Issues in Modernizing Old Novels: Character Development

There are a variety of problems and concerns I have as author and reader of modernizations.  One of those issues is character development.  I often ask myself the question: can said character exist in the 21st century?  There are plenty of follow up questions:

  1. What is it about said character that doesn’t/does work?
  2. What would be their modern motivation for their actions?
  3. In the frame of the story I want to tell, how would this character have to be adapted?
  4. What about the people around him/her?

sense-and-sensibility-jane-austen-10894177-800-600Let’s take a character I shall never dare try to change: Marianne Dashwood.  I can’t stand Sense & Sensibility and Marianne Dashwood is a good 33% of what I dislike about the novel.  This is by no means a criticism of the actresses who have played her over the many adaptations.  They were wonderful and she is very easy to play.

Marianne is a creature of her time, place, and class.  She much sit around and do nothing until she finds a husband.  Her family must rely on the kindness of family and strangers to support them when they have nothing.  She must latch on to the most eligible bachelor available to her.  Her reputation is everything and anyone who wants her when it is under harsh scrutiny must be snatched up and kept.  She comes off weak and silly in the original

Sense & Sensibility
Sense & Sensibility

In the 21st century this can’t work.  She can’t sit idly by waiting for her prince charming. At least, not if you really want her to remain sympathetic to a reader.  This is why, in a recent modernization, I spent 50% of the novel wanting to smack her.  The same could be said about the modernization of the mother.  Nothing changes about Marianne except that now she is an artist.  While her elder sister works to support the family of 4 (3 adults and one tween) on one small income, Marianne and their mother live a life waiting for a man to come save them.

When I think of Marianne, I think about what would a college age girl do when she has lived a life of privilege, but had it taken away?  When she has to go from adoring a dashing scoundrel of a man to accepting an honorable, but older man, what would motivate her to settle?  How would her mother and sisters impact her decision making?  She is a middle child, she is romantic, she is pretty, and she generally sees the world as bending to her will.  These girls and women still exist, but they fit into our modern world.  They work in some way.

Personally, I would place Marianne in a job in an office, one that a family friend gets for her.  This would allow her to meet douchebags.. I mean scoundrels who use her.  This would allow her to meet an older, mature man that adores her.  This may be a stereotype of a modern woman, but at least modern women will recognize her as similar to someone they know or maybe to themselves.

What have you liked the best in modernizations of classics?  Do you prefer to see the original character as he/she was written or do you want the new author to reconsider who the character would be in the modern world?

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