Years ago I read a Guardian article titled “Top 10 novels inspired by Shakespeare”. Written by Sally O’Reilly, it started with “Shakespeare famously customised existing plots when writing his plays, and added to them an acute perception of human experience which gave them universal significance.” I thought, then, that it might be fun to share a few Australian novels that customise or are inspired by existing plots from well-known works. There are many, of course, because it is a popular thing to do, so I just plan to get the ball rolling from some of the books I’ve reviewed here, and then throw it to the rest of you to share those you’ve read, Australian and otherwise.
When I started thinking about this topic, I immediately thought of relevant books I’ve read over the last couple of decades, like Jane Smiley’s One thousand acres (Shakespeare’s King Lear), Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip (Dickens’ Great expectations), and, of course, Jean Rhys’ The wide Sargasso Sea (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre). None of these are Australian, however, but they might clue you into the challenge I had in titling this post, because “re-imaginings” come in many forms. Examples include retelling a story from a different perspective, setting the story in a different place and time, and providing prequels or sequels to a story. Some stick closely to the original story and characters while others are more in the “loosely inspired” or “loosely based on” category. The variations are endless.
Why do writers do this? There’s probably a different answer for every writer, but some reasons do seem to recur. One is the desire to tell a story from a different perspective, such as, for example, a feminist one to redress the problematic views of an earlier time. Another is to bring a story that the writer thinks has something important to say to a modern audience. We don’t always know exactly why writers decide to do this, but, like most readers, I like to have a guess.
And yet, I have to admit that I tend to be anxious about them. Do I know the original, and if not, should I read it first? What if I don’t want to read it first? Should I still read the re-imagining. If I do know the original, will I remember it well enough to understand the author’s intentions? More often than not, it works out fine, whether I’ve read the original or not – but I never learn my lesson, and next time, I go through it all again.
Anyhow, here is a random few that I’ve reviewed on my blog. I’m listing them alphabetically by author. I did consider trying to categorise them – but decided that would take me down a rabbit-hole!
- Janet Turner Hospital’s Orpheus lost (2007) (my review): reimagines the Orpheus story, with a feminist perspective, making the woman the would-be rescuer.
- David Malouf’s Ransom (2009) (my review): re-visions the section of the Iliad in which Priam visits Achilles to ask for his son’s body back. Malouf said he wanted to suggest a new kind of human, non-heroic consciousness, by having Priam “do something extraordinary”.
- Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (2018) (my review): a “post-colonial response” to Somerset Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”. She gives the girl a backstory, and explores it from the perspective of the colonised, particularly colonised young women. She shows that young women were pawns in both the hands of colonial powers and of their own men.
- Roslyn Russell’s Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (2014) (my review): an imagined sequel to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in which Russell redeems the banished adulteress Maria Bertram and “runs with” the hints regarding slavery in Austen’s novel.
- Danielle Wood’s Mothers Grimm (2014) (my review): re-visions some Grimm Brothers’ fairytales – “Rapunzel“, “Hansel and Gretel“, “Sleeping Beauty“, and “The Goose Girl“ – to reflect on and question contemporary motherhood.
Geraldine Brooks’ March (2006), which I read before blogging, is another well-known Australian example. She takes the absent father from Little women, Mr March, and creates story about him, focusing on his role in the Civil War.
Not surprisingly, classics (in both senses of the words), myths and fairy-tales feature strongly in these re-imaginings because they provide a springboard that doesn’t have to be explained to the reader. The exception, in my list, is Riwoe’s The fish girl which takes a Somerset Maugham short story. Maugham is well-known, of course, but not necessarily the short story used here. We could, however, call it the exception that proves the rule, in that in the end these works do need to stand on their own, with the original work adding depth for those who know it, rather than being a prerequisite.
What do you think? And, have you read novelistic re-imaginings? Do you like them, and why or why not? We’d love to hear from you.