Retold and Reinterpreted: When classics get a modern twist

From Shakespeare to Jane Austen some of the best stories out there are set in - for want of a better expression - 'olden times.' However, when it comes to adapting them for film and TV, they don't have to stay there. Whether the purpose is to bring the tale to a new audience or just to give a give a fresh twist to something familiar it's always fun to see how an old story can transfer to the present day.
Below is my selection of modern updates, in which I've included the good, the bad and the unintentionally hilarious. I apologise for all the Jane Austen in advance.

Updated books...

(Based on Jane Austen's Emma)

Clueless is for me, the definitive modern update. It doesn't stick rigidly to the story-line, but all the same it's amazing how well Austen's 19th century narrative applies to a Beverly Hills setting. Alicia Silverstone is Cher (a.k.a Emma) a popular and seemingly ditsy American teenager, while Paul Rudd plays ex-stepbrother Josh - her Mr. Knightly. Both are perfect in the roles, and as Mr. Knightlys go, Paul Rudd is probably my favourite. The matchmaking and marriage politics of Emma make for convincing teenage drama and although its fun for book fans to look out for corresponding scenes and characters, you could easily enjoy Clueless as a film its own right. A funny and cleverly plotted teen chick flick.

Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
(Based on Homer's The Odyssey)

Loosely based on Homer's epic poem, Oh Brother Where Art Thou is the story of three escaped convicts in Depression era Mississippi, searching for a lost treasure and making their way home. On the way they face run-ins with some beautiful singing washerwomen (sirens) a one-eyed giant of a con-man (cyclops) and the Ku Klux Klan, yet still find time to make a hit record. It's a Cohen Brothers film, so yes, it's a bit random, but it's also clever and very funny. The music's good too. There are nods to The Odyssey throughout, and although I'm not too familiar with Homer's text it's not difficult to spot the elements of Greek myth woven into the story. George Clooney stars as Everett 'Ulysses' McGill, the leader of the three cons, and there are plenty of familiar faces among the rest of the cast. Definitely worth a watch.

Bride and Prejudice
(Based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice)

I'll start by saying that it's not to everyone's taste, but I love this film a ridiculous amount. Directed by Guhrinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging) Bride and Prejudice is a Bollywood take on Jane Austen's most popular work. Lalita Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai) is the second of four daughters (poor Kitty is forgotten, as usual) living with her parents in Amritsar, India. Will Darcy is an American businessman, in India for a friend's wedding. The plot unfolds as you would expect, sticking pretty close to original story, while the Indian setting allows for an abundance of catchy and visually stunning Bollywood numbers. It's fluff of course, and could have used a leetle bit more chemistry between the leads, but the overall production and like-able characters still make this worth a watch. Although set in a whole new time and culture, Bride and Prejudice really captures the spirit and humour of the original, the latter of which is sometimes lacking in other adaptations (*cough* the Keira Knightly version). It is a real feel-good film and something that I would definitely recommend. Highlights include Mr. Kholi (Collins), the 'No Life without Wife' song with the Bakshi sisters and the cringe-worthy 'cobra dance' performance by Maya (a.k.a Mary Bennet).

Great Expectations
(Based on Charles Dickens' Great Expectations)

Well, this is an interesting one. The Dickens classic is transported from Victorian England to Modern day New York, where Ethan Hawke's Pip (Dead Poets Society) is a struggling artist attempting to woo Gwyneth Paltrow's Estella. One problem with this film was that Pip's 'amazing' artwork was actually pretty terrible. Another problem was the script. The film puts forward an interesting concept however, and I'll admit that I didn't watch it very attentively, so maybe it's better than I remembered. Either way, Great Expectations may help you while away a lazy afternoon, but to be honest I'd  watch the original - or better yet, the BBC version with Douglas Booth.

(Based on Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories)

If you haven't watched this already, why haven't you? Maybe it's because you're sick of everyone fawning over Benedict Cumberbatch, and that's understandable. But Sherlock really is worth a try. Written by Stephen Moffat (who used to write good Doctor Who episodes, and now writes bad ones while he concentrates on Sherlock) and Mark Gatiss (who also appears as Mycroft Holmes) Sherlock is basically Sherlock Holmes set in modern day London and told from the beginning. The episodes are loosely based on Conan Doyle's stories - e.g A Study in Scarlet becomes A Study in Pink - but modern technology and ways of life are cleverly incorporated. The writing is gripping and clever, although I'd say that the first episode is still the best, probably due to the novelty of Sherlock and John's first meeting (Watson has just returned from Afghanistan, as in the original tale) and the excitement of witnessing the deductions for the first time. Benedict Cumberbatch is good as Sherlock, and he and Martin Freeman's Watson have great on-screen chemistry.

