Blag the classics: the best modern makeovers of literary staples, from Jane Austen to Shakespeare

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Victoria Gray
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If English Literature wasn’t your favourite subject at school, a few of the must-read classics may well have escaped you – or you spend a lot of time pretending to have read them.

But if you don’t feel like settling down on the train after work with a 500-page heavyweight to be inspired by some of fiction’s greatest stories, all is not lost.

Some of the best novels are so inspiring that they’ve spawned modern adaptations, re-imagining the characters and themes that have kept the originals on our classics shelves for new audiences.

For instance, the enduring popularity of Jane Austen has sparked the Jane Austen Project, a retelling of her six most famous novels by some of the biggest writers of our time, including Val McDermid and Alexander McCall Smith.

The latest release, Eligible by bestselling American author Curtis Sittenfield translates Pride and Prejudice to the Midwestern states. Of course this draws automatic comparisons with Bridget Jones’ Diary which follows the same plotline as Austen’s iconic novel.

But it’s not just Austen who’s received a re-working, there’s a whole host of modern versions of classics to help you blag a hearty reading list. Some are enduring hits in their own right, others a controversial update of an iconic story.

Read on to discover which modern books to pick up and double your reading list in no time...

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen)

The first of Austen’s books to get the Jane Austen Project modernising treatment, Trollope has thought of every way to update the 18th century. From changing outdated rules about women not being able to inherit property, and adding in issues of internet trolling and depression, the complicated problems the Dashwood sisters face are brought bang up to date.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

Author of Prep and American Wife, Sittenfield lovingly updates the timeless Bennett family into modern alternatives – nosy Mrs Bennett becomes an Ohio society woman with an online shopping addiction and younger sisters Kitty and Lydia are obsessed with juicing and CrossFit. As for Lizzy Bennett and Mr Darcy? Engaging in hate-sex. A perfect upcycle for the 21st century.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray (Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes)

Modernising the surreal adventures of Don Quixote seems a mammoth task, but Libby Bray’s surreal tale of 16-year-old Cameron, who upon discovering he has BSE sets off on a journey across America accompanied by the potentially-hallucinated angel Dulcie, fits the bill. Somehow a modern-day teenager manages to learn the same lessons as a Spanish hidalgo from the 16th century…

The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

We’re still mourning Harper Lee, but if you’ve read her only two novels over and over, then this high-school-set version of her most famous work To Kill A Mockingbird opens up its challenging themes to a young adult audience. The boarding school setting gives a claustrophobic setting to the story of a young girl raped by another student that adds a frenzied level to Lee’s exploration of the loss of innocence.

The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang (Ulysses by James Joyce)

Based around the centenary of the single day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place, Maya Lang’s debut novel is a tribute (of sorts) to the epic modernist classic. Telling the story of a Philadelphia story reuniting for their annual Bloomsday party (celebrating the day on which Ulysses is set), the characters all share names with Joyce’s protagonists and offers subtle nods to the book – itself based on Homer’s Odyssey – for the ultimate meta-referential read.

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

Possibly the most well-known ‘update’, the plot of Bridget Jones’ Diary follows that of Pride and Prejudice closely. Author Helen Fielding has spoken about how “when I started writing the Bridget Jones novels, I just had a lot of columns, and no plot. At the same time, Pride and Prejudice was on the BBC, so I just… stole the plot.” But the plot is the only similarity, Bridget Jones and Lizzy Bennett are certainly nothing alike, even if the two Darcys – both famously played by Colin Firth in adaptations – are.  

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesy (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë)

Margot Livesy cleverly weaves Jane Eyre – her favourite book as a girl – into a semi-autobiographical tale. Livesy herself was orphaned as a child in the 1950s and sent from her native Iceland to Scotland, which is where her retelling of Jane Eyre begins. Whether the infamous plot twist that concludes Charlotte Brontë’s original novel remains is for her to know and us to find out.

His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman (Paradise Lost by John Milton)

John Milton’s epic poem (itself retelling the Genesis story) becomes the enduring series of young adult novels that was nearly as popular as the Harry Potter books at its peak. Although it sounds impossible to turn a poem into a three-novel series, His Dark Materials takes the central theme of original sin, as two children from different worlds, Lyra and Will, meet and are caught up in a war against celestial powers. Pullman weaves a beautiful alternate world, while asking some fascinating questions about religion, and proving that these books are certainly not just for children.

