Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Elementary Reinvention

"When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before."
-- Clifton Fadiman

You regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that I am watching the new CBS show "Elementary," because of course I am, and that it's become my latest TV favorite, because of course it has. The show -- which places Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in 21st-century New York City -- puts a unique spin on these oft-adapted characters, not just by shaking up the setting but by finding new ways to explore the iconic Conan Doyle stories.

"Elementary" is hardly the only modern re-imagination of Sherlock Holmes -- we've got Sherlock, House, Bones, and Monk, to name but a few -- but I love this one for its characters. Jonny Lee Miller gives us a Sherlock Holmes who is damaged but striving to be better, and Lucy Liu's Dr. Joan Watson (yes, Joan) has found a wonderful balance between supporting the detective but refusing to stand for any insults or nonsense.

But Sherlock Holmes is hardly the only character from classic literature to be reinvented for a more modern age. There's a plethora of films, shows -- and novels -- that take inspiration from the classics, or adapt old stories with a new and fresh twist. I like to think this shows not a failure of imagination on the part of today's authors -- but rather a love for the iconic characters from across literary history. It gives authors and readers alike a chance to take a fresh look at stories that have become a part of the pop culture landscape.

So take a look at these authors' updated "masterpieces," as they add new (and modern!) twists to iconic tales:

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. (King Lear)

This 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winner for Fiction re-imagines Shakespeare's King Lear on a thousand-acre farm in Iowa. Larry Cook has decided to pass ownership of the family farm onto his three daughters, but his youngest objects. What follows is a chain of events which will reveal dark secrets that will twist the family apart forever.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. (Heart of Darkness)

Conrad's Heart of Darkness characters may be traveling the Congo, while Patchett's Marina Singh is navigating the Amazon. But the parallels between stories remain, as Marina enters the Amazon, intent on finding a missing scientist from a research fielding team and reporting back on the team's progress. What she finds, instead, is a shocking medical discovery which head scientist Annick Swenson is determined to keep under wraps.

What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn. (Anna Karenina)

Anna Karenina becomes a modern-day heroine living in a Russian Jewish community in Queens, New York. Like Tolstoy's original, Anna K. is comfortable but somewhat complacent in her marriage to an older, prominent businessman. Then she meets David, a writer who shares Anna's grand dreams for better things. The resulting melodrama provides a contemporary take on Tolstoy's classic.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray. (Don Quixote)

Describing this funny, quirky, satirical YA read is hard enough, when you try to explain the trials and tribulations of 16-year-old Cameron. Cameron just wants to survive high school with as little effort as possible -- which is sort of ironic, since he's just found out that he's sick and is going to die. Luckily for Cameron, he gets some help in the form of a loony, sugar-obssessed angel (who may or may not be a hallucination), who promises Cameron that there's a cure for his disease. He just has to go on a little road trip to find it. Don't worry, he's got one of those yard gnomes to help him out ...

Finding out that Bray structured this wacky, wild adventure on the Cervantes classic only makes its unusual charms that much more engaging. You don't have to be a teen to like this one.

Tighter by Adele Griffin. (The Turn of the Screw)

Inspired by the Henry James ghost story, 17-year-old Jamie has been hired as a summer au pair, only to uncover a shocking tragedy that claimed the lives of a young couple on the New England island of Little Bly. What's more, Jamie finds she has the ability to sense the ghosts of the young couple. Jamie is left fighting to uncover the mystery -- while struggling to keep a clear line drawn between the world of the living ... and the world of the dead.

Batman: Noel by by Lee Bermejo. (A Christmas Carol)

This graphic novel opens by narrating the story of the hapless Bob Cratchett, and, despite the modern-day slang of that narration, there isn't much to differentiate it from the classic Dickens version. At least, until you look at the artwork, and discover that Bob Cratchett is actually a small-time thief -- and Ebenezer Scrooge is none other than Batman himself. But it's not riches that Batman is refusing to share, and the lesson he learns in this Christmas tale -- with some unexpected help from three "ghosts" -- is wholly Batman. With gorgeously illuminated artwork and a clever premise, you can't go wrong with a Christmas read this inspired.

-- Post by Ms. B

1 comment:

  1. I too love Elementary. Miller makes a great Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu is surprisingly good as Watson.