With deep-rooted, elemental appeal, myths, legends, folk and fairy tales have long been reinterpreted and riffed on by pretty much every kind of artist - novelists, playwrights, poets, filmmakers, choreographers, visual artists. These stories possess an almost uncanny power to harness interest, stir heart and soul, and resonate through the centuries. While creatives have been adapting, updating and reinterpreting these kinds of stories for centuries, it’s only (fairly) recently that writers have turned their attention to reimagining classic novels - understandable given that the novel is a pretty recent form in the grand scheme of literary history. One way to look at them is as a bibliophile’s version of “is the film better than the book?” debates, with many reworkings offering a mix of “will it be better than the original?” intrigue along with thought-provoking takes on familiar tales, contexts and characters.
A personal favourite is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a crisply powerful reinterpretation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which has sparked several fabulous reinterpretations, from the smart, varied short stories collected in Reader, I Married Him, to Jasper Fforde’s wildly inventive The Eyre Affair, to Catherine Lowell’s light and witty The Madwoman Upstairs.
Jane Austen is another writer whose novels have sparked a cluster of retellings, notably through Borough Press’ Jane Austen Project, which presents Joanne Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma, and Eligible (Pride and Prejudice) by Curtis Sittenfeld. Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last offers another inventive interpretation of Pride and Prejudice - it’s a modern Muslim riff on the classic that sings with contemporary relevance and feel-good funniness.
Another of our favourite recent reworkings is Gill Darling’s Erringby, which was described by our reviewer Liz Robinson as “a vivid, provocative, and beautifully articulate reimagining of Great Expectations” (head here for our reading group questions about this stunner). Then there’s Frankissstein, a fine example of Jeanette Winterson’s ahead-of-her-time ingeniousness that explores sex, gender, artificial intelligence and what it means to be human with comic brilliance. It takes in Brexit and bigotry, too - quite a feat.
For younger readers (and adult readers who love rollicking adventures with depth), Michael Morpurgo’s Boy Giant revisits Gulliver’s Travels to present a prescient, poignant, thought-provoking story about the experiences of a young Afghan refugee. Moby Dick has also spawned a couple of incredible reinterpretations by writers for young adults - And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness is a dazzling, fable-infused reinvention of Herman Melville’s classic, while Kit de Waal’s Becoming Dinah is a tremendous contemporary treasure that transforms Moby Dick into a compelling coming-of-age camper-van road-trip.
Read on to discover all manner of re-imaginings of classics you already love (and perhaps a few you’ve always intended to read), and head here to explore all our curated Collections, including one devoted to retellings of Greek myths.