2021-literary-adaptations

Adapting classic works of literature is always challenging, not least because the adapting author must decide how much novelty is appropriate. Too much and fans will shun it out of pique; too little and they’ll shun it out of disinterest. This dilemma is only heightened when the book in question is as widely read as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And yet, in The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo perfectly strikes that balance of the new and the familiar.

Retold from the perspective of Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, amateur golfer Jordan Baker—here recharacterized as a wealthy Louisville missionary family’s adopted Vietnamese daughter—the familiar contours of Fitzgerald’s tragedy are warped with a hazy dash of demonic and earthly magic. The result is an utterly captivating series of speakeasies, back-seat trysts, parties both grand and intimate and romances both magical and mundane, all spiraling through a miasma of Prohibition-era jingoism and entitlement toward its inevitably tragic conclusion.


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Vo is a remarkable writer whose talent for reviving Fitzgerald’s style of prose is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke channeling Jane Austen in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. But it is Vo’s additions to Gatsby’s original plot that truly shine. By foregrounding Jordan’s and Daisy’s perspectives rather than Nick’s, she recasts a story about the consequences of male overreach as one about the limitations of female and non-white agency. This is further complicated by Jordan’s inability to remember anything of her childhood in Vietnam before she was brought to Kentucky. She sees herself as American, the daughter of the Louisville Bakers, but neither her white peers nor the Vietnamese immigrants she meets agree with her. 

For both Jordan and Daisy, magic can offer some surcease, but only to a point. In the first scene of the book, for instance, when the two women go flying through Daisy’s house with a magic charm, they must return demurely to the couch when Daisy’s husband comes home. Throughout the book, the women’s choices are constrained by those of the men surrounding them. Even magic, whether a charm, an enchantment or a potion (which are always consumed as cocktails), can only win them a brief reprieve from the decisions others make for and about them.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Nghi Vo on the dangers of Hemingway.


In this alternate America, the fear of demons is consistently paralleled with the fear of immigrants. Magic is unavoidable in Vo’s West and East Egg, but although it may be consumed by those at the center of American society, it emanates from those at its periphery. To its consumers and connoisseurs, it is valuable precisely because it is foreign, while those who create and practice it are ostracized and hated for precisely the same reason. The fetishization of earthbound magics is reminiscent of the real-world fascination with traditions like folk medicine, and even demoniac, the psychotropic beverage derived from demon’s blood that several characters drink, could represent any number of exoticized vices prized by the American wealthy. There are lessons here for those of us living in the mundane reality of the 21st century, just as there are in Jordan’s commentary on the ways her agency is constrained as a Vietnamese American woman.

The Chosen and the Beautiful, like the novel it retells, is as much a tragedy as it is a social commentary. The reader will likely know how Daisy’s story ends, but Jordan is in the spotlight here, and her story is just as captivating, if not more so. By putting her in the foreground, and highlighting the voice among Fitzgerald’s core characters that was the least heard, Vo has transformed The Great Gatsby utterly.

Nghi Vo perfectly balances the new and the familiar in her magical adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

Since 2016, Hogarth Press has enlisted well-known writers, including Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, to reinvent Shakespeare’s best-known plays for a modern readership. Editor Dahlia Adler undertakes a similar project in That Way Madness Lies, but the re-imagined versions here take the form of short stories, and the resulting anthology’s intended readership is teens.

Adler notes in her introduction that “to say Shakespeare did not do marginalized people any favors is an understatement; many of us still live with the effects of his caricatures and common story lines today.” With this anthology, she intends to correct that imbalance. The bestselling and award-winning YA authors gathered here “have deconstructed and reconstructed an inarguably brilliant but very white and very straight canon,” giving Shakespeare the same treatment Edgar Allan Poe received in Adler’s previous anthology, His Hideous Heart.

Some stories include an accompanying note that illuminates the author’s approach. Patrice Caldwell explains that Hamlet’s gothic overtones led her to recast Hamlet as female (and Hamlet’s uncle as a vampire), while Adler’s own story seeks to reclaim the figure of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice’s anti-Semitism. Caldwell isn’t the only writer to give her story a bit of supernatural flair either; Lindsay Smith’s exploration of Julius Caesar incorporates witchcraft and dark sacrifices.