New Girl by Paige Harbison (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier)

Rebecca constantly tops favourite book lists for its resounding theme of the difficulty of filling somebody else’s shoes, as well as the mysterious presence of the eponymous, yet missing Rebecca. In another high school update, the nameless main character takes a place at a prestigious boarding school that had been made available as one of the school’s most popular girls, Becca Normandy, went missing. We’ll leave you to guess what happens when she meets Becca’s ex Max…

The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf)

Micheal Cunningham’s 1999 novel is a tribute to Mrs Dalloway, mirroring the story of Virginia Woolf’s famous 1925 novel from three different perspectives - Woolf herself and her own battle with mental health issues, a 1940s housewife equivalent of Mrs Dalloway, and a modern-day woman planning a party. Even if you have read or studied Mrs Dalloway at school, The Hours (made into a film starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore in 2002) is fascinating for its loving retelling, without having to recall everything you know about modernism.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Howard's End by E.M. Forster)

Award-winning author Zadie Smith beautifully updates E. M. Forster’s turn of the century novel about class in Britain to discuss race and cultural differences between the UK and the USA. In both novels families from strikingly different backgrounds become linked. Smith describes her novel, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Baileys Prize) in 2006, as a ‘homage’ to Forster’s, but it is a poignant read in its own right.

Great by Sara Benincasa (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Although The Great Gatsby is one of the most famous, and still most well-read novels of all time, it is not able to escape from an updating. Sara Benincasa’s 2014 novel switches the main characters from men to women, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) updates their situation to an American high school, where the romantic entangling of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan becomes a tale of female friendship gone awry. With a smattering of glamourous parties, of course.

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen)

Following the sprinkling of modern updates in Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s Gothic parody is also given an up-to-date point of reference, as Catherine Moreland becomes Cat, a Facebook and Twilight-obsessed teenager. She spots something a bit off while staying at Henry Tilney’s country house, although Austen’s plot is given an update for an audience who know what to expect. 

Dorian, an Imitation by Will Self (The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde)

Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, discusses vanity in a way that is far too tempting to relate to the modern day obsession with celebrity and public image. After attempting to adapt Wilde’s work for a screenplay, Will Self wrote an “imitation - and homage to” the novel, changing the famous portrait of Dorian to a video installation, and moving the setting to the 80s art scene, but overall staying faithful to the plot.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Snow White by The Brothers Grimm)

Modernising a fairy tale sounds like quite the challenge, but British writer Helen Oyeyemi nails the ethereal sense of Snow White, transporting the characters to 1950s New York, and tells the story from the perspective of the ‘wicked’ stepmother, a girl called Boy. Her stepdaughter Snow and her daughter Bird force Boy to re-examine her perspective on beauty and race.  

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

Shakespeare plays typically have timeless themes that can transcend their time periods. Which explains how the tale of a Celtic king of Britain can translate to a small family drama between a farmer and his daughters over their thousand acres of land in Iowa. Smiley re-imagines the relationship between fathers and daughters in a terrifyingly powerful way that will have you looking at Shakespeare’s play in a completely different way.

Solsbury Hill by Susan M. Wyler (Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë)

Wyler’s update of Wuthering Heights also encompasses the original book itself, as New Yorker Eleanor is called to the Yorkshire moors where she is destined to inherit a house. But she soon discovers connections to the Brontë family, as well as forming a devastating bond with Meadowscarp MacLeod, a challenging young man who we can probably guess the inspiration behind.

The Innocents by Francesca Segal (The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton)

Edith Warton’s story of high society New Yorkers in the late 19th century, centered around the breakdown of a forthcoming marriage between two high-profile families translates well to Segal’s The Innocents. Set in London, the themes of questioning whether you’ve made the right decision in a seemingly pre-destined marriage translate well to today’s anxious, late-marrying millennials. 

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (The Odyssey by Homer)

Margaret Atwood brilliantly rewrites Homer’s Odyssey – the ten year story of Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan War – from the perspective of his wife Penelope. In the Odyssey, Penelope is seen as faithful and patient, but Atwood fleshes out her character – who is reflecting on not only the events of the Odyssey but the reputation of the story since. The book is told in the same style of a Greek tragedy, giving either an interesting introduction to those who know nothing about Greek literature, or a clever retelling to lifelong fans. 

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (Emma by Jane Austen)

Beloved English writer Alexander McCall Smith takes no risks with his update of the Jane Austen novel that has in the past updated itself to 90s teen hit Clueless, to give the book equivalent of a new TV adaptation of the classic. Although the reviews weren’t wholly favourable, if you’ve always wanted to read Emma but can’t face the 18th century language, here’s your chance.

Images: iStock, book covers


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Victoria Gray

Victoria is a contributor for She covers lifestyle and food pieces for the site. When on the internet she can be found tweeting feverishly about Great British Bake Off, and offline she is never happier than when in the company of some wine and cheese.