Thursday, July 4, 2013

Great Retellings of Classic Stories

“There are no new stories.”
Ah, yes, that old trope. Tarantino took all of his ideas from Asian films, Kurosawa borrowed all of his plots from Shakespeare, Shakespeare ripped off everything from Homer, and I suppose then Homer fashioned all of his stories from the cave drawings of that great prehistoric storytelling duo, Thog and Uk. 

I’m not sure I believe it, honestly. I can buy that there are no new stories, thematically, certainly, but as Aristotle told us a very long time ago, there’s a lot more to drama than just plot. Character, setting, etc., but also there’s the unique voice of the storyteller. Even sometimes when an auteur is deliberately ripping off a plot, they can come up with something brilliantly new. I’m not talking about remakes or movie versions of 1970’s sitcoms here, I’m talking about reworking a classic drama by making it a comedy, modernizing it, or setting it on an entirely different world.

Of course, in the case of Shakespearean theater: ONION ARTICLE

Here are just a few of my favorites:

Clueless (Film, 1995. Plot based on Jane Austen’s Emma.) How does one modernize Austen, with so much of her plot depending upon out-of-date caste systems? Why, set it in a high school, of course. A hilarious modern take on an already witty tale. Young Alicia Silverstone is spot on as the shallow but completely adorable Cher, a girl obsessed with matchmaking, makeovers and clothes. The lower-class farmer is now a skate punk, the nanny is a teacher, and the ‘secretly engaged gentleman’ is gay. Pitch perfect.

Throne of Blood (Film. 1957. Plot based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.) Akira Kurosawa takes on Shakespeare, and sets it all in 15th century feudal Japan. Starring the incomparable Toshiro Mifune. Nuff Said.

His Dark Materials Trilogy (Books. The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. Plot based on Milton’s Paradise Lost.)
I love these books. They are usually housed in the children’s section of a bookstore, but, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, they are no more children’s books than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Parallel worlds. Talking warrior polar bears. Parents trying to kill their children. Trips to Hell. Epic battles with God. You know, typical kids’ fare. Read these, they’re terrific.

Young Frankenstein (Film. 1974. Plot based on Frankenstein.) There are many genre and film spoofs out there, but let’s face it, this is one of the best. It's certainly Mel Brooks’ strongest film. Also, it remains funny after many, many viewings. 

The Gap Cycle (Books. The Real Story, Forbidden Knowledge, A Dark and Hungry God Arises, Chaos and Order, and This Day All Gods Die, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Plot based on Wagner’s Ring Cycle.)
Donaldson takes an opera, and turns it into a space opera. I read his Thomas Covenant books when I was 14, and these books when I was in my 20s, and honestly, I’m not sure if I’d have the patience for either series today. That said, I’ve recently read all of the extant Song of Ice and Fire books, so perhaps I would. Be forewarned: the Gap books are terrific, but harsh, especially the first book, which sets up the whole story, but provides you with no relief or redemption. No, as in all of Donaldson’s books, redemption is very hard-earned, mostly because he has his characters commit seemingly irredeemable acts, and then spends several dense books having them attempt to crawl into the light. Sound painful? Perhaps – but these books are also nail-biting, addictive, well-written and complex.

O Brother, Where Art Thou (Film. 2000. Plot based on Homer’s Odyssey.)
This one is a family favorite, and one of the most fun of all the Coen Brother’s films. It's set in the deep south during the great depression, and stars a never-livelier George Clooney: if you haven’t seen this flick, run home and rent/stream it now. Very quotable. Plus, that soundtrack! 

Other goodies:
Scotland PA. (Another Macbeth)
Roxanne (Cyrano)
My Fair Lady (Pygmalion)
West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet)
Bridget Jones’ Diary (Pride and Prejudice)

What are your favorites? Again, not remakes, but reimaginings? ( And I’m really sorry for using that word.)



Qlaudie said...

Also, I created a tiny little phone icon right up there. I have no clue how I did that. (Clueless!)

Jon said...

I can't believe you didn't mention West Side Story. A true classic. It's barely aged at all...

Qlaudie said...

I did! I did mention it!

Jon said...

Oh yeah... I guess I brain-farted...

Anonymous said...

Nice post, but too bad you didn't mention West Side Story :-)

Oh Brother Where Art Thou is great.

Not sure if these count, but I really enjoy the Claire Danes/DiCaprio "Romeo and Juliet" film from many years back. I thought it was a fresh take on a story that's been told a lot.

The Pixar movie "The Incredibles" strikes me in many ways as a retelling of the graphic novel, "The Watchmen." (Though I don't know if I've ever heard anyone admit to that.)

Speaking of stories rehashed that didn't work: The last Three Musketeers movie (Orlando Bloom) was terrible! My wife reread the book recently and I read a few passages. Cool how well the story holds up (written in 1844) and how many good versions/retellings of it there are.

Mark Teats said...

Great post Q.
Not to bring in religious stories (the oldest of the old classics), but Stephen King's "The Green Mile" is very much the story of Christ's crucifixion retold and reset, from the POV of the Roman guards. The John Kofee character is definitely a Christ figure (JK instead of JC). This is a story that gets retold a lot in various ways.

Lisa said...

Not quite a retelling, but I enjoyed "Lost in Austen," in which 21st Century Amanda switches places with Elizabeth in "Pride and Prejudice" and we get some deliciously twisty backstory.