The contributors take varying liberties with their source material. A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy’s “Some Other Metal” is set in a theater, but their version of Much Ado About Nothing applies a queer, science fiction approach to the romance at its center. Kiersten White’s “Partying Is Such Sweet Sorrow” recounts the plot of Romeo and Juliet through text messages but remains (for the most part) faithful to the spirit of the original. On the other hand, some stories—such as Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka’s “Severe Weather Warning”—conceal their Shakespearean roots so deeply as to be almost unrecognizable without the aid of context and some winking allusions. (Their story contains a cat named Ariel.)

The majority of the stories stand capably on their own merits but will be enriched by familiarity with—or better yet, reading alongside—Shakespeare’s original plays and sonnets. Budding writers may even be inspired to put their own spins on the Bard of Avon’s timeless tales. 

Since 2016, Hogarth Press has enlisted well-known writers, including Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, to reinvent Shakespeare’s best-known plays for a modern readership. Editor Dahlia Adler undertakes a similar project in That Way Madness Lies, but the re-imagined versions here take the form of short stories, and the resulting anthology’s intended readership is teens.

Such is Jane Austen’s brilliance that our obsession with Pride and Prejudice has hardly ceased over the two centuries since its publication. Along with Austen’s ahead-of-her-time ingenuity in creating characters, some might say that her mastery of subplots is what has kept readers talking and wondering for centuries.

Take, for instance, the mystery around Mr. Darcy’s cousin Anne de Bourgh. What we know about her from Austen’s novel is that she was sickly, had an ungodly inheritance and (much to our relief) never ends up marrying Mr. Darcy, as had been arranged since their births. But isn’t there so much more we have wished to know about her?

Enter Molly Greeley’s novel The Heiress, an entertaining elaboration to satisfy generations of readers who have wondered and theorized about Anne. In perfectly Austenesque style, Greeley reveals the backstory of the Rosings Park heiress and just what made her so sickly, so interesting and so complicated.

Anne begins life as a colicky baby, and with a doctor’s recommendation, her mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, gives baby Anne opium-heavy laudanum to calm her down. This leads to an addiction that weakens Anne and leaves her in a constant daze, as readers will remember in Pride and Prejudice. But Anne comes to a rare moment of clarity in her late 20s when she questions if her fragility and illness are truly real. Desperate to find out, she flees to London to stay with her cousin Colonel John Fitzwilliam. It’s a move so bold that it paves the path for other bold and unexpected decisions to follow.

Keen observations about society and strong supporting characters make The Heiress a perfectly joyful read.

Enter Molly Greeley’s novel The Heiress, an entertaining elaboration to satisfy generations of readers who have wondered and theorized about Anne de Bourgh. In perfectly Austenesque style, Greeley reveals the backstory of the Rosings Park heiress and just what made her so sickly, so interesting and so complicated.

It is a brave and ambitious project to write the backstory of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, The Great Gatsby, but that is what Michael Farris Smith does in his sixth novel, Nick. One of Smith’s most compelling insights is that many of the high-flying men partying through the Roaring ’20s, as depicted in Fitzgerald’s great novel, had only recently returned from the harrowing trench warfare of the First World War. “Shell shock,” “battle fatigue” and PTSD were poorly understood at that time and often simply dismissed as cowardice. In previous novels, Smith has written eloquently and sometimes in excruciating detail about masculine brutality and trauma. He does so again in Nick.

The novel opens with Nick at a cafe in Paris on leave from the war. When he meets and falls in love with a destitute artist, he debates going AWOL and staying with his beloved, but he is Minnesota born, the son of a small-town hardware store owner and a deeply depressed mother, and he knows where his duty lies. His return to the trenches is vividly depicted: Smith’s descriptions of warfare are cinematic, chilling and unforgettable.

At war’s end, Nick searches Paris for his love but is unable to find her. He is among the last soldiers to return to America, clearly traumatized and unable to go back to Minnesota. Instead he travels to New Orleans and winds up in the city’s notorious red-light district, where a bond with a fellow scarred soldier offers enough redemption for Nick to return home to recover, then travel on to East Egg and his meeting with Gatsby.

This is just an outline of a deeper investigation of war and its consequences. In style and theme, this Nick will remind readers of another Nick: the character Nick Adams of Ernest Hemingway’s best short stories.

It is a brave and ambitious project to write the backstory of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, The Great Gatsby, but that is what Michael Farris Smith does in his sixth novel, Nick.

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