March 21, 2018

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Not Your Typical Adaptations | Adult Books 4 Teens

One of the most common complaints about modern Hollywood movies is that they are so often “based on” some previous property: a best-selling novel, a comic book character, a TV show, or a previous movie. It’s a complaint that I happen to think has considerable merit, but this column offers a helpful reminder that the plundering of old intellectual property is a process that’s been going on in literature (and many other formats) for pretty much as long as we’ve been making art.

For example, when Hogarth Press claims that Shylock Is My Name (reviewed below) “retells” Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, they are making a highly problematic claim. While it is clearly true that author Howard Jacobson had Shakespeare’s play in mind (and probably in front of him) as he wrote, the play itself is part of a long series of adaptations and retellings. Shakespeare probably got the idea from a story in Giovanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone, but if he didn’t, he may have gotten it from the Gesta Romanorum, a Latin compilation of popular tales. Both of these texts ultimately got their version of the Merchant story from a long line of folk tales about “human flesh bonds,” which plays the central role in all of these plays, stories, and novels. How much of Jacobson’s novel is derived specifically from Shakespeare’s play, and how much from the previous versions upon which Shakespeare relied? While we could probably arrive at a more or less definitive answer to that question, the fact that we can pose it at all is far more interesting.

This discussion of the long lineage of adaptations of the flesh bond story also points to an issue that I’ll touch on below several times: Exactly how much of a previous work has to be retold for it to be considered an adaptation? Some of the books I’ll discuss won’t seem much like adaptations to many readers, but they are nevertheless “based on” previous works in some sense or another—an altogether more tenuous, and sometimes more intriguing, classification. But while tracing the lines of influence of cultural borrowings is a fascinating endeavor (to me at least), for the most part I’ll focus instead on highlighting the considerable pleasures and true artistry that can be found in these seven works.

Since I’ve already touched on the subject, we’ll start with two very different Shakespeare adaptations. Ryan North’s Romeo and/or Juliet immediately shows off some of the problems of adaptation I’ve been discussing. To begin with, as in his previous book To Be or Not To Be, North makes the audacious (and hilarious) claim that Shakespeare’s plays (in this case Romeo and Juliet) are plagiarized from (that is, “based on”) the book North claims to have discovered, which is a “chooseable-path adventure.” Essentially, according to North, Shakespeare simply followed one of the many possible paths through this book and wrote it down. Readers can choose any number of hundreds of paths through the work, many of which create entirely new plots, subplots, characters, and situations. (My favorite is the mini-adventure “Nurse’s Quest,” which is a perfect send-up of old 1980s computer games like King’s Quest.) A joyous romp through a tragedy seems like a contradiction in terms, but then Shakespeare is nothing if not contradictory.

Our other adaptation on the Bard’s work is the previously mentioned Shylock Is My Name. Jacobson takes one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays and leans into its most problematic issue: its portrayal of Judaism. Where The Merchant of Venice has been used to make every imaginable claim about the attitudes of the playwright (and Renaissance England in general) toward Jews, Jacobson takes the idea and makes it his moral center, grounding the novel in contemporary Judaism, with heavy references to the Nazis and anti-Semitism in general. Jacobson, though, is not immune to the problems of adaptation, and he adds such flourishes as a character named Shylock, who is actually the literary character from Shakespeare’s play, magically implanted into the modern world of his novel.

Moving on from Shakespeare, we encounter another giant of British Literature: Charlotte Brontë. Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele and Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs both take cues from Brontë’s most famous work, Jane Eyre, reworking it in new and imaginative ways. Faye chooses the more straightforward path of adapting the story of a young governess who falls for her socially superior employer. Faye ups the ante considerably by bringing murder into the mix: her Jane has a criminal past and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. Still, this remains primarily a fun update of a classic. Lowell, on the other hand, starts with the real world of Brontë, making her protagonist, Samantha Whipple, a descendant of the great novelist. The novel is set in the present day and concerns Whipple’s conflicted relationship with her famed ancestor, as well as with her more recent relatives, such as her recently deceased father. But Lowell still manages to imbue her novel with the same elements of mystery and gothic romance as her model and should have teens aching to read or reread Jane Eyre.

Three final works show another way of triangulating our way around the issue of adaptation. Of all the books featured here, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is the most obviously a straightforward adaptation of its source material. The subtitle says it all: “A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice.” As our reviewer points out, the closeness of the plots between Eligible and Pride and Prejudice at times veers on the implausible (perhaps a hint as to why some of the other books in this column chose different paths), but for lovers of Jane Austen, this should be an entertaining, funny read.

Suzanne Feldman’s Absalom’s Daughters, on the other hand, is less a retelling than a companion to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! The novel is set in the 1950s (about a century after the source material) and concerns two half-sisters, one identified as black and one as white, who drive from Mississippi to Virginia in search of a promised inheritance. Like Faulkner’s story, Feldman’s work follows an impoverished young protagonist (or two) seeking wealth and identity. And like Faulkner, Feldman grapples with themes of inheritance, race, money, and family. This is clearly still in the world of “based on,” but rather than simply retelling a plot, the author is mining the themes and ideas of Faulkner to create a rich new work.

