onsdag 14 oktober 2015

The modern-day retelling - the hardest classics-poaching genre of them all

As I've already confessed, I have a sneaking fondness for the prequel/sequel/retelling from another angle genres, in short: the "parasite" genres who poach ideas and characters from well-known classical works and put a new spin on them. But they are tricky to get right at the best of times, and lately I've started wondering whether the modern retelling, where a story from a classic novel is transposed to an up-to-date setting, is not the very trickiest. The other alternatives have built-in interest: in a sequel, we get to see familiar characters in new adventures; in a prequel, we get to know more about what makes them tick - plus we get a few new plots; in a retelling from another character's point of view, a new light is shed on the plot of a favourite novel which, at best, opens up a whole new perspective on it (and at worst only makes us angry). But the modern setting - what does it add, exactly? A reminder of the timelessness of the concerns of the original novel, perhaps, but surely something else is needed too: some new insight that highlights something in the original novel that you hadn't thought about before. Alternatively, simple fun can be had with a modern variation on a well-known theme, but it does have to be a variation.

I've come across two modern-day retellings lately on opposite sides of the faithfulness to the original vs free invention spectrum, and both approaches have their drawbacks. "Your rapier is like a bird: if you hold it too tight, it chokes - if you hold it too loosely, it flies." (Was that in Scaramouche? Or just in the Mickey Mouse version?)

To start with the free invention, quite a few nice things can be said about the American series Elementary. It's a good, funny, fairly clever crime series, ideal post-gym watching, and at least one of the protagonists (Watson) is worth rooting for. It is, however, not in any way reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about Sherlock Holmes. As in the English Sherlock, the series features a detective called Sherlock Holmes and a Watson - in the American version, a Joan instead of a John. The makers of Sherlock, however, are great Holmes fans, and it shows. Although the crime capers that their Holmes and Watson get up to are freely invented, there are a lot of affectionate references to the original stories. They get Holmes and Watson and what they're about. In Elementary, you have a feeling that the series creators have been inspired exclusively by Sherlock and not by the original stories at all. Elementary's Holmes is rude and antisocial, like Sherlock's Holmes - but unlike Conan Doyle's Holmes. The original Sherlock was arrogant, yes, but he treated witnesses and the like politely, otherwise they would not have told him their stories, omitting no detail however slight. I accept the "sociopathic" trait of Sherlock's Holmes because the series is so close to the spirit of the original in other ways, but Elementary just isn't. It's a crime series about a Englishman without manners who makes a lot of deductions and his likeable female sidekick - but there is no reason why these characters should be called Holmes and Watson.

As for the faithful retelling, I'm in the middle of Val McDermid's modern take on Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. It's pleasant enough, but it just doesn't catch fire. Although the action is relocated from Regency Bath to modern-day Edinburgh during the festival, the characters and the situations they find themselves in are essentially the same. Cat Morland, the modern equivalent to Austen's Catherine, is well caught, and still a very nice girl. But I've already lived through her disappointments, humiliations and occasional triumphs in trying to make the acquaintance of Henry Tilney and his family - while being hindered at every turn by the dreadful Thorpeses - when I read Austen's novel. Every situation in the original seems to have its counterpart here, and it feels too much of a retread. Perhaps something new will be added now that Cat is in Northanger Abbey itself, and maybe Val McDermid's novel will start to dare to take some liberties with Austen's plot. If not, I don't really see the point of retelling the same story from the same point of view and with the same characters, only now with mobiles and Facebook.