I have no idea when it all started, but since about the last decade, there have been a glut of "re-written" classics, many involving Jane Austen's novels. I myself reviewed An Assembly Such as This and Duty & Desire by Pamela Aidan, which re-told Pride and Prejudice from Darcy's point of view - and, of course, since his viewpoint is just so much more important than Elizabeth's, he gets an entire trilogy to himself. Then there was Abigail Reynold's Impulse & Initiative, a "what if Darcy and Elizabeth actually boned?" version. Looking at her website, one will discover she's actually "re-written" the same book more than three times!
More recently, the internets ignited with the publication of Ann Herendeen's Pride/Prejudice, a bisexual re-write where Darcy and Bingley and Elizabeth and Charlotte play Sexual Musical Chairs (with Wickham as the wild card) that simply "fills in the gaps" suggested by the original (or so says the breathtakingly arrogant back cover blurb). Yes, Pride/Prejudice is all about filling those gaps *wink wink nudge nudge*.
Even worse is the fad started by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which have inspired many lazy, half-assed writers to try and mash a classic with a cliched science-fiction/fantasy trope, like a child who discovers the yumminess of chocolate and peanut butter and tries to recreate the experience with completely mismatching foods - pickles and whipped cream, brownies and rutabagas, kielbasa and caramel - thinking the novelty will make up for the wretched taste. So far, we have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Mansfield Park and Mummies, and Emma and the Werewolves.
The frantic milking of this already-exhausted cow doesn't limit itself to just Austen. No - we're soon to see Little Women and Werewolves, Little Vampire Women, and Android Karenina.
So, if you don't want to read my lengthy rant, I'll sum up my general advice to writers everywhere:
WRITE YOUR OWN FUCKING BOOKS.
Yes, I'm serious. FUCK you, Anne of Green Gables Fights Poseidon by Lucy Maud Montgomery's Straw Boater and Fred LazyAss. FUCK you, The Long Winter - with the Abominable Snowman by Laura Ingalls Wilder's exploited corpse and Penny CantWriteWorthaShit. FUCK you, A Little Princess - Of MARS! by Frances Hodgeson Burnett's debt-ridden great-great-grandniece and Suzanne ArtisticHack.
Okay, none of those books actually exist yet (thank HEAVEN), but the idea makes me want to set something on fire.
Now, some readers may say, "But Animejune, have you read these books? They could actually be good!"
I don't care whether they're good or not because that's not the point, and that's not what I'm angry about. What steams me up is the idea of robbing a literary great's grave, an idea that is growing more and more culturally acceptable. It's not just the monster mash-ups - it's the whole deal of "re-writing" instead of writing, so that you can exploit the achievements of a dead person for your own personal gain. Are people really going to read Little Vampire Women because, hey, it's a story with vampires in it - or are they going to read it because they want to compare it to the original Little Women? Hell - the blurb for Little Women and Werewolves actually has the stones to say their version is Louisa May Alcott's original fucking draft.
If anything, the monster mash-ups piss me off a bit more because they're so obviously forced - wow, I totally didn't catch the subtle symbolism and subtext of Sense and Sensibility that obviously indicated Colonel Brandon had tentacles on his fucking face - but I'm also just enraged by the appropriation of someone else's writing in general. To me, that's fanfiction and will always be fanfiction - the literary equivalent of daydreaming. Great for a creative exercise or personal fantasy, but keep that shit to yourself.
Believe me, it's not like I haven't been possessed by a great idea off of someone else's work. I will admit, in the back of my mind, there is an imaginary copy of Caution & Convenience, by AnimeJune sitting on a forgotten, dusty shelf. I've always held a soft spot for Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice - to me, he never came across as a creep, just incredibly, painfully shy. And I have wondered - what would his story with Charlotte Lucas be like? Could they find love with a rebound relationship?
I will never write that book. I may, at a later date however, save the idea of the story - the idea of a shy, soft-spoken man who prefers to defer to others who ends up falling in love with a world-weary spinster willing to settle. They will not be named Mr Collins or Charlotte. There will be no Elizabeth Bennett or Mr. Darcy. There may be a tyrannical female figure who rules the hero's existence but she won't be Lady Catherine de Burgh.
I can't imagine the number of Darcy-esque heroes I've encountered reading romance - the cold, arrogant heroes who fall in love (very much against their will) with women they believe are beneath them. And yet each time they are characters expressly created by their authors, with their own names and backstories - and their authoresses publish them under their own names or pseudonyms. There's nothing wrong or unusual about being inspired by your favourite authors, but appropriating someone else's creation and trading on their name and fame while perverting their stories beyond all recognition is something entirely different.