Finally, taking a tack somewhere between Sittenfeld and Feldman, Bryan Doerries’s graphic novel The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan at once retells the adventures of Odysseus (as most memorably captured by Homer in the Odyssey) and recontextualizes them in the lives of modern American soldiers in Afghanistan. The soldiers take turns literally retelling stories of Odysseus before telling their own tales, adding new layers of resonance.

Companion, retelling, adaptation—these words have different, sometimes overlapping, meanings. But all of them get at the idea of intertextuality. In the common phrase I’ve been using, some piece of all of these titles is “based on” a previous work. But perhaps a more meaningful way of grasping these connections is to say that they are opening a communication with those previous iterations. Whether by updating settings, recapitulating or deconstructing themes, or finding new meanings for old stories, all of these books work to bridge the gap between old classics and our current world and understandings.


janesteeleFAYE, Lyndsay. Jane Steele. 432p. Putnam. Apr. 2016. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780399169496.

With the heart of a Dickens novel and clear homage to Jane Eyre, Faye’s title, set during the same period as Brontë’s celebrated work, introduces readers to Jane Steele as she recounts her ragged journey through childhood into the home and heart of the mysterious Mr. Thornton, recently returned from India with his young ward. After the death of her beloved mother, Jane is left with an aunt who despises her and a cousin, Edwin, who stalks her every move. She is to be sent to boarding school under the tutelage of Mr. Munt, a religious fanatic who brooks no deviance from his many rules. Before she goes, Edwin is determined to have his way with her—only to end up dead. As Jane discovers, the first murder is the hardest, but she is unafraid to follow through. After Mr. Munt’s death, Jane flees to the streets of London, where she discovers a notice of employment at her childhood home. As governess in her old, now radically changed home, the heroine—in Jane Eyre fashion—falls for her boss. Because her history is filled with murder and misdeeds, Jane knows she cannot marry this honorable man. But he, too, has a past. Murder, mystery, the Sikh Wars, love, lust, and assumptions made in haste thrust Jane into a world she compares to that of Jane Eyre. VERDICT A rollicking good read; teens who are well versed in the works of the Brontës and Dickens will enjoy the comparisons, while those not familiar might be moved to find out more.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

absalomFELDMAN, Suzanne. Absalom’s Daughters. 272p. Holt. Jul. 2016. Tr $26. ISBN 9781627794534.

In this nod to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Cassie, a light-skinned African American girl, and her white half-sister, Judith, could easily be Absalom’s daughters. Both girls, uneducated and dirt-poor, live in a small town in 1950s Mississippi. Though born to the same white father and different mothers, the girls did not know of their relationship until their father abandoned Judith and her mother, forcing Judith to make deliveries to Cassie’s family laundry. Judith has a powerful singing voice and dreams of becoming a singer on the radio, and Cassie struggles with a grandmother who schemes to arrange her marriage. When a letter arrives from a distant relative suggesting they may be in line for an inheritance if they arrive in Remington, VA, by a specified date, Judith is determined to go: fame awaits. With her mother’s blessing, Cassie leaves to avoid her grandmother’s plan. Escaping in an old junk car, they head north on a road trip, encountering kindness and hostility. The girls are given the opportunity to look forward in their lives, and arriving at their destination provides some answers and allows each young woman to create her own future. The use of the derogatory term for African Americans may offend some teen readers, but it is contextual and well within the culture of its time. Thematically, it helps to explain Cassie’s thoughts about herself and her feelings about being a young woman of color. VERDICT Ideal for fans of historical fiction and those interested in learning more about the grim realities of Jim Crow and the harshness of poverty in the 1950s.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

ShylockJACOBSON, Howard. Shylock Is My Name. 288p. Crown/Hogarth. Feb. 2016. Tr $25. ISBN 9780804141321.

This entry in Hogarth’s Shakespeare series, in which contemporary authors retell the Bard’s plays, lets Jacobson loose on The Merchant of Venice. Though at first a little murky, the story eventually comes through. Our “merchant” is now an art dealer named D’Anton, and our “moneylender” is Strulovitch, who has a wayward teenage daughter, Beatrice. The girl has fallen in with a footballer who may have a history of making Nazi gestures. Luckily, Strulovitch has someone to bounce his problems off of, namely, the titular Shylock, whom he meets in a cemetery. Shylock is in fact the character from the play, transplanted to present-day England in a bit of magical realism. After Strulovitch meets the footballer, Howsome, he demands the pound of flesh from him in a shockingly hilarious twist. Enter D’Anton, who offers the pound in his own way. Jacobson’s in-depth exploration of Judaism will likely go over the heads of those unfamiliar with the subject. However the main narrative, of a rebellious teenager, a slightly dim footballer, and double and triple crossing, will still hold appeal to those who are studying the play. VERDICT  Most useful as an additional read for those studying Shakespeare or contemporary Judaism.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library

madwomanLOWELL, Catherine. The Madwoman Upstairs. 352p. Touchstone. Mar. 2016. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781501124211.

