Books & Authors

Books Based on Other Books

Fanfiction is often looked down upon in the literary community today, but there is a time-honored tradition of authors using the characters and settings of earlier works as a jumping-off point for their own stories. Virgil based his "Aeneid" on the events of the "Iliad," Milton elaborated on the book of Genesis for his epic "Paradise Lost," and many of Shakespeare's storylines were pulled directly from other sources. Here are 10 modern books that proudly carry on the ancient tradition of lending new perspective to classic tales.


"Hag-Seed" by Margaret Atwood (based on "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare)

In October 2015, the Hogarth Press launched the first book of its Hogarth Shakespeare series, a collection of Shakespearean reimaginings by well-known contemporary authors. Margaret Atwood's contribution, "Hag-Seed," is perhaps the most exemplary entry so far, setting the plot of "The Tempest" against the backdrop of... a theatrical performance of "The Tempest." It's a meta take on one of Shakespeare's most challenging plays, by an author who can always be relied upon for her twisted imagination.

(Fans of "Hag-Seed" should be sure to check out the other entries in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, as well as Atwood's novel "The Penelopiad," which tells the story of "The Odyssey" through the eyes of Odysseus' wife, Penelope.)

 

"March" by Geraldine Brooks (based on "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott)

Geraldine Brooks' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel puts us in the shoes of Mr. March, the absent father of Louisa May Alcott's titular little women. At the advent of the Civil War, the idealistic March enlists as a chaplain for the Union Army, believing he can do some good for the abolitionist cause. But despite his deeply-held  principles, March nevertheless finds himself shocked by the cruelty of battle and the wrongdoings perpetrated by both sides during the conflict, and must contend with the trauma of war long after he finds his way home.

(Also relevant is Brooks' most recent work, a poignant retelling of the biblical story of King David entitled "The Secret Chord.")

 

"The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant (based on the Old Testament by various authors)

Anita Diamant's bestseller takes a little-known story from the book of Genesis--the tale of Dinah, the Israelite daughter of Jacob who was "defiled" by a Canaanite prince and avenged by her brothers--and spins it into a rich and subversive narrative of female empowerment. "The Red Tent" was an instant success and book club favorite when it was first published 20 years ago, and it is no less relevant or provocative in 2017.

 

"Grendel" by John Gardner (based on "Beowulf" by anonymous)

The monstrous antagonist of a medieval epic poem may seem like an unlikely hero for a 20th-century philosophical novel, but that's just the role Beowulf's foe Grendel plays in John Gardner's book of the same name. In Gardner's version, Grendel is not just a horrible beast mindlessly murdering humans, but a thoughtful creature searching for meaning in a lonely and violent world. "Grendel" is a highly unusual, deeply intellectual book that pushes the boundaries of what an adaptation can accomplish.

 

"Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror" edited by Lynne Jamneck (based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft)

Few writers of the last century have spawned as many tributes and spin-offs as H.P. Lovecraft, and this anthology is only one of many potential choices for this slot. All of the tales in "Dreams from the Witch House" take Lovecraft's iconic brand of cosmic horror as their jumping-off point, though the individual interpretations, settings and styles vary from author to author. This woman-centric collection injects some much-needed female influence into a largely male-dominated genre, all the while remaining true to the spirit that makes Lovecraft's work so appealingly terrifying to begin with.

(For a similar treatment of another oft-imitated author, see Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger's anthology "A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon.")

 

"Ulysses" by James Joyce (based on "The Odyssey" by Homer)

Though only "based on" Homer's work in the very loosest sense, James Joyce's modernist classic is, among other things, a deliberate tribute to "The Odyssey." While "Ulysses" takes place on a single day in Dublin in 1904 rather than over a span 10 years on the Mediterranean in the age of heroes, each of the novel's 18 stream-of-consciousness episodes and several of its main characters correspond more or less directly to an event or person in the ancient poem. Almost universally regarded as a classic in its own right, "Ulysses" is proof of the old addage that "good artists copy, great artists steal."

 

"The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller (based on "The Iliad" by Homer)

The relationship between the demigod Achilles and his companion Patroclus has long intrigued readers of "The Iliad." Though often depicted as very good friends or brothers in arms bonded by battle, there are hints in the original text that there may be something more between them. Madeline Miller takes this interpretation and runs with it, and "The Song of Achilles" is above all else a love story. Miller's poetic prose lends the tale an appropriately mythical feel, while her multifaceted portrayals of the Trojan War's key players make for an engaging and satisfying read.

(If you like "The Song Achilles," you may also enjoy Colm Tóibín's new take on the Trojan War from Clytemnestra's perspective, "House of Names.")

 

"Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys (based on "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë)

Few literary characters have nettled modern readers more than Bertha Mason, the "mad" first wife of Mr. Rochester who spends most of "Jane Eyre" locked in an attic. Not satisfied with Brontë's dismissive treatment of the character, Jean Rhys takes on the task of providing Bertha's side of the story. "Wide Sargossa Sea" introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress living in colonial Jamaica; when Antoinette is married against her will to the Englishman Edward Rochester, everything--even her name--is changed for the worst. By focusing on Antoinette rather than one of the original book's more central characters, Rhys is enabled to provide a thought-provoking counterpoint to the much-loved novel, and explore themes of colonialism, misogyny, mental illness, and racism only hinted at in the original work.

("Jane Eyre" fans who would like yet another perspective on the classic story should also check out Sarah Shoemaker's new novel, "Mr. Rochester.")

 

"Eligible" by Curtis Sittenfeld (based on "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen)

Similar to the Hogarth Shakespeare series mentioned above is the Austen Project, an ongoing series of Jane Austen retellings by bestselling 21st century authors. Curtis Sittenfeld's "Eligible" takes Austen's most famous work, "Pride and Prejudice," and sets it in modern-day Cincinatti, with magazine writer Liz Bennet and West Coast neurosurgeon Dr. Darcy filling in for the original pairing. A light, funny read that maintains the spirit of Austen's novel, even as it translates the tale to a setting more familiar to modern readers.

(If you like this one, be sure to seek out the other books of the Austen Project as well.)

 

"A Thousand Acres" by Jane Smiley (based on "King Lear" by William Shakespeare)

Jane Smiley's Pulitzer-winning novel "A Thousand Acres" transposes the royal tragedy of "King Lear" to the seemingly unlikely setting of rural Iowa in the 1970s, with an elderly farmer splitting up his property in place of the aging king dividing his kingdom. Despite the unexpected choice of backdrop, Smiley manages not only to recast all the major plot points of the original, but to do so with great psychological depth and a new emphasis on land and the ways humans use it.

(Want an even more unusual take on a Shakespeare classic? Try Ian McEwan's "Nutshell," which images Hamlet as a fetus troubled by the family drama happening outside the womb.)


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