Illustration by Tabitha Underhill
The first national lockdown of 2020 made me appreciate streaming services in a new way. Without much else to do and, of course, looking for any way to procrastinate getting ahead on my degree, I consumed all sorts of media, not really giving myself time to think about it and watching it primarily for the experience of consumption. I watched (and enjoyed) trashy Netflix originals, scratched my head at the complexity of highbrow cinema and cried gratefully at recordings of theatre productions that I would never have otherwise seen. Streaming services have given us unprecedented access to stories of the past and present, which in turn gives us unprecedented access to the culture of the past and present. What an exciting hotbed of historical excavation! What an intriguing lens into the popular stories of the past!
As a half-English student, I’m of course of the opinion that stories have much to teach us, about empathy, morality and our own emotions. However, the half-historian in me wonders what we can tell from the patterns of storytelling, piecing aspects of popular culture together to learn more about ourselves. Thus, seeing Pride and Prejudice: The Musical on Amazon Prime was the inciting incident in which these two concepts came together. I found myself asking the question: Why? Why bring this timeless classic to the stage again? Surely we’ve seen it enough times already?
To be clear, we really have seen it enough times, and this is coming from someone who absolutely loves the story. There are countless adaptations of the novel, including a number of novels from Mr Darcy’s point of view, a spooky reimagining which includes zombies in the narrative… for some reason, a couple of stage plays and a 1959 Broadway musical, not to mention the Marvel Comic adaptations, the BBC series, the popular 2005 film starring Keira Knightley and a Bollywood bonanza. It’s been done in every medium of storytelling, in countless genres, more than once, from countless new perspectives. In fact, we see retellings and adaptations of popular stories and readily accept them all the time. A new film based on Romeo and Juliet, for example, would have no-one batting an eyelid.
From a very simplified model of supply and demand, it would seem that the huge amount of adaptations we see implies that we like to see adaptations; the media then simply reflects what there is demand for. There is something comforting about seeing that someone else has seen the merit in reinventing a story that you like, and it makes you question: what have they done with it? Indeed, for creatives it is a spectacular opportunity to show their talents and make people want to see the same story again. Having an adaptation has almost become a measure of a modern classic, with modern tales such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls having stage and screen adaptations and finding their place in the canon.
Clearly, then, there are some stories that we want to pass down, that are transcendent of medium. While some pop culture classics, such as the Disney Channel Original, High School Musical for example, are very much linked to their original medium, others have been reproduced so many times that most people have an awareness of them, their essence and what they have to teach us. Adaptations are thus almost a new kind of oral history, a way we can track the passing down of values through the enduring popularity of certain stories, the timeless classics that we want the children of the next generation to see that aren’t attached to their medium anymore. They exist in popular imagination for their essence, and this is what we look for in every retelling.
This has huge implications for how our culture is shaped, and tells us just how much we like to hold on to our history. We must pay attention to what is retold and why. Pride and Prejudice has been chosen by us as a timeless tale probably because of its cultural significance at the time it was written; it is about a defiant woman and an enduring love story. One could argue that The Color Purple is about the same thing, with more modern considerations. In fact, if we take a closer look, a lot of our timeless tales have a lot of the same themes or plot points. The underdog who finds a sense of belonging in an unlikely friendship. The person who dares to be countercultural in a time before it was fashionable. The love story that seems to conquer all. These adaptations tell us that we live in a society with a dominant culture that seems to value emotion over reason, hard work and friendship. Adaptations and reimaginings are a great way of measuring what matters to us in a collaborative culture that we create.
Differences in medium are what help keep the flame of appreciation alive, but a story’s ability to transcend is something that we decide. When you see another poster for a Disney remake, for example, do you groan or are you comforted? Adaptations can be seen as a lazy excuse not to be original, but originality is a myth. We can find a lot of meaning in adaptations, and there is a real place for them in trying to interpret our own culture and history. As consumers and shapers of culture, we all have a role in the passing down of these stories.
This is a part of the series ‘Beyond The Frame’ in which writers explore the relationship between theatre and other mediums of art. Please be in touch if you would like to contribute your own!