In this debut novel, Samantha Whipple is the last surviving descendant of the Brontë family. Her father, who died when she was 15, was obsessed with his ancestors, and now Samantha is at Oxford, hoping that studying the Brontës will lead her to a rumored family legacy. She lives in a 14th-century tower room (included on public tours of the campus) that was once used to quarantine plague victims, and it contains a painting called The Governess. Samantha argues about authorial intent with her tutor, James Timothy Orville III, who seems disinclined to discuss the Brontës with her and instead assigns her to read Browning, Pope, and The Old College Book of Disciplinary Procedures. Meanwhile, volumes of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey start showing up on Samantha’s doorstep—and not just any copies but Samantha’s father’s personal possessions, books that she thought were destroyed in the fire that killed her father. Lowell’s dry wit and her ability to combine academic discussion with mystery, romance, and elements of Gothic literature make this a sure-fire hit for teens who like smart and funny books. VERDICT Fans of the Brontë sisters will devour this adaptation.–Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County Library, CA

RomeoNORTH, Ryan. Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure. illus. by Natasha Allegri & Others 400p. Riverhead. Jun. 2016. pap. $20. ISBN 9781101983300.

With Shakespearean and classic romantic literature being introduced in high school, this book seems a perfect fit for teens. After all, Romeo and Juliet are teens, and they’re in love—unless they’re not. It’s up to readers to choose. Maybe Romeo can’t get past his lust for the unattainable Rosaline, or he’d rather hang out with his best buds Mercutio and Benvolio. Maybe Juliet follows her parents’ advice and marries Tom Paris, or she flees the Capulet household to escape the arranged marriage and become a pirate. If the pair do manage to meet and fall in love, can they escape a tragic end? North has turned Shakespeare’s play about star-crossed lovers into a seemingly endless game of choices, with the ability to play as either Romeo or Juliet and a guarantee that any path taken will turn into an outrageously silly adventure. For some threads, North cleverly inserts original passages from Shakespeare’s work to heighten the comic effect. Gamers will be attracted to the format, and fans of North’s comic book series “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” will already be familiar with his signature brand of humor. More than 80 artists have contributed an eclectic mix of original illustrations that highlight the hilarity of many of the possible endings. VERDICT Even incurable romantics are sure to find this a fun parody and a welcome diversion from the required reading list.–Cary Frostick, formerly with Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA

eligibleSITTENFELD, Curtis. Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice. 512p. Random. May 2016. Tr $28. ISBN 9781400068326.

With her latest, Sittenfeld has crafted an entertaining modern update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, though one that at times strains credulity. Like their Regency counterparts, the 21st-century Bennets are approaching crisis—potential financial ruin as a result of Mr. Bennet’s heart attack—but are blissfully oblivious. To put things right, Liz, a successful magazine writer, and Jane, a yoga teacher contemplating artificial insemination, return from New York City to the family home in Ohio. When Chip Bingley, the former star of a Bachelor-esque show and still single, enters the scene with his arrogant sister Caroline and the seemingly pompous Fitzwilliam Darcy in tow, it’s clear that romance is on the horizon. While the story is compulsively readable, the pop culture references make it unwieldy at times. As always, Sittenfeld soars when it comes to portraying relationships, and teens will particularly enjoy the witty barbs that fly between Caroline and Liz. Often, however, the author’s attempts to hew closely to Austen’s plot result in some odd choices. Where in the original, Mrs. Bennet’s desire to marry Lizzy off to the unctuous Mr. Collins stemmed from understandable motives, here, her insistence that Liz become involved with her cousin, a socially inept dotcom millionaire, is downright bizarre. Nevertheless, this is an overall breezy read that will have savvy teens laughing. VERDICT Although this work doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, it’s an utterly engrossing, hilariously over-the-top send-up that will appeal to Sittenfeld fans, Janeites, and lovers of chick lit.–Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal


odysseyDOERRIES, Bryan. The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan. illus. by Justine Mara & others 160p. Pantheon. Apr. 2016. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9780375715167.

Using the classic tale of Odysseus’s journey home from the Trojan War as a metaphor, Sgt. Jack Brennan mandates storytelling for the last night of his Marines’ deployment in Afghanistan. Each of Odysseus’s adventures is paired with a modern struggle faced by returning soldiers. For example, after Brennan tells the story of Odysseus’s men being trapped by the Lotus Eaters, one of his soldiers relates how his recovery from shrapnel led to Oxycontin abuse, a DUI, and stripped rank. The theme of soldiers helping one another through post-traumatic stress disorder runs through the work, which was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Five different artists illustrated the book, and their sections are scattered, which makes for minor character inconsistencies. Containing no graphic language or sex, this title can be easily paired with Homer’s The Odyssey in a classroom setting. VERDICT Perfect for school libraries in military communities or where The Odyssey is part of the curriculum.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL


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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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