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How Do You Adapt a Classic for the 21st Century?

Classics are being adapted all the time, with new film, television and play versions being created for new audiences. But exactly how do you adapt a well-known story for the 21st century? How does the classic style of the story translate to a modern audience?

Our team has the run-down on some of the latest film adaptations of our beloved classics. In case that wasn't enough, we will also be sharing some upcoming adaptations for you to sink your teeth into post-lockdown!

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is a classic tale of love set in 1970s New York. Pregnant Tish and her fiancé Fonny are a young black couple, trying to survive in a broken system. The novel is intimately specific and eternally relevant, as Tish’s narration explains how the couple are ripped apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned.

Barry Jenkins’ 2018 adaptation delivers the lyricism and emotional focus recognisable across his work. The couple are portrayed with dreamy, romantic languor, but the film truly comes alive in its flashes of humour and heartbreak, especially with Tish’s family and Fonny’s old friend, Daniel. The film’s stylised portrayal of love, always accompanied with romantic swells of music, is extremely beautiful, but also softens the corners of Baldwin’s visceral text. Combining Jenkins’ specific directorial style with Baldwin’s singular literary voice, the film demonstrates a fascinating intersection of the two which is mesmerising to watch.

Little Women (2019)

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women follows the March sisters' development into womanhood, love and independence. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation closely follows the novel, with the exception of chronology and a clever re-imagination of the ending. Gerwig makes a fascinating decision to limit the romance between characters Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer. In the novel, Alcott highlights Jo’s desire to not marry, but ultimately does so in the end to satisfy readers of the time. However in her re-imagining, Gerwig alludes to Jo remaining independent. Arguably, this ambiguity reflects Alcott’s desired ending, but also expertly captures Jo’s narrative with a modern lens.

The incredible cast has inspired admiration and love from a new generation. Phenomenal performances by Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan grasp a bold, feminist spirit that resonates beautifully. Gerwig depicts a remarkable story about women, successfully told by women, and transports Little Women as a 21st century classic.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Charles Dickens' rather lengthily titled novel, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery, follows the life of a young man through a series of fascinating and often devastating events. Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel weaves between themes of death, love, education and poverty to tell the hopeful story of a man dealing with life and everything that comes with it. The added social commentary makes this novel a critical yet enjoyable read.

The news of a movie adaptation of David Copperfield came as welcome news to Dickens' fans. The casting of Dev Patel to play Copperfield sparked some controversy, with some arguing a man of Indian heritage should not play the lead role in a story set in 1840s England. Despite such prejudiced criticisms, the film received great reviews and brought Dickens' vibrant and unique narrative to life.

Emma (2020)

Autumn de Wilde models Jane Austen’s classic romantic satire into a millennial screwball romp. Emma., now marketed with a spell-check distressing full stop, follows the life of the “handsome, clever and rich” 21 year old as she naively, and often unsuccessfully, plays matchmaker for those around her. It’s a light tale of misunderstanding which, apart from the unforgettable nosebleed scene, stays true to Austen’s voice and subtle critique of upper class sensibilities of her time. The casting is impeccable, with Bill Nighy, as Emma’s widowed father, and Tanya Reynolds’ Mrs Elton as the obvious scene stealers.

The vibrant palette, highly stylised decor and playfully awkward editing gives the film a Wes Anderson feel, making this enduring classic more accessible for a 21st century audience. The film provides light entertainment and is sprinkled with the timeless, universal themes that delight Austen fans of all ages; comedy, social critique and the enduring power of true love.

Upcoming Releases

The ability for film directors to breathe fresh air into classic stories is what makes adaptations like these continually relevant and exciting to watch. Stories like Little Women have spawned stage, film, television and musical adaptations, which just goes to show how different storytellers are always imagining new ways to tell old stories. With this in mind, we also want to highlight some future releases that you’ll want to keep on your radar….

This summer brings us another film adaptation of Frances Hodgson’s The Secret Garden, a seminal work in children’s literature, but equally a story for all ages. Not too long afterwards is the release of Dune in December, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel, starring Timothée Chalamet as the leading man (need we say more?). Also, if you’re someone who likes to read the book before the film we also suggest reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The cast has only just been announced for the feature film but it’s one we’re already excited about.

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