Тахонов Иван, YouTube
Тахонов Иван, YouTube

13 Operas Adapted From Famous Novels

Тахонов Иван, YouTube
Тахонов Иван, YouTube

We’re all accustomed to our favorite books being made into movies. From 2015 Oscar nominees like Carol and Room to Sherlock Holmes and Dracula adaptations dating back more than a century, filmmakers have been bringing books to screen since the dawn of cinema. But you might not know that opera composers also love a good novel adaptation. 

While centuries-old classics by the likes of Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi continue to be performed, 20th and 21st century composers have created their own operas, frequently drawing inspiration from modern novels rather than the fairy tales, Ancient Greek myths, and classic dramas that were once traditional opera fodder. There’s something fascinating and a bit surreal about seeing a familiar book set to music, its story sung in the distinct style of opera. From beloved classics to contemporary bestsellers, here are 13 famous novels that have been transformed into operas. 


The classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of wealth and excess in the Jazz Age was adapted in 1999 by John Harbison and opened at the Metropolitan Opera to mixed reviews. Though the opera diverged from the novel in a few ways (for instance, changing the ending slightly), it hewed closely to the plot and tone of its source material, even using 1920’s style pop music interludes. The New York Times called it “too respectful of Fitzgerald for its own good.”


Unsuk Chin’s 2007 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland mimics the dreamlike qualities of the original novel. Simultaneously dark and whimsical, the opera (which can be viewed in full here) sets much of the original dialogue from the novel to music, including the famous riddles from the Mad Hatter’s tea party above.


John Steinbeck’s story of a depression era family’s migration to California in search of work and new hope is certainly epic in scope. And, according to The New York Times, its operatic adaptation, written by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie in 2007, is similarly ambitious, telling the story of the Joad family in a musical style that takes its inspiration from American balladry and Hollywood musicals.


Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita makes for a strange, and strangely fitting, operatic tale. Like many classic operas, the novel tells a story of forbidden love. But the novel’s unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert isn’t the opera's average ill-fated lover, and his disturbing obsession with the 12-year-old object of his affections veers into pretty dark territory. Written by Rodion Shchedrin, who is also known for his adaptations of Russian novels like Anna Karenina and Dead Souls, the opera premiered in Stockholm in Swedish (because, according to the Associated Press, Hollywood had the rights for an adaptation in a major language) in 1994. It later played in Moscow, where it was nominated for Russia’s Golden Mask Award.


Like Lolita, Thomas Mann’s 1912 book Death in Venice centers on an older man’s romantic obsession with a pre-teen—in this case, a young boy named Tadzio, who the main character sees, but never speaks to, on a trip to Venice. The opera, written by Benjamin Britten in 1973, solved the problem of having a primary character who does not speak by casting Tadzio as a silent dancer, rather than a singer. The opera was released as a movie, shot on location in Venice, in 1981. 


Based on the 1994 novella Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this opera adaptation was composed by Peter Eötvös and premiered in 2008. Critics lauded Eötvös’s score but complained that the libretto by Kornel Hamvai almost completely erased the novella’s 18th century Latin American context. The opera can be heard in its entirety here.


Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved children’s book about the adventures of a lost pilot and an other-worldly prince was adapted into an opera by Rachel Portman and Nicholas Wright, and premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2003. Then, in 2004, the BBC re-created the opera as a televised movie, which can be seen in full above.

8. 1984

Lorin Maazel’s opera of George Orwell’s dystopian novel premiered in 2005 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In the scene above, a crowd sings its hate for enemies of Oceania before a photo of Big Brother.


Based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, the opera adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was composed by Poul Ruders and premiered in 2000. Like 1984, the novel is set in a dystopian future ruled by a totalitarian regime.


Composed by Nolan Gasser with a libretto by Carey Harrison, The Secret Garden premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2013. It tells the story of the orphaned Mary Lennox and the sickly Colin Craven as they stumble upon adventure and friendship.


