By M.J. Porteus, author of Lorna Doone: The Wild and Wanton Edition
Purists — pray prepare thyselves now to turn in thy graves!
I’m the first to admit: classics are classics for a reason — whatever that reason may be! From Mark Twain to T.S. Eliot, authors and scholars have discussed and opined on the nature of classics. And the witticism I love is: There are actually two kinds of “classic novels.” The first are those we know we should have read, but probably have not. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation…The second kind, meanwhile, are those books that we’ve read five times, can quote from on any occasion, and annoyingly push on to other people with the words: “You have to read this. It’s a classic.”
So is our ability to remodel something innovation or is it distortion? Arguably either. Or both. But why not?
Purists would argue that no-one should “meddle” with them. Yet using something as a starting point and creating an entity which brings the original to the attention of a new audience is something to which we are exposed in so many different ways. The Bible: how many versions of it have been written over the years? Even if you revise that statement to “how many translations?” we still have slightly different iterations. What about abridged versions written for children? These can be found with extra descriptive detail and interpretations, say, within the illustrations.
Musicals have then been based upon or inspired by Bible stories — Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar all immediately spring to mind. Music is interpreted widely by different people, from a classical pianist’s interpretation of the dynamics and texture of a composition, to another vocal artist “covering” an original; from a traditional tune being used as the basis of something else (eg a Russian folk song the basis for “Those were the days” sung by Mary Hopkins), or as the rondo movement of a Clementi sonatina being borrowed by the writers of the pop song “Groovy Kind of Love” and one of his opening motifs by none other than Mozart! Operas can be sung in different languages and therefore with subtle differences in the meaning of parts of the libretto; Madame Butterfly inspired Miss Saigon…the list is endless.
Stage plays, TV, and big screen versions of classic texts are another case in point: they do not necessarily follow the original text, dialogue, or even plot in some cases. They can often be set in different eras (Shakespearean plays, for example); whole sub-plots can be changed or omitted; different characters introduced. And oh yes, they are all often made more lively or sexy.
Recipes are adapted, ingredients altered, and very often spiced up in the most literal sense, appealing to many different tastes. Yet the consumer can choose to stick with the original if they so choose, or to experiment with new ideas. I’m sure you can think of many more examples. Different cultures, age groups, sexes, generations, may all engage in a different manner with a different version of something.
For me, the crucial point is that in all of these cases the original or what is widely perceived as the original as devised by the original author/composer/cook/whatever remains unsullied and — importantly — available to all who choose to access it. And that this is often as a result of having been introduced to it by another version. This restyling is innovation. As to those who argue that it’s distortion, well in my book (literally or figuratively!) distortion is merely a change or a twist and that is therefore not a bad thing.