Baz Luhrmann, director of such films as Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and The Great Gatsby certainly has a calling card. His use of out-of-place dialogue, music, and settings rolls familiar stories into a hodgepodge of familiar pop culture and (when it works) gives movies a sense of spectacle and intimacy at the same time.
Anachronism is a perfectly fair way to increase an obscure story’s relatability. And since Hollywood is always looking for the next classic novel to adapt into a near-Christmas release blockbuster, I thought I’d give them a hand by pointing out several novels that seem like they’d be poor adaptations on the surface, but would have the chance to really shine if given the full Luhrmann Treatmen.
For Whom The Bell Tolls – Bring it into modern times with a hypothetical civil war in North Korea
Hemingway’s tale of an American in the International Brigades fighting with the revolutionaries in the Spanish Civil War remains one of the greatest novels of all time. There actually were film adaptations (one in 1943 and a BBC version in 1965), but neither were memorable.
The Spanish Civil War was a long time ago, and though the novel does an excellent job of drawing you in to the ebb and flow and tenor of that place, that time, it’s still a subject that doesn’t have an immediate modern resonance. Furthermore, one of the things the novel does best is bring that sense of “stranger in a strange land” – an outsider looking in. Robert Jordan, though well-versed in Spanish and the customs of the day, is very much out of place with the revolutionaries he joins up with, and the tension between his Otherness and the common ground he finds with the individuals he meets is what makes the book great in the first place.
That’s why you need to really bring home that sense of Otherness. A modern adaptation that was set in a very, very strange land – North Korea – would bring that point home. A good movie version of this book would put its audience on their back foot right away with the setting. Speech, customs, clothes that are not like them. A fictional civil war in North Korea would be just about the most foreign, uncomfortable thing for most of us to imagine ourselves getting involved with, and the brilliance of the movie would be transmuting that discomfort into a kind of wonder, because, as the book shows, in the end there’s more that unites us than divides us.
Moby Dick – Give it a hard-core soundtrack
Maybe it’s just me, but Moby Dick is a tough read. Herman Melville isn’t exactly light reading, and though his prose is good, it’s certainly prosaic. The language is removed enough from the way we use words and speak them today that there’s a certain kind of separation that happens. And that’s a shame, because at its heart, Moby Dick is one of the most raw, grinding, passionate books out there. Ahab’s all-consuming passion and sheer rage almost sear the pages.
An adaptation of the book would do well to tap into that primal emotion, and a great way to do that, in my opinion, is with music. Nothing cuts right to your emotional core than the perfect song, and movies take advantage of this fact often enough. The traditional way to go about this for a movie set in the “olden days” is with sweeping orchestral pieces – think Pirates of the Caribbean. But what if a movie set during the 1800’s used songs from this album?
Or this one?
A pulse-pounding, dark, death-defying soundtrack would be pretty much perfect for the final moments of the novel, don’t you think? Ahab ruthlessly harpooning the White Whale, paying no need to his own survival… the huge whale ramming the Pequod viciously, a giant whirlpool…
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
You’re telling me you don’t see that with a heavy-metal soundtrack?
The Count of Monte Cristo – Make it an American prisoner in Guantanamo Bay
The greatest revenge story of all time practically begs for a modern adaptation. My pitch? Make it like Enemy of the State. A beautiful, charming-if-a-bit-naive up-and-coming government employee played by Tatiana Maslany (the main character is a girl! Plot twist! We’ll call her Danielle Edmon – get it?) learns something she shouldn’t and is framed for High Treason, sent away for life in some state-sanctioned but disavowed hellhole.
There, she meets a disgraced intelligence operative who fell afoul of a CIA regime change and was left holding the bag -and the location and/or codes to the agency’s vast, underground slush fund. The operative, played by, oh, let’s say Matt Damon in a bit of ironic against-type casting, teaches her the ins and outs of his trade, making her basically a female James Bond. She escapes with the means to recover a vast fortune and the skills necessary to blend into high society under a new identity and exact her long-awaited vengeance against the corrupt elements of the government. Come on, I’d totally watch that.
Frankenstein – Drag it into the modern era by making it about a mob mentality engendered by social media
Frankenstein has suffered some cultural drift since its publication just under 200 years ago. The name has evolved into a cultural touchstone, but the idea of the classic mad scientist and the green-skinned lurch with bolts on its temples stumbling around and attacking villagers is a bit at odds with the original work. Like all classic novels, Frankenstein‘s themes are universal – fear of the unknown, the divide between appearance and reality, the longing for understanding, the desire for companionship, and the inevitability of tragedy.
Setting this book in the modern era would let you do some interesting things with those themes. One of the more resonant subjects in the book is how the Creature (Frankenstein is the scientist, the monster he created doesn’t have a name) comes to understand itself based on the reactions of others. He teaches himself to speak and read by eavesdropping on a family he comes to admire, but when he reveals himself, he’s immediately shunned because of his appearance. Then he burns down the cabin in a fit of rage.
In the era of Facebook and engaged disconnection, can you think of a few ways this two-hundred year old story could be relevant?