"But AnimeJune - what about retellings of myth and fairy tales, huh? Isn't that appropriating a story that isn't yours? Seeing as YOU are writing a fairy-tale retelling in YOUR novel? HMMMMMM?"
Well, whose story am I appropriating? I've never minded (and frequently enjoy) fairy-tale retellings and mythological re-tellings. I guess, technically, the stories already exist, so isn't that the same thing? How is Android Karenina worse than a story about an astronaut named Jack who climbs a genetically-engineered beanstalk to free a sentient iPod from a Gnothar alien?
In this case, because there is no author. Who specifically created the Gods of Olympus? Who is the actual, original author of Cinderella? They're cultural narratives that have been passed down for generations, to the point where their stories are archtypes. Again, since I read romance, I'll use that as an example - there are a million bajillion re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella in romance, and yet each one of them is different.
Not only that, but the original folktales are pretty brief - the actions are simple and the characterizations and motivations are very, very basic. This is probably why the stories can be applied to other narratives, other settings, and even real-life events so easily - "Cinderella Story" is a common term for a rags-to-riches underdog tale. You can't write an entire novel about Sleeping Beauty or Snow White just on the archtype - why is Sleeping Beauty this way? Why does Snow White do that?
I think this ties in to my Caution and Convenience discussion: these days, the myths and folktales are little more than ideas. A woman in a situation of subjugation is rescued and restored to a higher status in life, for instance. You can do anything with an idea because ideas belong to no one. I mean, some people right now are criticizing the movie Avatar as being Dances with Aliens or a rip-off of Pocahontas, when really Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and Disney's Pocahontas are just written around the same archtype - that of the outsider who infiltrates a different culture and ends up preferring it.
Ideas are not stories however - and that's another reason for my distaste for mash-ups and rewrites, because they're not just using the idea of Pride & Prejudice or Little Women, they're using the stories the original authors built around the idea.
"But AnimeJune! You looooooove Lost in Austen! That's a re-write of Pride and Prejudice! HA! GOTCHA!"
Oooh, got me there. Or do you? Lost in Austen isn't a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice. It's an homage.
What's the difference? Well, the story behind Lost in Austen is how a modern woman who is a fan of the book gets plonked into the story and fucks everything up. In this case, the modern woman fucks it up, not the characters. Technically, the writers behind Lost in Austen change nothing about the characters or the basic motivations that Jane Austen established - they just introduce a rogue element, and examine how the characters - as written by Jane Austen - would react. Everything "new" about the characters that is revealed in the miniseries either a) corresponds with what we already know about them or b) was never mentioned in the original manuscript.
That's why I loved the story so much - while our heroine, Amanda Price, unintentionally causes huge changes in the storyline, the characters all react to her and the changes in the narrative in ways that are consistent with their pre-existing characterization. In this way, it's an homage to Jane Austen's characterization as well as a cheeky wink towards Regency lifestyle.
This, I think, is why I don't take issue with series books like Star Trek novels, or screenwriters of television shows - i.e. people who write stories based on pre-existing characters and worlds. In both those cases, writers have to comply with the original characterization. Is there a Star Trek novel where Captain Kirk is secretly a beefy French-Canadian woman who raises miniature horses? No. Does Michael Scott from The Office suddenly discover he's a buffoon, promptly apologize to his employees, and then go out and stake vampires? No.
With a re-write like Pride/Prejudice, there aren't outside influences on the story - therefore, the glaring differences in the storyline are produced by the characters, which entails changing the characters beyond what the author intended. In my mind, this is disrespectful of the author's express wishes, as well as ignorant of the very aspects of the author's writing that explain why their books remain on shelves to this day.
Why respect Jane Austen's characterization when you can make Elizabeth Bennett a zombie hunter, which makes absolutely no sense with Jane Austen's writing? Why respect the fact that Jane Austen's stories are intended to be social comedies of manners when you can shoehorn in as much senseless and graphic violence as you can? Why take into account the fact that Beth March would probably last less than five seconds with a werewolf, when you can make her a werewolf herself, or a werewolf hunter, or whatever the fuck she is in this newest literary necrophiliac orgy?
If you think I'm walking a fine line on this point, or splitting hairs, or just a huge hypocrite, well, you're entitled to your opinion. I'm still of the belief that if you want people like me to consider you a REAL writer, you're going to have to
1) Take the time and effort to create your own story and characters - that's what Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott and Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters all managed to do before typewriters and iPods and blogs even existed.
2) Take responsibility for your own work, instead of clinging to the literary coat tails of your betters