Does anyone find that they the story, but not necessarily the book? Those occasions where a story transcends its source material to take on a life of its own. Perhaps you like West Side Story, but you’d never read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps you love Bridget Jones’s Diary, but would never read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
For me, it was The Count of Monte Cristo. When I first heard the story, I was desperate to read the book. But when I tried (and oh god did I try) to read Alexandre Dumas novel, I was entirely bored.
The main story I’m come for, the falsely accused hero returning to take revenge upon his accusers in disguise was there and as glorious as I’d hoped. I remember being enthralled by the scene at La Mazzolata in Chapter 36. But even as the main story kicked off, it was suddenly flooded by subplots upon subplots. Unnecessary character development and massively weighted paragraphs which went seemingly nowhere. It’s was like reading a soap opera.
So I couldn’t finish the book. Needless to say, I was devastated and disappointed. I love the story, yet can’t stand the book? And in so many ways, it would be perfect for me. I love stories about dual identities, hidden motifs and anti-heroes. The steampunk novel I’m working on is littered with these themes.
When I was young, I read Les Misérables (an English translation, obviously!) after falling in love with the musical. Not only did I finish, but I also gained so much more from the story which only Victor Hugo’s work can provide, no matter how many future adaptations there might be. I adore the classics like Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, The Picture of Dorian Grey. In retrospect, it looks like my obsession with themes of identity, misunderstanding and hidden motives was already showing as a child.
Surely a work of classic literature can’t be dull, I told myself. How could it have survived? It’s not the first time I’ve blamed myself for not liking a book. Case in point, I’ll admit I’m not a Charles Dickens fan… don’t hate me, even one of the best authors in the universe cannot hold my attention while they spend eight pages describing the old house on the hill.
So there my copy of The Count of Monte Cristo lay on the bookshelf. Unread and unloved, still does to this day.
About a year later, I found The Stars’ Tennis Balls by Stephen Fry which is a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo and it’s become one of my all-time favourite books. It manages in 452 pages to do what Dumas did in 463,958 words. Of course, you can’t compare like for like, but Stephen Fry did what modern authors do, he kept a fast, driving plot which made you want to keep turning pages.
And that’s perhaps the key between the classics and contemporary literature. We simply don’t have the time to read a 463,958-word story that can be achieved in half that time. There are a thousand and one things competing with our reading time. Computer games, television, cinema, bowling, the gym, the pub. In the seventeen and eighteen century, your options were limited. Authors could spend a few thousand words setting the scene. After all, what else were you going to do? Netflix?
Not all of the Classics are created equal, but they’re still important. The Classics are the groundwork of all literature. Whether we’ve read them or not, it’s informing our cliches, tropes and understanding of the genres. Do they have to be your favourite books? No. But you have to spend the time to appreciate them.