Using computer graphics and elaborate staging to tell its story, Jake Heggie’s adaptation of Moby-Dick was designed to make Melville’s famously dense novel more accessible to audiences. The opera premiered at the Dallas Opera in 2010, and followed the same overarching plot as the original novel, though it streamlined Melville's lengthy story and changed Ishmael’s name to Greenhorn.


Based on the 1992 thriller by Stephen King, composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D. McClatchey’s Dolores Claiborne tells the tale of an elderly servant accused of the murder of her wealthy socialite employer in a small Maine town. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 2013, Dolores Claiborne was the first opera adaptation of a Stephen King novel ever performed. However, there's at least one more Stephen King opera on the horizon: An adaptation of The Shining will be premiering at the Minnesota Opera this May.


A story of romance, betrayal, and revenge, Rushdie’s 2005 novel Shalimar The Clown seems like it’s practically begging to be made into an opera. A lyrical novel about a Kashmiri village of acrobats, actors, singers, and dancers, and the external forces that begin to threaten their way of life, the novel has both the heightened emotions and love of elaborate performance that characterize many great operas. It also addresses the ways new media like television and movies threaten traditional performance arts—an issue that has, of course, plagued opera in recent decades. Set to premiere this June at the Opera Theater of St. Louis, Shalimar The Clown was composed by Jack Perla and written by Rajiv Joseph with Rushdie’s blessing. Perla's score blends European opera techniques with the tabla drums and sitar of Kashmir’s traditional music, and promises to be an interesting blend of two musical and performative traditions.

Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.


Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.


A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.


Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”


For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.


Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.


Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”


The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.


John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.


When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.


The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

Why a Readily Available Used Paperback Is Selling for Thousands of Dollars on Amazon

At first glance, getting ahold of a copy of One Snowy Knight, a historical romance novel by Deborah MacGillivray, isn't hard at all. You can get the book, which originally came out in 2009, for a few bucks on Amazon. And yet according to one seller, a used copy of the book is worth more than $2600. Why? As The New York Times reports, this price disparity has more to do with the marketing techniques of Amazon's third-party sellers than it does the market value of the book.

As of June 5, a copy of One Snowy Knight was listed by a third-party seller on Amazon for $2630.52. By the time the Times wrote about it on July 15, the price had jumped to $2800. That listing has since disappeared, but a seller called Supersonic Truck still has a used copy available for $1558.33 (plus shipping!). And it's not even a rare book—it was reprinted in July.

The Times found similar listings for secondhand books that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than their market price. Those retailers might not even have the book on hand—but if someone is crazy enough to pay $1500 for a mass-market paperback that sells for only a few dollars elsewhere, that retailer can make a killing by simply snapping it up from somewhere else and passing it on to the chump who placed an order with them.

Not all the prices for used books on Amazon are so exorbitant, but many still defy conventional economic wisdom, offering used copies of books that are cheaper to buy new. You can get a new copy of the latest edition of One Snowy Knight for $16.99 from Amazon with Prime shipping, but there are third-party sellers asking $24 to $28 for used copies. If you're not careful, how much you pay can just depend on which listing you click first, thinking that there's not much difference in the price of used books. In the case of One Snowy Knight, there are different listings for different editions of the book, so you might not realize that there's a cheaper version available elsewhere on the site.

An Amazon product listing offers a mass-market paperback book for $1558.33.
Screenshot, Amazon

Even looking at reviews might not help you find the best listing for your money. People tend to buy products with the most reviews, rather than the best reviews, according to recent research, but the site is notorious for retailers gaming the system with fraudulent reviews to attract more buyers and make their way up the Amazon rankings. (There are now several services that will help you suss out whether the reviews on a product you're looking at are legitimate.)

For more on how Amazon's marketplace works—and why its listings can sometimes be misleading—we recommend listening to this episode of the podcast Reply All, which has a fascinating dive into the site's third-party seller system.

[h/t The New York Times]


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