5 Unusual Ways of Retelling Classic Literature

We learn a lot from playing with what already exists. Hunter S. Thompson—who himself is now one of the most frequently emulated writers of his disillusioned time—created an exercise for himself based on this notion. Early in his career, Thompson would pound out entire pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on his typewriter, word for word, straight from the book, in order to understand what it felt like to write what he considered to be a true masterpiece.

The following works weren’t undertaken for the private enrichment of their creators, but they all depend on the preservation of the words of their source material or medium, and allow no room for the creator to use their own. Unlike Igor Stravinsky, who created the score for his ballet Pulcinella [PDF] by editing the scores of other composers, the creators of these projects could make no embellishments of their own. What they did instead was translate the work from one medium to another. Kind of like that Monty Python sketch about an all-semaphore version of Wuthering Heights. Enough illustrative examples? Great, let’s get going.

1. Classics in Video Games

Classic literature and video games aren’t distant acquaintances. In 2010, a video game version of Dante’s Inferno was released for XBox and PS3. A number of Nintendo games based on literature have already been profiled here on mental_floss. “Stride & Prejudice,” however, is a little different. Yes, it’s another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which is at this point must be among the most exhaustively reimagined works in the Western canon. But there are no zombies here, there are no changes to the text—in fact, there’s barely anything on the screen but the text. It’s simply an endless runner game, in which a little Elizabeth Bennet avatar runs over each sentence of the novel.

The guiding principle is that, spurred by the need to win that’s embedded in human nature, readers are compelled to finish a book that they may otherwise not feel so doggedly set on completing. Reading and playing should become a merged activity, in which the mechanical actions of playing eventually become secondary to the reading itself. The Independent’s Ryan Vogt described the experience of having to tap the screen to keep Elizabeth in motion as similar to the unconscious action of turning a page. Will there be more of these literary endless runner games to come? The creator of "Stride and Prejudice," Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, is entertaining the possibility.

2. Classics in Barcodes

Have you ever wanted to read a book by scanning a QR code? Barcodes2Books has been transforming classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, The Time Machine, and War and Peace into hundreds of scannable QR codes. The team behind Barcodes2Books is composed of archivists who are serious about preservation and accessibility. While it’s not as convenient as, say, an e-reader, there are many possibilities for this method of sharing text that have yet to be exhausted. Having the code to a book at your fingertips certainly feels like what bookish kids imagined when they pictured the future.

3. Classics in License Plates

In his book Pl8Spk, Daniel Nussbaum recreated several works of classic literature using only vanity plates licensed in the state of California. The biggest hit of the collection was his reimagining of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

ONCEPON ATIME LONG AGO IN THEBES IMKING. OEDIPUS DAKING. LVMYMRS. LVMYKIDS. THEBENS THINK OEDDY ISCOOL. NOPROBS.

OKAY MAYBE THEREZZ 1LTL1. MOTHER WHERERU? WHEREAT MYDAD? NOCALLZ NEVER. HAVENOT ACLUE. INMYMND IWNDER WHOAMI? IMUST FINDEM.

JO MYWIFE GOES, “OED DON’T USEE? WERHAPPI NOW LETITB.” IGO, “NOWAY. IAMBOSS. DONTU TELLME MYLIFE. INEED MYMOM. II WILLL FINDHER. FIND BOTHOF THEM.”

SOI START SEEKING DATRUTH ABOUT WHO IAM. ITGOEZ ULTRAAA SLOWE. THE SPHYNXS RIDDLE WAS ACINCH BUT NOTTHIZ.

SUDNLEE WEHEAR SHOCKING NEWS. WHEN IWASA TINY1 THISGR8 4SEER SED IWOOD OFF MY ROYAL OLDMAN THEN MARREE MYMAMA. SICKO RUBBISH, NESTPAS? WHOWHO COUDBE SOGONE? STIL MOMNDAD SENT MEEEEE AWAY. MEE ABABI AWAAAY.

