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The Classics Revisited

“It is a truth universally acknowledged” that since man stepped behind a camera we have been subjected to some particularly questionable attempts at adapting those ‘classics’ we hold so dear. The dilemma – to adapt or not to adapt – is a pressing one. ‘Classics’ is not a term I use lightly; on the surface, it may be construed as a grouping to encompass literature historically deemed worth reading (those texts we were taught at GCSE). Instead, I like to view them closer to the books we hold in our consciousness, the books we loved so much we inhabited their world, the books we return to whenever we’re grasping for the literary equivalent of a cup of tea. For some, this may well be the society of the Brontës or the sisterly scenes in Little Women, for others the mythological world of Percy Jackson is comparable to the magical realm of Narnia.

Each person forms their own attachment to literature written in any age, however, despite my more liberal view of what a classic is, there is undeniably more pressure on adaptations which generations have cherished. The sacrilegious treatment of the Twilight books will not be criticised in so much depth as a feeble attempt at Romeo and Juliet for instance. There is a sense of possession towards the literature which has become almost institutional in society. It is this institutionalised attachment which has split opinion regarding adaptations. In one camp are the lovers of literature for its language and style (“to extricate either is to remove the soul”) who believe adaptations strip away the original’s character and trivialise their intentions. In the other are those who see adaptation as a means of opening up the classics to a multitude of audiences who wouldn’t touch it in its literary form. Personally, the prospect of slogging through a Dickens novel fills me with horror, however, the minute the option of watching a film is provided my fears melt away. The foundation an adaptation provides allows for the expansion of one’s own horizons and not for the reduction of the source material. Both sides of the critical argument are valid; one protects us from disappointment, the other reveals opportunities previously unseen.

One recent example of a successful adaptation is Greta Gerwig’s Little Women based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the same name. Gerwig’s film was both a critical and financial success grossing over $200 million in eight months and receiving six Academy Award nominations (including ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’). Critics praised its vitality, authenticity and connection to source material. Gerwig is key to the film’s success not only in monetary terms but with regard to its success as an adaptation. The relationship between the writer as director and the impact of the film is crucial. Gerwig epitomised the pressure people have on adaptations when she described her reasoning behind making the film to Screen Daily: “it was the book of my youth, of my childhood, of my heart, of my ambition”. The passion of these words is evident in the film, just as palpable as the care Emma Thompson took over her adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

There are some adaptations where I question whether the screenwriter ever read the original (The Golden Compass [2007] is one such film that springs to mind), but when production is a labour of love the essence of the original remains. Gerwig further aids the reception of her venture by amalgamating Alcott’s novel with the letters she sent at the time of writing. By fully understanding the writer of her source, Gerwig is able to understand what she wants from her own film. She can supply an essence which is felt but not evidenced in the book through a comprehension of the mind that wrote it. Consequently, Little Women (2019) avoids being a mere reproduction lacking heart.

I find that when the beauty and passion of a classic’s writing and tone is retained in the writing and aesthetics of an adaptation, the adaptation becomes a vehicle for the transportation of one person’s love to another. Who can deny the opulence of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby which exudes the superficial life delved into by Fitzgerald? Or the humour and vitality of Autumn de Wilde’s recent Emma? The existence of past poor attempts at moving from page to screen should not negate the value we can find in the good ones. It should not matter that a film may be successful because it includes popular actors; this does not reduce its merit or trivialise its origin’s greatness. If the existence of Lily James as Natasha Rostova, Eddie Redmayne as Marius Pontmercy, or Denzel Washington as Don Pedro is what it takes for people to turn to Tolstoy, Hugo, and Shakespeare’s original works then I cannot see a reason to rebuke the process. Adaptations base themselves on the classics, they never pretend to replace them.

Katharine Spurrier

Beyond her degree, Katharine enjoys reading both social commentary and culture reviews. This provision of both high and low insights helps to inform the articles she has written for The Oxford Blue which range from pop-culture, to literature, to food, and even dipping into sports on occasion. In her free time you will frequently find her with a cup of tea and a book, or walking her dogs.