11 modern takes on classic books that do justice to the original story

We may think that “reboot culture” is quite recent, with our Lady Ghostbusters and our various Spider-Men. But in reality, writers have been stealing from each other and updating each other’s stories since the dawn of time. Ever since there have been novels, there have been authors who say “yes, okay, but if one of the characters had a blog? And many of the retellings of classic works are brilliant on their own, so here are some modern take on classic books.

Now, I know most fans of the classics can be a little sensitive to modern updates. We like to think that the original language and all that imagery on the windswept moors is part of what makes the story so great in the first place. But if you give some of these stories a chance, they might surprise you. I want to say, Pride and Prejudice alone has about a hundred thousand modern adaptations (note: this number is an estimate), so there must be something for them.

Some of these books take a beloved story and place it in modern times. Others delve deeper into the original world of the book, telling the story from a different angle. But all of them will make you think a little differently about the classics:

1. Great by Sara Benincasa

In this story of Gatsby the magnificent, a new girl has arrived in the Hamptons. Jacinta Trimalchio is a blogging superstar, social media darling, and dangerously obsessed with the beautiful Delilah. (Bonus points for Jacinta Trimalchio’s name, as “Trimalchio” is a character from the Roman classic Satyricon, and Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Jay Gatsby. Good game.)

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2. on beauty by Zadie Smith

As Zadie Smith puts it in her author’s note: “My greatest structural debt should be obvious to any EM Forster fan; suffice it to say that he gave me a sleek old frame, which I covered new material as best I could.” on beauty is a superb adaptation of EM Forster Howard’s End, updated to explore racial, academic and family dynamics in the modern world.

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3. Grendel by John Gardner

Grendel, from the ancient epic Beowulf, may well be the first monster of English literature. In Beowulf he doesn’t have much of a chance to speak for himself, as he’s too busy ravaging villages and getting himself killed. But in Grendel, we hear the monster side of the story. And you might find yourself supporting (or at least sympathizing with) one of the most fearsome beasts in literary history.

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4. Penelope by Margaret Atwood

Can Margaret Atwood just write feminist accounts of every ancient epic? Thank you. Penelope activate the script The Odyssey and tells the story from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’ long-suffering wife. After all, she had plenty of time to kill while her husband was running around with cyclops and the like. And this book is a spiritual, haunting and poetic version of his story.

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5. go bovine by Libba Bray

Libba Bray takes on one of the most unhinged classic characters in her twisted tale of Don Quixote. In go cattle, our hero is a teenager, not an old man, but he’s still a bit disconnected from reality: Cameron has been diagnosed with mad cow disease, and his only chance for recovery lies at the end of a strange, semi-hallucinated, chimerical quest (sorry) across America.

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6. Railsea by China Miéville

Moby-Dick but with trains. Moby Dick but with trains. And instead of whales, they hunt giant moles. And of course, Captain Naphi is determined to get his hands on Mocker Jack, the big white musty (that’s the deceptively adorable name for giant moles). It’s a bizarre and brilliant reimagining of the seafaring tale set in a strange universe of railroad tracks and violent subterranean mammals.

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seven. Innocents by Francesca Segal

Nothing like a scandal to shake up a marriage. Innocents Edith Wharton update The age of innocence, carrying the story of WASPy New Yorkers in the 19th century to a wealthy Jewish community near London in the 21st century. But it’s still an outrageous and passionate love triangle, riddled with social commentary.

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8. The Fool’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd

Juliet Moreau is just trying to live an ordinary life. But HG Wells fans can probably guess what’s in store for her: a visit to her father’s island and its horrible inhabitants. Because Juliette’s father is the famous Doctor Moreau, and his experiments on “humanized” animals have gotten out of control. It’s a dark, disgusting and surprisingly romantic version The island of Doctor Moreau.

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9. Bad: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Yes, there is a book behind the musical. And it’s… weird. Bad takes place in a grown-up Oz filled with bigotry and political turmoil (there is at least one multi-species trio). Animals can talk but are treated as second-class citizens. The Tin Man is in an abusive relationship. And Elphaba, the green-skinned baby girl, is smart but dangerously misunderstood.

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ten. Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

If you are unfamiliar with The Aeneidlet me explain: ancient Rome was jealous of ancient Greece, so they ripped off The Odyssey and The Iliad with their own propaganda-filled epic. And poor Lavinia, the third and last wife of Aeneas, is caught in the middle of a savage battle for the future of Rome. Le Guin tells the story from Lavinia’s perspective, since the man she chooses to marry will decide the fate of the ancient world.

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11. Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding

What’s an updated classics list without Bridget Jones? Bridget Jones Diary is the all-too-real and self-deprecating account of Pride and Prejudice that we all need in our lives. It’s still a comedy of manners, but in a world of diets and bad dates. Jane Austen would no doubt approve.

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Pictures: my bathroom/Instagram

About Marcia G. Hussain

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