Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.
I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.
Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.
So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.
Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?
On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…
Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.
The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.
Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.