manage to get her through the thick of her time spent in the slavery of the past.
Jo March from Little Women : The Hulk
A woman in a book called Little Women compares to The Hulk? Yep, I'm completely serious. And I bet if you asked her sisters or parents, you’d get a solid nod of agreement. Jo March is anything but the quiet, pleasant little woman that the 19th century expected her to be. She curses and spits and is so clumsy she’s pretty much a one-woman force of destruction and shock in the March household. Underneath, the big, scary, mean tomboy though, Jo is a good-hearted little literary nerd, not unlike The Hulk’s quiet nerdy Bruce Banner. But manage to piss either one of these two heroes off and you’re in for a mighty surprise. Jo Hulk, guys, Jo Hulk.
Nancy Drew (Nancy Drew series) — Black Widow
Sure, Black Widow is all dark and deadly, but it’s not just her fancy fighting and skin-tight leather suit that saves her from all those super-battles. Black Widow doesn’t have superpowers, so she has to rely on her smarts to get her through the worst battles, and out of some bad situations. Nancy Drew might seem all the quirky innocent teen spy, but she’s a dropkick and some bad luck away from turning all dark and badass on us. There’s definitely a hint of Black Widow in the Nancy Drew future, and you can totally see a tiny shimmer of the innocent do-gooder in the cold, dark Black Widow.
Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair : Psylocke
These are two of this geek’s favorite characters, so forgive any squee that slips through the cracks. Psylocke is hardcore, able to play ball with the rest of the fighting-est X-Men, but she earned the name Psylocke because of her considerable psychic powers. She can make a blade with her brain! Becky Sharp knows how to play mind games like no other. Like Psylocke, she’s more or less immune to the “psychic” attacks of others, but she can manipulate anyone and any situation to her liking. Both heroines have also been through the ringer, which is probably why they’re so no-nonsense now.
Tita from Like Water for Chocolate : Emma Frost
If Emma Frost weren't such an ice queen (ba dum), she could’ve been more like sweet-natured Tita. Where Emma Frost’s telepathy comes in the form of mind control and painful psychic attacks, Tita much more literally feeds people emotions. Tita’s cooking is so good that whoever eats what she cooks feels whatever she felt while she was cooking it. Now that’s some power. Emma Frost is super powerful, but food trumps ice. Like they say, you catch more flies with honey than… ice cubes.
Images: Reader's Digest, Paramount Pictures; Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (2); Focus Features; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Columbia Pictures Corporation; Focus Features;