Twice Upon a Time: 4 Reasons to Write Books Based on Classic Literature

Originality is overrated. Discover four reasons you should try tapping into the richness of literary history by writing books based on classic literature.
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Originality is overrated. Discover four reasons you should try tapping into the richness of literary history by writing books based on classic literature.

The year 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s science-fiction classic Frankenstein was first published. Her tale of creating new life became a sensation, capturing the imaginations of storytellers and filmmakers across the world and inspiring dozens of new stories and adaptations. Some are straight retellings of the original plot, while others take the concept of Frankenstein’s monster in a completely different direction—think Herman Munster in the 1960s television series The Munsters, or Lurch the butler in The Addams Family.

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The literary canon has endured the passage of time and inspired writers for generations—even to the present day, with contemporary novelists like Helen Fielding, Dean Koontz, Curtis Sittenfeld and others regularly drawing from the classics. When modern writers update these enduring stories and tell them in a refreshing way, they’re paying homage to the beloved original while capitalizing on its complexity and potential. As such, there are numerous reasons to consider pulling out your old high school reading list and plundering those books for your own story’s stimuli. Here are four of the most prominent benefits.

Twice Upon a Time: 4 Reasons to Write Books Based on Classic Literature

1. Strong Scaffolding

Many of these stories have successfully endured for a reason: They have vibrant characters, strong conflict and interesting story arcs. By updating these tales and telling them in a new way, writers can capitalize on the literary strength of the original tale.

Take, for instance, Jane Austen’s magnum opus: Pride and Prejudice. With her sharp wit and independent spirit, Elizabeth Bennet was a groundbreaking character when the novel debuted in 1813. Bennet’s charisma, as well as the drama surrounding her family, her romance with Mr. Darcy, and the formal English society of the period, has thus served as the model for multiple makeovers.

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Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, published in April 2016, is aligned to the original plot of Pride and Prejudice but takes place in modern times. Liz is a successful 30-something magazine writer who returns to her hometown of Cincinnati to help care for her elderly father, only to find her family coming apart at the seams. But after a handsome doctor—fresh from an appearance on a reality TV show—and his neurosurgeon pal turn up at a friend’s barbecue, Liz’s world is turned upside down. Through the rest of the book, the love story plays out, drawing on Austen’s themes from start to finish. Even so, the novel is so infused with Sittenfeld’s own voice and present-day updates that it stands on its own as an engaging, humorous
commentary on modern society and culture, even appealing to fans who’ve never picked up an Austen novel.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding stands as yet another re-interpretation of Pride and Prejudice—this version set in ’90s London, with protagonist Bridget serving as an Elizabeth Bennet manifestation, and her family, like the Bennets, serving as one of the main sources of Bridget’s mortification. The humor is ridiculous, the situations exaggerated, and Fielding’s interpretation infuses Austen’s classic with modernized novelty to hilarious end. By taking the rough structure of Pride and Prejudice and giving it a 21st-century makeover (or late 20th, in Fielding’s case), these authors used the Regency novel and its seminal main character to create something authentically their own—and of their times.

2. Timeless Ideas

“There are no new stories.” How often have you heard that old adage? Whether or not you believe it’s true, there’s little argument to be made: Trying to think up a completely original plot is a near-impossible task. There’s a reason literary agents ask for comparative titles in queries—because every manuscript has a comp, in one aspect or another.

Sitting in front of a blank document and trying to engineer a story from thin air can also be intimidating. By putting your own twist on one that already exists, there’s a template for the plot in place from the get-go, reducing the pressure of conjuring something from scratch and allowing you instead to focus on infusing your own voice and calculated nuance. (For hands-on tricks on how to do this, see “The Imitation Game.") Consider it teamwork: Ron Chernow wrote the meticulously researched biography Alexander Hamilton, but it was playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda who used the historical text as inspiration for a smash-hit musical about diversity, perseverance and standing up for what you believe in. You would never accuse Miranda of plagiarizing or ripping off Chernow, but the connective tissue between the two works is undeniable.

While good novels act as a time capsule of the period in which they were written, the truly great works of literature are transcendent—their themes universal and prophetic. Frankenstein first came to Shelley in a dream when she was only 18 years old. The text itself imagines what might happen when we push the boundaries of scientific discovery. It explores the essence of life, what it means to be human, where the boundaries of scientific ethics blur, and how it feels to be different and alone in the world.

Storytellers since have retold Frankenstein in countless creative ways. Dean Koontz wrote a series of Shelley-inspired novels set in present-day New Orleans, in which his Victor Frankenstein facsimile, Victor Helios, forges new life-forms (androids with flesh) using modern technologies, specifically synthetic biology. An episode of “The X-Files” had a contemporary take on the tale as well, using the concept as a vehicle to comment on the dangers of genetic engineering.

