Issues in Modernizing Classics: The Setting

When I talk about setting, in terms of old novels, I am not just talking about the place, but also the time.  Austen variations are fascinating, but the key is most of them merely extend the narrative of the original.  They focus on what happened before, what happened after, another point of view, or just a complete re-telling of the same story.  Maybe, with the last, it’s an alternative reality where one element is changed and a whole new story blossoms out of it.

Modernizing the classic is different.  You have the opportunity to change both place and time.  Even more, you can change context of the events.  The key is to understand what is happened, why, and what the setting does to support that action.  You simply can’t take a classic book and slap it into the 21st century without considering the setting.

Take for example, Pride and Prejudice.  What is our setting?  It is Regency Era, UK.  The setting says far more about our characters than anything an author could actually say.  We know women won’t work outside of the home if they are a certain class.  This means the Bennet sisters won’t have jobs nor will their mother.  This means all the women must marry if they ever want to live away from home.  This means the men will be seeking wives of a certain class.  This means women are in competition for said men and must do what they can to make themselves shine.  This means a wealthy man is important to women of high classes.  That it’s in the UK means there will be a class divide that you might not see in some other countries.

The same can’t be said today.  While people may choose to not work, not marry, and only marry in a specific class; there is far less pressure to do so.  That doesn’t mean there is no modern version of the story to tell.  There are still expectations we struggle with, even if society doesn’t reinforce them with as strongly.  There may be fewer class issues, but there are racial issues and wealth (without class) can replace it.  Set a story on the Upper Eastside of New York and you can almost tell the same story as Austen.  Set the story in a poor, but racially diverse community and you could easily make it fit.  The key is that Elizabeth is happily different from her peers and Darcy is a awkward penguin who struggles with expectations.  The key is that they both judge each other, both show pride, and both work to understand each other better.  This is really all that has to stay the same.

It’s also important to understand your new setting.  If you are going to set your version of a class in a modern setting, you have to know how it can fit into a modern setting.  You have to know people.  I find when I read modernizations, the details of the old setting are forced into the new setting.  People don’t behave like modern people and systems don’t behave like modern systems.  There are times I can’t tell because I don’t know this modern system, but the author never helps by explaining why this may happen differently than expected.

For example, I wrote something about a book editor going on a book tour with an author.  This is not commonly done, so I had to explain why it needed to happen.  I want my readers to understand that I know this isn’t normal and here is why it is happening.  I want my characters to know it too.

It’s not like classics have never been modernized or even modernized well.  Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story primarily because of a major setting overhaul.  Pygmalion/My Fair Lady became She’s All That (yep, you remember that movie) because it was modernized with a new setting (American High School).  Modernizing isn’t really about a literal translation to modern times.  It’s about the heart of the original finding a place in our modern understanding.

What do you think?  How important is the context of the setting to you when a classic is modernized?  Are there other modernizations that do it well?

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