NOWWWWW GETTHIZ. MANY MOONS GOBY. IMEET THISGUY ONATRIP. WEDOO RUMBLE. WHOKNEW? ILEFTMY POP ONE DEDMAN.

UGET DAFOTO. MAJOR TSURIS. JOJO MYHONEE, MYSQEEZ, MYLAMBY, MIAMOR, MYCUTEE, JOJOY IZZ MYMOMMY.

EGODS WHYMEE? YMEYYME? LIFSUX. IAMBAD, IAMBADD, IMSOBAD. STOPNOW THISS HEDAKE. FLESH DUZ STINK. ITZ 2MUCH PAYNE 4ONE2C. TAKEGOD MYEYES! AIEEEEE!

I’d be interested to know who has a vanity plate that says “MYMOM.”

4. Classics in Punchcards

Punchcards date back to the turn of the 19th century, when they were used to direct the operations of textile looms. They were also used to control fairground organs and other such machines which automatically perform a set function. When early computers came around, the punchcard became the primary method of information storage and sharing. On these cards, each punched hole represents an individual piece or bit of data. From the 1930s to the 1950s, cards like these, manufactured by IBM with distinctive rectangular holes, were the building blocks of computing. Even after they stopped being essential to the function of computers, these cards still found use in different ways. According to IBM,

Beyond accounting purposes, the card had other uses in IBM. Until the early 1990s—long after IBM had ceased selling the punched cards for data processing—it was common practice for IBMers to use them for speaker notes for presentations, as they fit comfortably in the inside pocket of a suit jacket. Secretaries, too, used these cards for transcribing phone messages and typing driving directions. Even IBM executives routinely carried them around with their calendar for the day typed on them.

Today, the site Kloth.net allows users to create their own digital images of personalized punchcards. You type in the text you’d like translated into holes, and you’re given a neat little card like the one I’ve made above. Naturally, this service has been turned to the ends of literary play. The Ptak Science Books blog has a collection of punchcards created to translate the opening lines of classic books into computer code. As the Kloth.net service is free and open for use by anyone, you can get in on it too.

5. Classics in Tweets

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These days, when you’ve actually read James Joyce’s massive magnum opus Ulysses, you probably want to celebrate the achievement. At the time of the novel’s publication, however, you wouldn’t have been able to have a public festival in honor of your mutual appreciation. Joyce’s novel was met with censorship and public horror until well after 1933, when the United States Supreme Court lifted the ban on its sale and importation.

Ulysses actually had its beginnings in fragments. Ezra Pound arranged to serialize the novel as it was written, first in the English journal The Egoist and later, when printers refused to continue printing it after the first four installments, in the New York City magazine The Little Review in 1918. After the publication of the episode “Lestrygonians,” the Postal Authorities refused to distribute the journal and began to confiscate copies of it.

With backlash against subsequent installments in the magazine mounting to a trial against its founders, The Little Review eventually stopped publishing episodes of Ulysses. Without the constraints of length and censorship to consider going forward, Joyce was able to experiment with styles that are not explored in the earlier, serialized chapters of the book. Ultimately, the failure of the serialization of Ulysses led to the enrichment of the text as a whole. You can see copies of The Little Review here, at the Modernist Journals Project.

In 2011, fans of Ulysses, in effect, serialized Ulysses all over again as part of their celebration of Bloomsday (June 16), which is the day set aside by readers in honor of the character Leonard Bloom. A group of volunteers worked together to break the book, which is about 800 pages long, into smaller sections, which were in turn broken into even smaller, 140 character pieces, which were in turn tweeted in a 24-hour period known as the Bloomsday Burst. While the tweets are no longer up on Twitter, the text can be found in installments on the page created for the Herculean effort. Note that these tweets weren’t arbitrarily portioned out; they were separated into pieces based on narrative continuity and the preservation of great phrases.

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July 21, 2014 - 11:00am
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