Considering the benefits of adapting the classics of literature—the proven success of their themes and structure, iconic lines, enduring timeliness, and strong characters—the question is, why WOULDN’T you want to adapt a classic?
Because it’s already been done... to DEATH. Take Sherlock Holmes. Adaptations are endless, with new ones nearly every year. And the approaches writers take encompass a wide range: placing him in modern times, as a comedic figure, as a young man, as an old man, with dark secrets Doyle never would have imagined, and with Watson as a woman. There’s even the thinly veiled homage of Gregory House, brilliantly played by Hugh Laurie, which I’ll explore more later.
So, I understand your concerns… in everything I write, in whatever genre, from historical fiction to adapting true stories and classics for young audiences and adults, to Tolkienesque fantasy and Escape Rooms, I try to bring something new (For Holmes, I adapted The Hound of the Baskervilles for a youth theatre so Holmes dies at the Falls and is secretly replaced by his niece.) And, as you’ll see as I discuss several adaptations for TV and film, so do some of the most successful writers currently working.
It’s about finding your Vision and Voice (the topic of my next article) and letting them shine.
I’ll be focusing on two recent adaptations: Dracula, adapted by Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, known for their seasons of Dr. Who and the modernization of Holmes with Benjamin Cumberbatch, and A Christmas Carol, adapted by Stephen Knight, whose Peaky Blinders is one of the best long-form narratives out there.
I chose these because their source material is high on the list of best known and most adapted literary works and both are polarizing. Colleagues I respect have a wide array of opinions. There are the Purists, who hate almost any remake, reboot, or adaptation and argue that the only effort worth their time is something new. But many had specific and craft-related responses to what did and didn’t work, as do I.
“Why do it?” is not only worth asking, it’s fundamental. Before you invest time and energy into adapting a classic—especially one with high expectation and admiration—know what you’re bringing that’s never been brought before.
To use an analogy, I’m not a fan of song covers that are exact to the original in their instrumentation, arrangement, and genre. The best covers play with at least one, or sometimes all three.
At its core, this is about applying your unique Vision and Voice. That’s where the value lies for you as a writer and for the audience. In both Dracula and A Christmas Carol, the styles and stances of the writers clearly come through. They’re not trodding new territory—they’re putting long-told tales through their own unique lenses.
If there’s one best reason to adapt a classic, it’s this.
In addition to applying your Vision and Voice, look for ways to change the point of view. Mary Kelly, with Julia Roberts, is an adaptation of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that adjusts the POV from the lawyer, Utterson, to the title character, part of Jekyll’s household staff.
Given Mr. Hyde’s attitude toward women, this makes for a rich new narrative, well worth a viewer’s time.
Another way to make material new is by honoring your audience. As a colleague in historical education says, go where the audience is and bring them back with you. Give them something in the first ten minutes that says, “This is not your (great)grandmother’s version, this is something for you,” because 21st-century audiences have more from which to choose; they are generally more educated about why and how story works (thanks to YouTube breakdowns and tutorials on technique); and the level of reality achieved through adult language, sex, violence, and CGI makes the viewing experience more immersive than ever.
Sometimes writers—myself included—want to pay homage to a work or author that’s impacted them, which requires balance. If you’re going note for note with every line, character, and trope then you’re using the cover band approach. What’s interesting here is that lyrics are like classic lines. They aren’t something that typically gets changed.
Let’s take Dracula. In Coppola’s adaptation, many lines from the original are included. And most adaptations of A Christmas Carol live and die by the delivery of its famous, timeless lines.
So the audience is waiting for them, anticipating how the actors handle the tone, rhythm, and delivery. Do they add new subtext? Emphasize a word in a unique way that delivers new meaning? Scrooge, like Holmes, is a character that an able actor can define for a new generation.
The adapter must help. These are the major moments of the piece, the real hooks, and the writing should support them accordingly.
The recent adaptations of Dracula and A Christmas Carol are curious because they use few classic lines. I waited and they weren’t there. Although I was disappointed, it illuminates a good point—classic stories aren’t just their famous lines. Moffatt/Gattiss and Knight were no doubt conscious of this and chose to show that Dracula, Scrooge, and their support casts could still be compelling. And they were. Mostly.
