Modernizing the Classic: Three Attributes of a Successful Adaptation

by Meghan Drummond
published in Reading

Recently, I read the novel Great, a modernized YA adaptation of The Great Gatsby set in the East Hamptons., as opposed to the fictitious East and West Egg.  The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel, so I read with trepidation. Taking a story that everyone knows and making it your own isn’t a small endeavor. Readers already have emotions surrounding the original, and any attack on the source material will be met with resistance. I needn’t have. While entirely its own beast, Great was an enjoyable adaptation, and made me think more about what it takes to modernize a classic.

In the case of Great, it adapts the classic by changing the time period, the gender of the characters, and adding a few subplots. A teenage girl, Jacinda, occupies the role of Jay Gatsby, and her relationship with Naomi Rye (clever name adaptation) who replaces Nick, is the centerpiece of the novel.

I read it in one sitting.

From the first time I saw West Side Story and realized it was just Romeo and Juliet, I’ve been hooked on how an author could take something that existed and change it so that it belonged to them.  While it’s true that there’s nothing new under the sun, including that line, there’s something special about taking a truly iconic work and borrowing from it so obviously.

The question is what makes a modern adaptation successful.

Universal Theme

The best modernizations are based off of a work that contains a theme that is as true today as it was the day it was written. Pride and Prejudice, for example, dealt with societal norms and pressures and what a smart girl was to do when those didn’t line up with what she wanted. It also dealt with some truly comedic romantic situations, which is why Bridget Jones’ Diary was so successful. It took those universal themes and updated them while still preserving the original message.  Likewise, Great works as an adaptation of The Great Gatsby because it highlights the universal theme of class, social Darwinism, and the death of the American dream, albeit with more humor than the original text.

A book with a less universal theme would be more difficult to modernize, and the adaptation would ultimately fall flat. Likewise novels that are dependent on a time period are nearly impossible to modernize. What would a modern adaptation of The Things They Carried look like? Though the themes are universal, they are tied to a specific event in history.

Picking the right book, with the right theme to modernize makes all the difference.

A Reason to Modernize

Is there something that will actually change in this work when you update it? And if it’s exactly the same…then why bother writing it at all? No one wants to read the exact same book twice

When Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story, the story was updated to include an interracial relationship. Also, the ending was changed considerably. The classic story existed as a way to discuss this modern controversy in a way that the audience could understand and relate to.

Romiette and Julio, a young adult adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, went a different direction as well, incorporating racial tensions, gang violence, and elements of science fiction. Teenagers responded positively to the changes, and the book has become a staple in schools.

Likewise in 10 Things I Hate About You, a retelling of the Taming of the Shrew, the ending is changed so that both characters are changed by the act of loving each other. Very different from the original text which had only Katherine change.

 Something to Make Yours

Once again, there’s no reason to adapt a classic if you’re not going to be able to put your own spin on it. In Great, Benincasa adds her trademark humor and writes in a couple additional characters that help to illustrate the points that she wants to make. She adds subplots that carry us through Martha Stewart-esque cooking shows and friends from Naomi’s hometown, and although these subplots aren’t in the original they do echo the theme appropriately.

These characters, the new ones, are entirely Benincasa’s, and her voice shines through. Without them, the novel could have become another Gatsby, and while Gatsby is an amazing novel…we already have one. Instead, she took the story and built in places where she could have moments that went off script.

Ultimately, with these three items, modern adaptations of literature’s classic novels can be successful, and can even bring the stories to a new audience. Authors should go confidently in the direction of their inspiration, even if that involves revamping a classic story, but by keeping these three tenants in mind, modernizations can avoid being straight replicas of the originals.  With modernizations of nearly all of Austen’s novels being published, Shakespeare having been done nearly to death, and this year’s fixation on Jay Gatz, the question is…which classic novel is next?

Share your top pick in the comments. What classic is dying for a modern spin?






Meghan Drummond graduated from Virginia Tech, and is currently an MFA student at The New School, the curriculum coordinator for DIY MFA, and a young adult writer.




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