Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Modernising classics: Is it ever a good idea?

I saw a link to this article on Twitter just a few days after posting my Once a Month Book Club review / panegyric of Anne of Green Gables. It's an announcement that a Toronto media company is planning an Anne of Green Gables reboot, a modernisation for television that will aim to appeal to the YA market as much as to existing fans.

My reaction was instant suspicion, and a sinking feeling in my gut. Phrases about putting the Anne stories "in a broader, more international context" and talk about "writing in more modern points of view" worry me a bit. Even more, I get twitchy when the producers airily talk about emulating the sensibility of YA runaway successes like the Twilight and Hunger Games books (both of which are utterly dissimilar to Anne, and, I'd venture to say, to each other, in theme, aesthetic, voice and moral universe).

It's not the notion of adaptation for film or TV per se that bothers me. There are good book-to-film and book-to-TV efforts and there are bad ones; there are some notable examples of the visual version of the story being more compelling and better crafted than the original text (as a not-huge-fan of EM Forster, I'd have to put the film version of A Room With a View in this category, for instance; and I liked the film of The English Patient even more than the book, despite the book's highly literary and award-winning status). The existing TV series of the Anne books themselves, made in the 1980s and starring Megan Follows as Anne, are lovely, and my girls and I enjoy them as a complement to the texts.

No, what makes my teeth itch is the idea of modernisation of the story. I can think of one - possibly two - examples of truly successful modernisations of classic stories for film or TV (Sherlock is a cracking example of Doin' It Rite here). Offhand, I can also think of a dozen absolute shockers, dismal efforts that appealed neither to fans of the originals nor the expected cashed-up new generation. This seems especially true of children's classics, actually. Three of the more egregious examples illustrate the point:

Exhibit A: The Dark Is Rising movie
Exhibit B: The Famous Five reboot
Exhibit C: My Friends Tigger and Pooh (Winnie the Pooh reboot)

I think my main issue with modernisations is that unless the writers, producers and actors are extremely clever in the way they address the stories, the core elements that made the stories appealing are lost in the process. Place, values, and voice are not extrinsic elements to stories like the Anne books; the whole savour, the whole beauty of those texts is their infusion with the late-19th century worldview of their author and her powerful evocation of place-in-time. Prince Edward Island is a character (or more than one, actually) in these stories, and Anne's particular moral-ethical lens, indelibly coloured with 19th century values, is the filter through which the stories come alive. "Modernise" that - "internationalise" it - and what's left? Some escapades of overly imaginative children, which, while entertaining enough, lacks the integrated, magical integrity of the books as they stand.

Besides all that, I just think modernising classic stories - which usually means contemporary costumes, dialogue, settings, props, values / assumptions, and maybe inserting gender / diversity balanced characters - is based on a false and rather insulting premise: that people (in this case, kids / young adults) only connect with characters, situations and places that are familiar. Somehow the assumption seems to be that, if the fiction intersects with or purports to offer any view of an actual real-world situation or circumstance (not magical, not fantastic, not cartoonish), then the real-world elements must be rendered comfortable by making them replicas of the world around them. The argument that this means children can relate better to the story or the characters is, I think, entirely and irretrievably misguided.

Sure, children do like stories about people and circumstances they recognise, and such stories, when fresh, novel and well-developed, are great. BUT children are much smarter, more flexible, more capable and more creative than adults give them credit for. They can also deal with LOTS of different reality-scenarios - past eras, different social or cultural contexts, different types of language, different sets of assumptions, different ways of writing (or telling) stories. All that they can deal with - in fact they eat it up. I believe that it begins the process of learning that the world is, and always will be, a multifaceted place, and that the way you live your life is, in fact, not immutable, but changeable over time, place and circumstance.

Taking a classic story and attempting to modernise it usually strips it of the elements that made it great in the first place - elements that were embedded in the language, values, characters and style of the stories. I pretty much believe that redoing a classic is like dissecting a frog (or a joke) - at the end of it you may understand what made it tick, but it's stone cold dead.


  1. No, no, NO! Tell me it isn't true! Anne was my constant companion through my childhood and teens. Please don't let them spoil her!

  2. Wow Kathy, what a great post. I have to agree I am not much of a fan of remakes and such. I figure if they got it right the first time how can you improve from that?

    Fairy wishes and butterfly kisses #TeamIBOT

  3. I m going to admit, I never read or watched Anne of Green Gables. My sister bought me the books but I never got into them at all. Having said that though, classics are classics and should be kept that way, I don't mind the occassional modernization of Shakespeare (Like taming of the shrew into 10 things I hate about you), but even that was only loosely based on the idea.

    Btw, brilliantly written!

    1. That's really interesting you cite Ten Things I Hate About You, Jess, because I agree wholeheartedly that it is a successful riff on Shakespeare. In fact I almost mentioned it, but as it's more "inspired by" than a straight modernisation, I decided not to. Another example that sprung to mind in a similar vein is Clueless, which is a really brilliant modernisation of Emma.

  4. The modernisation of Anne of Green Gables... I am horrified at the idea. I will admit to never reading the books (couldn't get into them) but I ADORED the films - even the silly last one. It was done right.