Recent Literary Reboots

Hollywood has been rather awash with remakes these days. Disney’s live-action re-makes are getting particularly out of hand: now they’ve moved past retelling fairy tales to retelling their own retellings of fairy tales, even to the point of re-casting actors from the original productions (see: James Earl Jones returning as Mufasa). It seems that the studios are less and less inclined to invest in new and inventive scripts in favor of rehashing old work with an already established fan base. This is sometimes frustrating, because I like to hear fresh voices and stories, and reboots though fun rarely live up to their originals. It’s reached the point that whenever I hear of another one I tend to doubt it will be good enough to justify it’s own existence. I mean, if a high quality movie already exists, then there’s really no where to go but down if you’re trying to replicate the magic.
But much as I might bemoan the lack of original story-telling in Hollywood it turns out that I, too, am a sucker for a remake, at least if my recent reading is anything to go by. Here in no particular order are some recent retellings that found themselves on my library list:

Thomas, Sherry. A Study in Scarlet Women. New York: Berkley, 2016.  —    The first in a would-be series that attempts to gender-swap Sherlock Holmes. The brilliant Charlotte Holmes struggles to find her place in a world that offers few options for women to support themselves and exercise their talents. Charlotte was not as fully-realized character as I would have hoped; perhaps she suffered from the loss of Watson as a narrator (the book is told in the third person, and Watson doesn’t arrive on the scene until relatively far into the book). The mystery she encounters is engaging, but at times convoluted and hard to follow. It also falls into some of the pitfalls of historical fiction: the author seems to want to apologize for the backward attitudes of the time by making all her characters 21st- century progressives on matters of sexuality. Overall I found myself wondering: at what point does something cease to be an ‘adaptation of’ and become a simple ‘story influenced by’? Other than the names, historical setting, and deductive brilliance of its protagonist, this tale seems to bear little resemblance to its source material. Not a bad book, necessarily, but not a terribly good one, either.

Meyer, Marissa. Cinder. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2012.  —  Cinder is a mechanic and a cyborg, living in a future earth where people like her owe their lives to tech that keeps them alive but are considered second-class citizens by ‘full’ humans. Prince Kai is facing the immanent death of his father, a victim of the plague epidemic sweeping Asia and the globe, as well as threats from the Queen of the lunar kingdom, who wants to rule the earth as soon as it can be arranged. We move quickly past their “meet cute” to an adventure and mystery that will be continued in subsequent novels. This checks all the boxes for trendy YA fiction: a fairy tale retelling framed as a teen paranormal post-apocalyptic (or perhaps a post post-apocalyptic?) adventure/romance. With that sort of pedigree there’s little novel or surprising here; from the first page we all know more or less where this story is going. But although we can guess the plot twists long before they are revealed to the characters, predictability doesn’t keep this book from becoming a fun and quite readable bit of literary popcorn. I’ll be pleased to follow this story through the next sequel, at least.

Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. New York: Tor, 2016.  —   A response and critique of sorts to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I haven’t read the latter, so I can’t say how it functions as such — but it stands well on it’s own, as a weird little quest-romance. Professor Boe finds herself on a quest to recover a student who has run off with a man from another world. It is only gradually that we realize the other world is ours. Through her quest she comes to realize that “Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world” (162). Lyrical and grotesque, like a dream, with the power to render our ordinary world very strange when we finally see it depicted.

Gaiman, Neil. The Sleeper and the Spindle. Illus. Chris Riddell. New York: Harper, 2014.  —  Gaiman interweaves “Snow White” with “Sleeping Beauty” in this illustrated short story. This is a tale about waking up; about choosing a story that continues rather than to disappear into the obscurity of a happily-ever-after. Gaiman’s haunting story is well complemented by Riddell’s black & white illustrations in this — not a retelling, but a new fairy tale, grown out of old ones.

Sittenfeld, Curtis. Eligible. New York: Random House, 2016.  — An modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set mostly in Cincinnati, with Lizzy as a journalist and Darcy a neurosurgeon. The formula is one we all know by heart: Lizzy & Darcy’s prides makes them prejudiced (or is it the other way around?), and we spend a novel waiting to see how they will get over themselves and just get together already. To answer the pertinent question: no, the world probably didn’t need another Austen update, but somehow we always make room for just one more. This is a book that will appeal most to Austen fans, but Austen fans are likewise the crowd most likely to be disappointed by any attempt to update a masterpiece. You can’t improve on the real Jane’s narrators (especially not with f-bombs and the kind of crudeness a modern Lydia could stoop to), and I hardly think her plot here is improved by sex scenes. But if you can get past that, it actually comes off well as chick lit, and in its adaptations becomes an interesting sort of commentary on what makes Austen turn and why we still love reading her.



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