Because the question becomes, how much do you deviate? Go too far, and what you’ve written is parody or delivers something so far from what the original intended it can’t be supported. A college lit professor taught me to use a “circle of interpretation” when striving for new insights for my term papers, which sometimes led me astray. What’s within the circle is supported by the text. I recommend using this standard when adapting classics, because arbitrarily making changes to location, time period, or themes just to say “here is something new” rarely works.
Almost without exception in A Christmas Carol and consistently with Dracula, the further the writers moved from the source material, the weaker the stories became. This makes sense. Like myths and fairy tales, shaped and revised over thousands of years, classics endure because they’re near perfect. So introducing new material is often done at the writers’ peril.
Let’s look at a few examples where I think big deviations work.
First is Scrooged, with Bill Murray, a modern update of A Christmas Carol. Although it’s comedic, it’s not quite parody because it plays the original structure almost note for note, but its prime deviation is using the added motif of a play within a play, allowing it to honor the source material while subverting it. The writers use some classic lines without having them come out of the mouths of the main characters. And Bill Murray is not your traditional Scrooge in temperament or tone.
Next is the long-running Fox series, House, starring Hugh Laurie. House is a variation on Holmes and his best friend and foil, Wilson, is, of course, Watson. All of the Holmesian tropes are there: drug addiction, difficulties with women, disdain for colleagues, a penchant for rule-breaking, and a relentless passion for solving the mystery. The homage was so subtle, I bet there was a good portion of the audience that never made the connection to the source material.
The same can be said of the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou, based on Homer’s The Odyssey.
Many 20th-century adaptations of classics like Dracula, A Christmas Carol, and the stories of Holmes have become nostalgic pieces. As brilliant as Basil Rathbone is as Holmes, what mostly comes through is the World War II propaganda. Modern writers should avoid that kind of moral–political add-on. Holmes did at times lend his skills to the Crown, but he was not a political creature, all in for God and Country. In fact, he was more critical of political and economic institutions than their ally.
Modern audiences don’t want moralizing. They’re highly attuned to propaganda and slanted viewpoints because of politics as theatre and fake news.
What they do want is engagement, immersion, and multiple layers of meaning.
In many adaptations, this is partially achieved with graphic violence, explicit sex scenes, and profanity, and, as I’ve said, these elements can be value-added for modern audiences.
Without spoilers, Knight’s A Christmas Carol adds intense sexual dynamics and increased violence, both person to person and in business decisions causing harm to workers and the community. I’ll leave it to you to decide if they work, although, by the middle of the third act, I was fully immersed in the judgment of Scrooge and questioning if he should be forgiven. Having watched every adaptation ever made, that was a first.
Mashups are another way to bring something new to classics. They’re fun for audiences and I’m not only a fan, I’m a practitioner. One of my musicals combines Drs. Moreau, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and their “sons” and I’m writing a Dracula prequel incorporating Holmes and Watson (with a big reveal using a lead character from another classic).
I enjoyed Penny Dreadful and A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen primarily because they used characters from many classics. Even Van Helsing, although far from perfect, has an interesting origin story (which is another way to bring something new). The same goes for Dracula 2000.
So… is adapting a classic something you want to try? If so, I hope these tips and examples help. There are, of course, more—Treasure Island has been adapted many times, although with surprisingly little innovation outside of Black Sails. Little Women evokes a lot of passion when elements are updated and changed, as they are almost every year.
In the end, adaptations are about risk and reward. When someone sees there’s a new adaptation of Dracula, they either get very excited or groan. We know name recognition sells. But then you have to prove yourself.
Be sure to find what’s already out there—the last thing you want is to think you’re adapting the source material but what you’re really doing, even unintentionally, is stealing the elements of someone else’s adaptation. I’m careful to find everything available based on source material I am adapting. Because, even if the original source material is in the public domain, adaptations of it are not.
After 25 years in the theatre as playwright, actor, director, and teacher I have spent the past 5 years putting my focus on screenwriting, developing an audio drama series, writing storylines and designing puzzles for immersive theatre-based Escape Rooms, and creating Historical Education programming with a focus on the Golden Age of Piracy and the lives of Che Guevara and Allen Ginsberg. I am the Artistic Director of Seven Stories Theatre Company and Creative director of New Mystics Enterprises, a multimedia production company. I am also the author of three novels, 5 nonfiction books, and 17 produced plays.
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