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Friday, 22 July 2011

Re-writing the classics

 I started reading ‘Frankenstein: Lost Souls’ by Dean Koontz recently. I picked this up on impulse, more through curiosity than anything, in the cheep section of the local supermarket and ended up skimming through it. It initially piqued my interest as I’d relatively recently finished re-reading ‘Automated Alice’ by Jeff Noon, perhaps not his best book, but interesting nonetheless. It was more the idea of reworking classic characters that piqued my attention rather than the specific subject matter of the book. I’ve always been interested in new takes on older well-known and well-established characters: although not necessarily in a fan-fiction type of way.
I decided to take a new look at some of these books, and tried to decide whether this is generally a good, bad, or indifferent thing.

 I have liked some of Mr Koontz’s older work so I decided to have a look at this new take on a classic character. At the time I wasn’t aware that this book built on an earlier trilogy of Frankenstein-based books by Mr Koontz. And it did seem like I was thrown in at the deep-end a little. It opened with a (to me) somewhat rushed re-cap of the older series, then the remainder of the book read very much like a long introduction. For me it sounded all too obviously like the first-part of a new series. A personal irk of mine is the series-book that doesn’t have a self-contained story ark, and although what is there is well written and quite entertaining, this book definitely doesn’t stand up as a complete story on its own, and I’m pretty sure it was never intended to.
It all reads like the opening couple of chapters to a much longer story, and to be honest I'm not sure I want to stick through it all because this ended up being too long and drawn-out for me…
But as I said, this isn't a review of ‘Frankenstein: Lost Souls’ it's a look at reworking of older books. But this does go to show one of the main problems I’ve found with authors redoing the classics. Where do you stop?

Is the contentious ‘Twilight’ simply a re-telling of Dracula? My initial gut-reaction would be ‘of course not’ and I’m inclined to stick with that. Bram Stoker's original Dracula may be responsible for defining our modern idea of a vampire, but books like the Twilight series are based on the general contemporary idea of a vampire and not on the specific progenitor of the genus. It could be argued that the link is as tenuous as that between J R. R. Tolkien’s work and the Harry Potter series. No, here I’m looking at books that actually re-use the original characters and their history.

So what about Jeff Noon’s ‘Automated Alice’ that I mentioned earlier? Well this is written as a direct sequel to the original ‘Alice in Wonderland’ books by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (writing as Lewis Carroll) and even goes as far ass following the same writing and, to a degree, the language style of the original books. The plot is taken forwards in time to an alternative Manchester, similar in construct to his ‘Vurt’ books, and Alice encounters a new range of strange but more modern creatures.
As a concept I think this book works, but it did somewhat invoke the wroth of the Alice purists with many saying it was too nonsensical, with Alice herself being too argumentative and contentious. And here we have another of the problems faced by authors attempting to breathe life into the well established classic characters. How close to the original should you stick?

If I can just skip over to film for a moment, a good example of where this retelling works and doesn’t work is with the two ‘War of the Worlds’ films. Although both are set in more-or-less contemporary settings for the times they were made and none exactly follow the original plotline, I think the 1953 effort captures the essence of the original much better than the 2005 film; having said that, the stage show easily out-trumps both in my view, and is set in the proper time. The point being that in some cases at least, it’s the implementation of the story that makes all the difference and not necessarily what that story is. People have to believe that the character(s) have stepped from the original word into this new adventure. And although the 2005 film possibly had more elements from the original radio-play I just didn’t ‘feel’ it.

So what does this mean for book comparisons? Well the next book I looked at was the sixth novel from ‘Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’ series. This new book was written in 2009 by Eoin Colfer. Again the writing style attempted to ape the original prose by Douglas Adams. I really wanted to like this book as this is without a doubt my favourite book-series. It was a fair effort, but perhaps this time I’m one of those too-picky fans I mentioned from the ‘Automated Alice’ verses original Wonderland debacle; which only serves to highlight another major hurdle any author attempting to add on to a classic has to deal with, the die-hard fan. Perhaps a more specific example would be to say that the author should always be aware of the perception of people who are very familiar with the original works. For all classic works there will be guideline by which a lot of potential readers will judge the story. Straying too far outside these invisible, and movable, lines will be sure to invoke their wrath.

I think all the above goes towards another important element, setting. If the world in which the new story sits doesn’t fit with people’s pre-conceived ideas that invariably come by re-using iconic characters and their settings then they will take issue with the book, no matter how well it is written or how good the story. I’ve seen many reviews for all the above books (and films) that definitely seen to back this opinion up.

And what’s my conclusion, you ask? Well… I’m not going to preach that ‘this is the truth’ and ‘that is a misconception and falsehood.’ As an example of character definition, in my opinion, writing about a vampire doesn’t necessarily mean you need to take onboard the history of Dracula: because vampires are a genre unto themselves now. But if you are writing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and or Frankenstein's Monster (or Alice and or Wonderland for that matter) you should take on the originally created history and characters, and make sure they are faithfully integrated into the new plot, because you are dealing with established principles here.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to try and add to classic stories, but it does bring expectations, obstacles and limitations that aren’t necessarily present, or at least not as prevalent, when creating a new story world and characters. I think the people who do it well can only hope to please most of the people most of the time. There will be people who don’t like it, perhaps even before they read one word, purely on principle. There may be many more who shake their fingers or nod their collective head and say ‘no, that’s wrong, that’s not how it works.”

On the other hand, there are numerous examples of where this type of writing has thrown relatively unknown or obscure authors into the limelight. And all publicity is good publicity right?

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