Scents and Sensibility
(Based on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility)

This is un-doubtably one of the oddest attempts at updating a classic that I have ever seen. The premise sounds pretty normal - Elinor, Marianne and Meg are the daughters of a rich businessman sent away for fraud. They are then plunged into 'poverty' (they have to get jobs and drive a second hand car) and workplace romance follows. The 'scents' of the title refer to Marianne's flourishing business making foot creams and the like - she does a lot of crushing flowers with a pestle - which Elinor helps to flog at her cleaning job, in a spa. This film is a definite case of 'so bad it's funny' and includes some memorable comic moments. For example, Elinor's first meeting with Edward (she is is singing and dancing whilst cleaning the toilets) and Marianne's pivotal argument with work colleague 'Brandon' over a typo in some photocopying she's had done. This is a truly terrible film, so it's unsurprising that there are no famous faces, with the minor exception of Elinor, who played one of Ted's love interests in How I Met Your Mother. Oh, there is also a sub-plot involving Meg's Leukaemia and the sisters' inability to pay for her medicine - although apparently they can afford a new car to drive to work in, as (and I quote) "buses are stinky."

And a bit of Shakespeare...

 10 Things I Hate about You 
(Based on The Taming of the Shrew)

I would guess that The Taming of the Shrew is an awkward Shakespeare play to modernise, since - tongue in cheek or not - it's basically the misogynist's bible. Still, there've been plenty of attempts. Kiss Me, Kate is a musical version and more recently the BBC gave it a go with their Shakespeare Re-told season. Both versions are good, but still slightly uncomfortable to watch. 10 Things did it best. Heath Ledger is Patrick Verona, the teenage rebel paid to take out Julia Stiles' Kat Stratford, so that Joseph Gordon-Levitt can have a shot at Kat's sister Bianca, who is not allowed to date until Kat does. It might sound ridiculous, but the premise is executed well and the talented young leads really make it something special. Gordon-Levitt and Bianca are very sweet together, and Stiles and Ledger have great chemistry. The former was at his most lovely here, and the scene where Patrick sings 'I love you, baby' is one of my favourite ever movie moments. I love the paintball scene too. This is a fun film, the only downer being Bianca's prom dress. What is that??

She's the Man
(Based on Twelfth Night)

Despite having recently gone off the rails, back in the day Amanda Bynes created comedy gold with this film. Okay, so its not exactly sophisticated humour but the cringe inducing embarrassment that Bynes's character brings on herself in almost every scene, coupled with Channing Tatum's understated reactions, makes for a  film that is plain hilarious, although I can't decide whether this is in a good or bad way. Bynes is Viola Hastings, a tomboy who disguises herself as her twin brother Sebastian so she can play football - sorry, soccer  - when the girls' team at her own school is cut. Tatum is her roommate, Duke Orsino, whom Viola begins to fall for despite his enduring crush on  pretty Olivia, who - inexplicably - likes Viola/Sebastian. The love triangle is set up well and Channing Tatum is very easy on the eye, but it really makes no sense that Olivia would like 'Sebastian'. And he is so blatantly a girl. Despite this, I still think there are a lot of good things about this film. Shakespeare aficionados will enjoy the references to the play - the diner they visit is named 'Cesarios' the school is Illyria etc. - and sports fans might enjoy the cameo by Vinnie Jones as the football/soccer coach. And its funny - did I mention that already?

The Lion King
(Based on Hamlet)

Yes, The Lion King really is based on Hamlet. This is something that I've only discovered recently - but it makes so much sense! The father murdered by his brother, the ghost of the father returning to set the son on the right path, the years spent away from court by the son, the slightly stupid friends (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern/ Timon and Pumba??) the oddball councillor to the king (Polonious/Zazu?) I mean its more child friendly obviously, but a lot of the story is there. Technically The Lion King is not a modern update, as it transfers the story to the animal kingdom rather than the past, but I had to get it in here as a new discovery. Great songs, good story and clearly much less depressing than the original - despite that death scene, obviously.


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