11 Modern Retellings of Classic Novels

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HarperTeen/Scribner

Everyone knows that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that applies to art and literature, too, especially if we consider the ever-growing array of modern novels that draw from some of lit’s most classic titles to frame up brand-new tales. Using beloved novels as a jumping-off point for new stories – whether they are faithful continuations, monstrous tales that somehow manage to inject all kinds of ghoulies into classic tales, or entirely fresh spins on enduring material – is a great way to spice up a stale reading list and provide some real richness to fresh stories. Here are eleven good ones to get you started.

1. Great by Sara Benincasa

It seems highly improbable that anyone read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and thought, “man, this would be great if it somehow involved fashion blogs”—well, at least until comedian Benincasa did. The book is Benincasa’s second (her first is the memoir Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom) and her first novel, and it creatively reimagines the world of The Great Gatsby in a contemporary context. The location stays on Long Island, but moves to the Hamptons, and Jay Gatsby is now a girl—and the creator of a popular fashion blog—while narrator Nick Carraway is now the slightly socially awkward Naomi Rye (Carraway, Rye, how cute!). Moreover, Daisy is a gorgeous young Hamptons resident who never seems to understand the power of her beauty. Yup, you read that right: Not only is Great a modern take on The Great Gatsby, it’s also one that places a same-sex relationship at its emotionally devastating core.

2. Dorian, an Imitation by Will Self

Grove/Dover

A modern spin on Oscar Wilde’s creepy The Picture of Dorian Gray, Self’s 2002 novel moves the action to the '80s and '90s, even though it still keeps the heart of Wilde’s story very much intact. His Dorian is still called Dorian Gray, but Self moves his own (very modern) man into the looks-obsessed art scene of London, with Dorian trying to make his way in the modeling arm (a buff, chiseled arm, to be sure) of the creative crowd. He tries not to be “looks obsessed,” but he fails pretty spectacularly.

3. On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Penguin/Dover

Smith’s prodigious talents are quite pronounced in On Beauty, her third (and arguably most popular) novel, but the book wouldn’t exist without the inspiration of E.M Forster’s Howard’s End. More an homage to that novel than a direct retelling, Smith’s impressively sprawling tale of the Belsey and Kipps families shares plenty with Forster’s original work, including its most basic plotline—it’s about a pair of families with very different ideals that become irrevocably linked over the years. There are some clever modern twists within the text (letters become emails, an entire estate becomes a much more manageable painting), but the books are lovely companion pieces and can easily be read together.

4. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Ecco/Simon & Schuster

The pitch sounds insane—“it’s like Hamlet, but with dogs!”—but Wroblewski’s novel is one of the very finest examples of what can spring from existing (and very well-tread) material when placed in the hands of a capable, considerate author. The 2008 novel centers on a mute boy (the eponymous Edgar), whose happy life is upended when his father suddenly dies and his off-putting uncle moves right into his place. Edgar eventually goes on the run, but he’s not alone. The Sawtelle family is known for breeding a unique type of dog, prized for its intelligence and loyalty, and three of his beloved dogs go with him. The story is dark and twisty and completely engrossing, and Wroblewski’s imagination, paired with Shakespeare’s classic themes, is a force to be reckoned with.

5. Solsbury Hill by Susan M. Wyler

Kindle/Dover

Plenty of novels about manners (and, yes, also romance) have been adapted into modern tales about love lives in disarray, and it’s quite easy to find new takes on Jane Austen’s or the Bronte sisters’ books at your local bookstore, but Wyler’s is one of the best. A slightly less dark spin on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Wyler’s book sees an American woman decamped to the moors of England to settle up an estate (such glamour!) who is subsequently pulled between two very different men (OK, that’s kind of glamorous). If you love Wuthering Heights but aren’t in the mood to have your heart broken repeatedly by a book, Solsbury Hill is the ticket.

6. Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Ember/Harper

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is wild and woolly on its own, but Bray’s 2009 retelling of the story is positively bonkers. The black comedy centers on high school student Cameron Smith, a regular enough dude who soon comes down with Mad Cow Disease. Cam’s journey through his illness is packed with hallucinations, stream of consciousness weirdness, and tons of symbolism, and it’s probably the best way to get other high schoolers interested in de Cervantes’ enduring classic.

7. The Innocents by Francesca Segal

Voice/CreateSpace

Like Benincasa’s Great, Segal’s debut novel transplants the action of a classic work (in this case, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence) into a modern setting with relative ease and some big returns. In The Innocents, we encounter an engaged pair (Adam and Rachel) that is about to embark on a wedding (and marriage) that is desired and encouraged by many. Wait, not so fast! Enter Ellie, Rachel’s wild cousin (and maybe something more to Adam?) and watch the sparks fly (and the hearts break).

8. Second Star by Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 

The Peter Pan storyline has been mined for modern works numerous times—from a YA novel that focuses on the romance between Tiger Lily and Peter to an entire series about how Mr. Pan becomes the character we know and love—but the most assuredly contemporary of all the stories is Sheinmel’s Second Star. Sheinmel’s thoroughly modern take on the J.M. Barrie classic imagines that the Darling boys are renegade teen surfers who purposely run away to join up with a hip surf gang. Wendy, of course, goes after them, only to find herself pulled into the club, too, thanks to the intriguing nature of their leader, Pete.

9. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Anchor/Simon & Schuster

Smiley’s 1991 novel is still a solid example in seamlessly moving classic Shakespearean themes and characters into a modern setting with major rewards. A fresh take on King Lear, A Thousand Acres isn’t about a kingdom—it’s about a big chunk of land—but it is about family, desire, greed, and huge secrets. The parallels that Smiley draws between the fictional Cook family and Shakespeare’s royal family are bold and profound, and the novel succeeds both as a standalone piece and as an inventive way of adding new perspective to a seemingly overworked tale.

10. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

Penguin Ink/CreateSpace

Fielding may not have been the first “chick lit” author to plumb the depths of Jane Austen’s works to deliver a fresh tale, but she certainly did it with the most style. Although Fielding has penned two follow up Bridget tales, neither hew quite as closely to Austen’s original works (and they’re worse for it, quite frankly). Fielding’s spin on Pride and Prejudice reimagines plucky Elizabeth Bennett as the perennially hapless (but very well-meaning!) Miss Bridget Jones, turning her numerous trials and travails into a dead funny experience. And, yes, she even created two suitors to get worked up over—the best of whom is, of course, named after Austen’s own Mr. Darcy.

11. The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

Harper/Penguin Classics

Livesey takes on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre with her modernish retelling (this one is set in the '50s and '60s), and although she tells her own story appropriate to the age, she also lovingly sticks to the format that made Bronte’s own novel feel so rich and vast. The book follows its leading lady, Gemma Hardy, as she embarks on a life that sees her taken from home to horrible boarding school to intriguing job, and beyond. Along the way, there are plenty of secrets to uncover and, oh yeah, a mysterious employer to swoon over.

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June 11, 2014 - 5:11pm
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