I’m not sure what it is about updating a classic story, but it often goes awry.
I have just come across the latest from the much-loved Anne Tyler – Vinegar Girl, an update of The Taming of the Shrew as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.
There have been a swag of positive reviews in the major press for this book, but I wonder how much of that is based on the fact that there is a great deal of affection for Tyler as a writer, and reviewers might be reluctant to be seen to be nasty to such a popular figure.
But this is a silly book (as quite a number of non-professional reader reviews have pointed out). It’s not really an update to the plot, since much the same stuff happens in the same order. If you plan to tell exactly the same story except with modern characters, I’m not sure what the point is.
Particularly when the original’s treatment of Kate is so at odds with the 21st century, and Kate doesn’t get an easier time of it this time. At the end she spouts a modern version of that speech defending her husband, all about how hard it is to be a man (“they’re a whole lot less free than women are, when you think about it”) and therefore women should be nice to them. Sure thing. Try selling that to anyone who’s supported the #metoo movement.
An earlier book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series – New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier,an update on Hamlet – seemed to me to be just as flawed, with unbelieveable characters doing unbelileveable things.
And that’s often the problem with updating an old, famous story. Unless you’re trying to say something new, there’s no real point. If it’s just the same story in modern clothes, don’t bother. It can be difficult to step outside the straitjacket of the original, but if you don’t take it somewhere new, I think the writer’s own voice – the power that comes with characters and a story the writer has created themselves – is stifled. The story seems lifeless. Partly because you always know where it’s going and what’s going to happen.
A great example of a way to do it right is 1000 Acres, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Jane Smiley, which took a new look at King Lear. It was undoubtedly the same story, but she told it told from a wholly different angle, and the result was incredibly powerful.