The Poetry Question

Discovering the Relevance of Words

Bastardization or Modernization of Classic Literature

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Inspired by this tweet from @funnyordie and the subsequent responses, I got to thinking about the age old modern versus classic battle. And I am sad to say we often miss the mark worse than the blind bow boy’s butt-shaft in the first three acts of  a Shakespearean Comedy.

I have spent my entire cognizant life in education and have spent a little time rubbing elbows with the intellectual elite, and more often with those who imagine themselves as such. I have spent a similarly large portion of time with the average apathetic, disinterested teen and pre-teen, and I have discovered two attitudes with very little middle ground: the classics are amazing and must be protected and revered at all costs or the classics are boring as fuuuuuuuu-. And, sadly, it is often the former that leads to the latter.

I remember my 9th grade English teacher telling the class that the exchange between Sampson and Gregory “was very funny and raunchy” before allowing two barely fluent readers to stumble through the next two pages ten syllables at a time. It is hard to imagine that is what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote these “heroes of the groundlings”.

We, as a society, as a culture, as readers, as the literati have decided that Shakespeare (e.g.) is elite and so it is. We have decided classic language is to be revered and so it is. But, to slightly paraphrase my favorite tragic hero not named Hamlet, in that hit we miss. Shakespeare was not written for the intellectual elite, it was not written for the aristocracy, it was work for the groundlings—the proletariat, the lay folk, the everyman. It is simply through the evolution –or perhaps, devolution—of language that such works have become isolated and elite. I compare it to legal jargon, a way to keep “our thing” esoteric.

Written work with a sole audience of readers (as opposed to viewers) has had a slightly different journey as there have always been those who could and could not read and those lines have often, if not always, been drawn along socioeconomic lines. However, the simple premise of the problem stays the same: this applies to us, not you.

This elitist attitude tells people they should cling to the classic as the classic, freeze it in time and love it for what it was rather than what it is. My first example of this comes from Baz Luhrman’s 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet. My fifteen year old self fashioned himself a young literati and a Shakespeare guy so I immediately hated the movie. I mean, after all, they didn’t have guns in Shakespeare! What bollocks! Sixteen years, a few degrees, and numerous readings of the script later I have not only come to appreciate the movie, but prefer it to Zeffirelli’s ’68 version for the actors’ clear understanding of character motivations, objectives, purpose, and personality. Of course, this is just me.

But this automatic vitriolic hatred of “messing with the classics” is not only a dangerous, pompous attitude, but truly missing the mark. At the time of writing, these works were (typically) NOT period pieces.

Gatsby, for example is written a mere three years after it is set. It was a modern work. It was a novelization of the world’s most expensive orgy in history… as it took place. Do you think, then, F. Scott would not have been thrilled if the movie option included the newest technology?

I imagine I’m going to get a lot of ‘Murica backlash for this, but the French have us spanked like naughty children in this regard. Visit the palace of Versaille, built in the 17th century, and you will see large, brightly colored sculptures of metal, cloth, and glass that clearly were not designed in the same century as the castle. You see, Versaille was a hot-bed of modern culture and art. And it still is. While the castle’s basic foundation and structure, garden, and original paintings are centuries old works of art – the spirit of the castle, of the work of art, is and always will be in the present. A work of literature should have the same life.

You’re free to disagree, but I hope you know why.

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(ceiling sculpture in the entrance to the castle of Versailles)

About Jamaal

Lover of words, liver of life, director of theatre, keeper of keys and grounds at Hogwarts. Twitter: @JamaalAllan

17 comments on “Bastardization or Modernization of Classic Literature

  1. chaseca
    May 2, 2013

    In order to remain relevant, the classics must grow, evolve, and be re-imagined, so long as they aren’t changed too much in the process. As a musical theater buff I appreciate that “West Side Story” is “Romeo and Juliet.” Even astute fans of Jane Austen’s “Emma” can see the fun of its modern (or modern circa 1995) counterpart, “Clueless.” When I saw Baz Luhrman’s version of R and J as a teenager, I turned my nose up as well… As an adult, though, I appreciate a director trying to reinvent R and J for a new generation. I feel we have a cultural responsibility to do just that, to keep the classics relevant, and therefore, alive.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorite American authors and I am actually excited for the “new” Great Gatsby movie. I didn’t care for the first one all that much… Although who could deny Robert Redford in all those gorgeous suits?

  2. Georgia
    May 23, 2013

    This is great and will become a fantastic source for my english paper on whether chaining the classics to become more appealing to young adults or if it destroys the culture of it. Personally I agree that, as a student myself, Shakespeare and other older pieces of literature lose their value to the younger crowd. Its hard to understand or grasp because of the original language and sometimes its down right boring. So modernizing it, not even really changing the entire story, but just the words, will make younger people more interested in the story to which they can carry on the culture of these great writers and pay writes. Also Because I am using this as a source, would the author please reveal his name so I can properly cite this source and it will be credible by my picking english teacher. Thank you!

  3. Georgia
    May 23, 2013

    haha silly me, I just found the author’s name right at the top! Blonde moment, my apologizes.

    • J. Gabriel Allan
      May 23, 2013

      No problem- I was just about to reply when you replied… so I’ll reply to the reply.
      I’m glad you are finding my words helpful to your education (or edification). That’s the goal. After watching Gatsby, I wrote another piece that may be helpful (https://thepoetryquestion.com/2013/05/22/book-are-always-better/)

      Feel free to send your classmates this way for a “sound bite” or two and, please, keep reading (this page or anything else – it is food for your brain).

      Didn’t have room to mention our recent production of Romeo & Juliet that featured Mercutio leading the Harlem Shake at the Capulet Mansion… *insert emoji*

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