Today, audiences continue to find the ideas behind Frankenstein intriguing because the book draws on so many raw emotions and ethical questions: Young people might relate to the monster’s anger and fear at feeling misunderstood and alone in the world. It raises issues of prejudice, rife in modern society, and there’s huge scope for exploring how people react to those who are “different.” Questions surrounding the ethics of DNA manipulation and genetic engineering—incredibly pertinent with ongoing breakthroughs in gene editing—also make modern retellings of Shelley’s story even more ripe for continued exploration.

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3. Creative Play

Putting your own stamp on a classic can also be a fun, challenging exercise in creativity. Examine the ways in which the previously mentioned examples altered the original source material to devise a unique, distinctive narrative. The methods for doing so are myriad: Change the genre (as Mel Brooks did in his slapstick hit comedy Young Frankenstein); contemporize the setting (as both Sittenfeld and Fielding did with Pride and Prejudice); assume a perspective not explored in the original (the specialty of bestseller Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, After Alice and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister); base one of your characters off someone else’s iconic character, but drop them in an entirely new setting (ever notice how Albus Dumbledore watches over the halls of Hogwarts, and Gandalf takes on the well-being of Middle-Earth, but they fill parallel roles?). In order to pull it off and not seem derivative, you must harness the full potential of your creative flair.

The novel Great by Sara Benincasa was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In her retelling, Benincasa recreates Jay Gatsby as a young woman named Jacinta. The story follows Naomi (our Nick Carraway stand-in), a teen who reluctantly accompanies her mother to the Hamptons for the summer. While there, Naomi becomes friendly with the popular, trend-setting Jacinta, a neighbor who blogs about fashion and hosts lavish parties, and like the analogous Gatsby, party-girl Jacinta has secrets—and a scandal thus unfolds. The retelling sticks to the structure of the original story, but puts it into a modern setting, alters the voice for a young-adult audience and, perhaps most importantly, flips the lead from male to female: a veritable triple threat of artistic deviation.

And don’t think for a second that seeking inspiration from the literary canon will handicap your chances at signing with an agent, finding a publisher or even garnering major awards. Jane Smiley’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize–winner, A Thousand Acres, is a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, based in rural Iowa. The Bard’s tragic story of conflict and betrayal is reconceptualized by Smiley as the tale of a farming family in the Midwest who experiences alcoholism, domestic violence and money problems. Far from being overshadowed in adaptation by its origin, A Thousand Acres garnered tremendous critical praise on its own merits.

4. Pre-Established Fans

Last but not least, don’t discount the fact that by recasting an already beloved work, you’re stepping onstage before an eager, waiting assembly. There’s a certain comfort in the familiar. Admirers of the original are often keen to experience their favorite tales told in a new way. The fact that your story is based on the oeuvre of a literary master may pique potential readers’ curiosity and provoke them to pluck your book off the shelf.

Think about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which has been retold literally hundreds of times without ever seeming to get old, and continues to evoke joy in audiences. In film alone, its reinterpretations run the gamut in terms of genre:

COMEDY:Scrooged, the 1988 adaptation, was a successful take on A Christmas Carol because it depicted the miserly Ebenezer as a selfish television executive played by the hilarious Bill Murray. By employing humor, the work is recast through a completely fresh lens.

ROMANCE: The 2009 movie Ghosts of Girlfriends Past follows womanizer Connor as he’s visited by premonitions of his past, present and future lovers. They explore his pursuit of meaningless relationships and shallow lifestyle, and as he sees what he’s missing, he starts to regret his decisions. What makes this take divergent is that, unlike other interpretations, this Scrooge-like character isn’t tightfisted with money—he’s just afraid of making a commitment to a meaningful relationship.

BIOGRAPHY: Released in 2017, The Man Who Invented Christmas explores A Christmas Carol through the life of its author. It looks at the well-trod tale from a completely different perspective—exploring the life of Dickens himself and the real inspiration for Scrooge. (Spoiler alert: It was his father.) This version attracts a whole new audience of literary enthusiasts and amateur historians—not just those in the mood for a feel-good holiday film.

The memorable personalities of Dickens’ Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future—and the parable at the heart of the story—have helped A Christmas Carol develop into a comfortable story for all ages, and its distinct qualities allow plenty of room for you to adapt wildly while maintaining a recognizable connection to the inspiration.

Modern writers can cull from ageless stories in innumerable ways. Beyond the books standard in high school and college English classes, fairy tales and myths from ancient cultures are equally suitable for fodder. Your only limit is your imagination. For instance, in George Saunders’ experimental novel Lincoln in the Bardo, entire chapters are composed of short excerpts from history books—some real works, some fictional passages Saunders drafted himself. It’s exciting, it’s inventive—and it won the Man Booker Prize in 2017.

Apply the techniques outlined in this article, and soon you’ll be re-animating the bones of old stories in new and exciting ways—with, hopefully, better results than Victor Frankenstein.

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