In addition to sustained significance in its own right, classic literature functions as a perpetual source of creative inspiration for contemporary writers. These timeless narratives provide foundational material for works that further explore established themes in new contexts. By retelling classic tales, writers allow them to remain relevant, and their versions provide both freshness and familiarity to a reader. Here are eight modern takes on classic narratives to add to your bookshelves.
A Tempest, Aimé Césaire
Originally written in French, this play explores Shakespeare’s The Tempest from a postcolonial angle. Césaire, a Martinican playwright, brings the subtext of colonization to the forefront of the comedy, using character details to compare the play’s plot to narratives of colonialism and the American civil rights movement. In addition to the clever parallels, the language of the piece features an enjoyable wit and retains a sense of playfulness that allows a reader to examine Shakespeare’s characters from a new perspective.
Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood
Also based on The Tempest, Atwood’s Hag-Seed is a novel that brings Shakespeare’s play into a contemporary setting. While constructing her parallel narrative, Atwood uses Shakespeare’s concept of a play within a play in devising her version of Prospero, a theatrical director who has been ousted from his festival. The subsequent narrative of vengeance and reclamation is enriched by metatheatrical meditations on the play from the characters of the book; Atwood uses their own backgrounds and perspectives to discuss the idea of modernizing the piece, allowing the reader to consider the process themselves. This book is one of a series from the Hogarth Shakespeare project, for which different writers offer modernized versions of Shakespearean narratives. The full list can be found here.
The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
While the Mahabharata has had its fair share of renditions, Divakaruni’s version of the epic from Draupadi’s perspective offers a feminist revision. By looking back on the events of the narrative, Draupadi as a storyteller speaks with a sense of omniscience and wisdom, which Divakaruni uses as a handy way to introduce suspense and anticipation into a familiar plot. In addition to outlines of major events in the story, Draupadi’s reflections provide an alternate view on the well-known account. Even readers who are unfamiliar with the epic narrative receive adequate information to ensure comprehension of the tale and the author’s fresh take on it.
The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
Similar to The Palace of Illusions, The Penelopiad explores the epic of Odysseus from the perspective of its primary female character. What is most compelling about the book is Atwood’s wry tone in writing Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and describing her take on the legend of her husband. Knowledge of the Odyssey is definitely beneficial; Atwood doesn’t retell the epic so much as recount Penelope’s circumstances in the duration of Odysseus’ long journey home. Using the character of Penelope as well as those of her maids, Atwood considers the question of what happens to the women in a narrative while the hero is off on his own adventure, as well as the repercussions of the hero’s return.
A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
Keeping with the trend of female narrators in modern retellings, Jane Smiley displaces King Lear to a farm in Iowa and recounts the story from the perspective of his daughter, Ginny (who represents Gonerill, the eldest child of King Lear). As opposed to control over the kingdom, Larry Cook transfers ownership of his farmland to his three daughters. In addition to Shakespeare’s plot, Smiley explores the problems of her protagonist, Ginny, in the domestic sphere, retaining a sense of realism in light of the dramatic events of the narrative. The Pulitzer prize-winning novel was also adapted into a film in 1997 starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange.
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
Pullman’s take on Milton’s Paradise Lost is a trilogy of novels focusing on the adventures of twelve-year-old Lyra who lives in a world in which a religious authority, which happens to closely resemble the Catholic Church, holds much power. While it has gained popularity as a series for young adults, Pullman’s trilogy holds many references to and criticisms of religion and christiantiy. Interestingly, Pullman admits that this rewrite wasn’t initially intentional; only after beginning the writing process did he realize that the series was a version Milton’s epic. The books are set to be adapted to an HBO TV series later this year.
Linden Hills, Gloria Naylor
Gloria Naylor’s revision of Dante’s Inferno reconfigures the setting of Hell to the neighbourhood of an affluent African-American community. Using the allegory of the underworld, the nine circles of the neighbourhood bring new challenges to the protagonists Willie and Lester as they discover the dark truth of life in Linden Hills. Naylor explores the dilemmas of race, class, gender, and sexuality that the residents of the neighbourhood encounter, all the while maintaining an air of mystery. Ideas of sin and selling one’s soul are discussed through each resident’s desire to maintain their status, by virtue of their address, no matter the cost or consequences. Naylor uses multiple character perspectives, delving deeply into each figure’s background and motivations in this novel that is tonally gothic yet utterly modern at the same time.
Solsbury Hill, Susan M. Wyler
Wyler writes this novel as her take on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Transporting her protagonist, Eleanor Abbott, from New York City to the original setting of Brontë’s novel, the Yorkshire moors, Wyler allows the past and the present to clash. In this modern version of the romance, Wyler’s protagonist even reckons with aspects of Emily Brontë’s presence, featuring an in-plot awareness of the source material that is missing from some other retellings. While this adds an element of mystery, Wyler also brings a sense of lightness to Brontë’s classic tale.
In these reframed tales, readers can find explorations of subtext elements from the original work, as well as inquiries into what might happen when new characters and settings are introduced into a familiar plot. A new storyteller’s lens is placed upon the piece, providing a novel and intriguing perspective on classic literature.