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Thursday, 26 April 2012

When is it right to reboot a classic?

Like most writers, I could probably use more exercise. And I wouldn’t get even as much as I do if not for Luke Navarro and Kevin McGill, who host a books podcast called Guys Can Read. It’s easy to spend an hour listening to Luke and Kevin, and then you look up and realize you’ve run ten miles without going anywhere. With them, workouts are (almost) fun.

The idea behind Guys Can Read is to look at books from a guy/geek perspective. If you’re worried that means they only review genre stuff, not a bit of it. They might discuss an SF novel, but they’re just as likely to be talking about Steinbeck or Dickens. What they care about is great storytelling, and I haven’t yet heard any of their shows where there wasn’t at least one really profound insight that made me pause my MP3 player, slow down the treadmill, and have a good long ponder.

This morning, with glorious sunshine beating down on southern England, I couldn’t face a couple of hours in an air-conditioned gym, so instead took Luke and Kevin for a walk around the verdant lanes of Great Bookham. They were talking about Sherlock Holmes, and how the BBC television version in particular may have seemed like a terrible idea to purists, but has actually turned out to be a very good way of making the characters relatable for a modern audience. (And, sure, I apologize for using the word relatable, but this stuff does matter.) Asked which was best for a modern audience, the Conan Doyle originals or the Moffat/Gatiss revamp, Kevin didn’t miss a beat before replying, “Sherlock, hands down.”

It’s not just a question of putting the characters in a present-day setting. The recent movies also managed to make people care again about Holmes and Watson, and they did it (like the TV show) by letting character drive the storyline. As Luke and Kevin point out in their show, the breadth of knowledge with which Holmes astounded Victorian readers doesn’t look quite so impressive now we have Google, so it’s important to find new ways to make us gasp at his genius – and to see how being that kind of remarkable genius affects him as a person.

But, more than that, nowadays we want stories that take us on a journey of discovery through characters and relationships. J J Abrams did more to develop the core Star Trek characters than had been attempted in three TV seasons. It wasn’t just an intriguing science fictional problem, or even a challenge of morality and courage. It got personal. And suddenly these characters mattered again.

Not every old story needs a new telling. Nobody need rewrite Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations; they’re just fine as they are, and still selling strong. The rip-roaring rides of yesteryear, though, do tend to date (look at John Carter) . More generally, the problem comes when an old, much-loved story was built around the motor of plot or high concept. Then, over time, the grand idea becomes familiar – too familiar. Those works “escape the bonds of literature and take on a life of their own”, as Erica Wagner said in The Times recently of Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein. When the surprise value of the core idea is already disseminated into public consciousness, and if the work has no real development of character to give the story structure compensatory support – that’s when you need a reboot.

And that’s where I came in with Frankenstein. What a powerful idea it is. An ingenious, driven man creates artificial life. It has become almost the defining archetype of runaway science – never mind that it’s not actually a novel about runaway science, at least not in the original 1818 version.

But that was then. Take a look at it with the core idea extracted. There’s very little expatiation of character, still less actual character development. Victor Frankenstein is highly strung and brilliant, but those are just ticks in the boxes of a form. Despite spending the whole novel inside his head, we barely know Victor well enough to recognize him at a party, as we would Lizzy Bennett or Long John Silver, unless he came over and talked to us about creating life.

The Mary Shelley novel hardly concerns itself at all with personality. We are introduced to Victor’s friends and family as types. He has “a great friend”, Henry Clerval, who is “of singular talent and fancy” and who invariably “exerts himself to amuse” while expressing “the sensations that fill his soul”. We are shown very few concrete scenes between him and Victor. There is no banter. The relationship never changes. Henry exists – as most of the characters do – merely to tell Victor not to mope quite so much.

This is why you’ll find a lot of people who have read Mansfield Park or The Pickwick Papers, near-contemporary works, but not so many who’ve done more than dip into Frankenstein. I hadn’t read it myself before I began working on the interactive version. And I didn’t want to stick it in a modern setting and get sidetracked by stuff about cloning, but I did feel that it needed a complete overhaul on the level of the characters. How they feel about things, and how the events of the story change them, is given much more emphasis in my version. For instance, when the monster finds a hat and a bag full of clothes, he ventures out at sunset and waves to a farmer on the far side of a field. And the farmer waves back - which, as you can imagine, is a pretty big deal if you’ve only ever been chased, persecuted and pelted with stones.

At 155,000 words, my Frankenstein is more than twice as long as Mary Shelley’s. Partly that’s because, in an interactive book, the reader weaves through different story threads and necessarily doesn’t get to read everything. But even a single read-through of the interactive Frankenstein should produce a longer novel than the 1818 version. In much of the new material you’ll get to know Victor, and observe (and influence) his relationships with his father, his fiancée, and the monster. You’ll understand his friendship with Henry, and you can see how that develops as Victor changes under the pressure of old unburied demons closing in.

It is the old story remade - as stories have been throughout history, in fact. It’s only in the era of publishing that we started to think of them as something to lock down. My intention in remaking Frankenstein like this is that you’ll be able to come to it with the fresh interest and wild surmise of those readers of 1818 who opened the pages to find something both modern and timeless. Now you tap your fingers on the glass instead, but otherwise little has changed.

Frankenstein is published by Profile Books and coded for iOS by Inkle Studios. Look for it here on the App Store. And you can hear it discussed on Guys Can Read here.


  1. "Sherlock" was entertaining and interesting, and I am looking forward to seeing the second series. The two Guys talk about how the aspect of "Sherlock" that kept them hooked was not the crimes and the solutions, but the relationship between the two leads. And this is exactly why I love my favourite Holmesian adaptation: the Clive Merrison/Michael Williams radio series produced by Bert Coules for the BBC.

    The series went for nine years (and has continued with occasional pastiches written by Coules), and is famous for being the only series in any media to adapt the whole canon of Holmes stories. There were frequent guest-stars: Peter Davidson, Kevin Whatley, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench (Williams' wife), and more.

    But the real genius of the show, the reason I come back to it over and over again, is the characterization of Holmes and Watson, and the relationship portrayed between the two. Merrison's Holmes is loud, irritating, adventurous, more than a little bi-polar... and somehow still very likeable; you can see why he would fascinate a thoughtful, observant man like Watson.

    And Williams' Watson is just wonderful. He is, seemingly, a slow, contemplative, conventional man. But, as the two Guys said of 'Sherlock's' Watson, his friendship with Holmes allows him to indulge in his secret vice: adventure and intrigue, and he is revealed as a dashing, heroic, and romantic character. Williams is simply the Best Watson.

    The conversations (more often arguments) between the pair are my favourite part of the series: Holmes's selfishness and eccentricities and Watson's frustration and exasperation are always conveyed with a sense of the real trust and affection the two feel for each other.

    Not all the plots hang well together - simply because not all the original stories were particularly well conceived ("The Yellow Mask", The Veiled Lodger"). In such adventures the relationship between the two friends often takes prominence. "The Musgrave Ritual" is a good example, where, on a cold, wet afternoon, Holmes recounts an early adventure to Watson... merely as a way of avoiding tidying the flat!

    I think my favourite adventure, though, is "The Lion's Mane", told originally by Holmes some time after the two friends have parted. The Merrison/Williams version is brilliant, and - if you can find a copy - I recommend it.

  2. The J J Abrams "Star Trek" film was good fun, but I don't think it brought anything particularly new to the characters. Have I missed your point?