Monday, October 07, 2013

Rewriting Jane Austen

I read an article in The Guardian this morning about a project to rewrite Jane Austen's novels in order to bring them to a modern audience.

My first reaction was disgust. Why should we have to dumb down and change classic literature? Are we so stupid these days that we need Jane Austen translated just to appeal to us? Are publishers so desperate to grind out a few more bucks that they're recycling old books?

But after a little more thought, I'm not quite as opposed. I don't think people are necessarily too stupid to enjoy Jane Austen. And publishers probably do need to grind out a few more bucks--maybe it's better they do it with this instead of more insipid Twilighty crap.

Jane Austen is, after all, not that difficult to read--in fact, her novels are about as accessible as classic literature gets. They're a sort of classic literature gateway drug, if you will. It's a matter of motivation. With so many new books coming out, it's hard for anyone, let alone someone with a casual interest in reading, to keep up with what's new. Going "backwards" to read the classics is one of those things we know we "should" do, but it's easy to put it off.

There are really only two incentives that casual modern audiences have to pick up a classic. The first, of course, is if the book is required reading for school. Unfortunately, I know of few ways that are better guaranteed to completely drain a book of any enjoyment whatsoever. That's not to say that books shouldn't be taught in schools, but I have few good memories of the books I had to read for class, even ones that I've enjoyed since. Being surrounded by people complaining bitterly about every facet of the book is not helpful when it comes to enjoyment. And sometimes even enjoyable books are drained by a lifeless lesson plan.

Outside of school, another incentive to read classic literature tends to be when a new adaptation is coming up. This usually means a movie, but it could be a TV show or new imagining in book form, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There are plenty of classic books I'd like to read, but about the only way to get me to actually pick it up is to release the movie of it. This is what prompted my reread of The Great Gatsby earlier this year, and I'm glad it did because I don't remember enjoying The Great Gatsby in high school, but I liked it very much this time around.

Looking at this new Austen project in that light, maybe it's not so bad. If people read and enjoy the new version, and then pick up the original to compare, that's a win. If people read the new version and hate it, but decide to pick up the original to see what the fuss is about, that's a win too. Even if people only read the adaptation and never bother with the original, I guess that's better than nothing (although undoubtedly sad). I even confess that I'm a little curious about what these new versions will be like. Maybe, depending on how they're presented, I'll check out Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Is it a bald money-grab? Is it a loving homage? But like any other adaptation, no doubt these will just make me want to reread the real thing.
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