This morning, while I was enjoying coffee with Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, I couldn’t help but fall into a delightful reverie. As I relished in their biting exchange of witticisms a marvelous thought occurred to me, which in turn inspired me to write. Isn’t it remarkable how some stories simply never get old?
Storytelling has been around since the dawn of humankind and, considering that it’s still a fundamental part of our society, this makes it the most powerful, resilient, and awesome phenomenon that we’ve ever created! Of course the modes through which we tell stories have changed over the years: from cave drawings, to oral storytelling, to minstrels, to literature, to moving pictures, but the concept itself of sharing narratives has never faltered and just like storytelling itself, there are some tales that have transcended through generations to come out stronger than ever!
Here are few of my favourites…
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen’s witty and biting tale of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy is so much more than mere romance. Pride and Prejudice will always be relevant because it is a critique of themes that have been present in society since we gave them definition! The dangers of pride, vanity, and prejudice, namely the hindrance they cause in our assessments of peoples’ characters, are ones that threaten all manner of social circles no matter how backward or modern and that is why it’s a timeless tale. Period adaptations continue to entertain audiences (e.g. the BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle or the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen) while critically celebrated modern versions such as Bridget Jones’ Diary (novel by Helen Fielding and film by Sharon Maguire) provide a fresh spin that keeps the story up to date. The fact that Pride and Prejudice has thrived in both its period depictions as well as contemporary just goes to show that it’s a story that no one is getting sick of any time soon. In fact, the themes and social explorations are so relevant that many other creative artists have paid homage to Austen with similar stories and characters.
Emma – Still on the Austen bandwagon, we move on to the romantic tale of Emma, a completely clueless matchmaker. The drama and comedy that comes from interpreting (and misinterpreting) romantic signals between the sexes is as old as the hills and still reigns as a wonderful source of social confusion and material for the rom-com. While Emma has been made into a period drama starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the most popular version of the story is actually Amy Heckerling’s teen rom-com Clueless (1995) starring Alicia Silverstone. Moved to the high society and social cliques of a Beverly Hills high school, Clueless changes the language of Emma, but none of the story’s potency as Cher (the Emma character) makes over a fellow peer and then proceeds to completely make a mess of everyone’s social life by attempting to control affairs of the heart. Austen’s themes of social identity and romantic signals between the sexes are unstoppable forces that drive Emma through generations of audiences without ever slowing down.
The Great Gatsby – While the story itself of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby may not be as continuously present as Austen or Shakespeare’s stories, Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age tale of accumulation of wealth has been the central theme of a number of successful dramas. Synonymous with the American Dream, Gatsby’s lavish lifestyle, while being the envy of Fitzgerald’s characters and readers, is a stab against materialism as the jazz and champagne are a costume to cover a very unfulfilled man. Fitzgerald’s themes of loss and compensation are the same ones that drive the story of Lester and Caroline Burnham in American Beauty (1999), as well as that of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), and of course The Great Gatsby itself has been adapted for film numerous times: the most popular being the 1974 version starring Robert Redford, although Baz Luhrmann took a stab at it in 2013 with a mixed bag of success. It’s the central themes of The Great Gatsby that keep it afloat in contemporary culture, along with its dispiriting dramatic irony.
Practically anything by Shakespeare – Granted there are some Shakespearean tales that prove more timeless than others, but there’s a reason we’re all forced to study the playwright in high school. I’ll admit that I am not a Shakespeare fan, but even I can appreciate his grasp on a good story. Like every tale worth telling, and telling, and telling, and telling again, and again, and yet again Shakespeare tackles exciting social and narrative themes in his works that move through generations without losing any of their relevance or appeal. Murder, social conventions, the supernatural, insanity, espionage, when has anyone not wanted any of these in their mode of voyeuristic escape? The longevity of Shakespeare is pretty self-explanatory and you need only look at how many adaptations of his works have appeared on stage and screen to silence any doubts that he’s ever going to go out of style…
- Alongside the period drama of Ziferelli’s Romeo & Juliet, Baz Luhrmann’s ‘MTV Shakespeare’ version proves to be an ever-popular choice amongst modern audiences. Then of course we have such adaptations as West Side Story (1961), Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), Warm Bodies (2013), and Pretty in Pink (1986).
- The only couple to rival Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Taming of the Shrew (1967) was Heath Ledger and Julia Styles in Gil Jugner’s teen rom-com adaptation of said play: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) still proves to be a popular study for kids trying to fathom Shakespeare in high school.
- Amongst its numerous stage and screen adaptations, Hamlet is the only Shakespeare tale that excited Disney enough to create a family classic based on it. If nothing else, The Lion King (1995) is proof that Shakespearean stories are just as enjoyable for kids as they are for adults.
- The chilling tale of Macbeth, along with its various trivial quirks, has been referenced in pop culture time and time again from Blackadder to The Simpsons. The story’s exciting themes of murder, guilt, and the supernatural have proven universal with Akira Kurosawa making a samurai adaptation of it in 1957.
- Then amidst the continual stage productions, the thriving culture of the Shakespeare Company as well as various Shakespeare societies across university campuses, authors have also worked to keep Shakespeare’s stories going: only two years ago Margaret Atwood wrote Hag-Seed, a modern retelling of The Tempest.
Most fairytales – Beginning life as oral stories around campfires and town squares filled with sex, abduction, and the macabre we might not recognise quite a few of our favourite fairytales, if we came across them today. But while the traditional tales have been subjected to a diluting round of Chinese Whispers, it doesn’t make them any less popular…
- Cinderella would have to be the most repeated, having been constantly remade and revamped into everything from family classics such as Disney’s family films (1950, 2015) to rom-coms about prostitutes (Pretty Woman, 1990). It seems that everyone has played the titular character from Brandy (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, 1997) to Drew Barrymore (Ever After, 1998) and the tale has transcended every genre from animated musical to fractured Broadway fairytale (Sondheim’s Into the Woods, based on the book by James Lapine).
- It’s hard to find a robot or artificial intelligence story nowadays that doesn’t reference Pinocchio, indeed there is such a thing as Pinocchio Syndrome that describes a reaction certain people have when they lie. Simultaneously in filmic terms Pinocchio Syndrome refers to robots or beings of artificial intelligence that wish to become human, something we’ve seen happen over and over in sci-fi movies: I, Robot (2004), Bicentennial Man (1999), A .I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), even in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, in which James Spader actually sings ‘I’ve Got No Strings’ from Disney’s Pinocchio).
- Then there are the countless remakes, references, and samples of these stories that seem to overload popular culture, everything from the Muppets’ Wizard of Oz to a themed episode of Charmed, to Gregory Maguire’s series of reimagined fairytales.
There are hundreds of other classics that have stood the test of time and change: Dracula, Frankenstein, Oliver Twist etc, have inspired film adaptations and piggyback novels galore! This is just a handful of the most prominent tales that continue to successfully transcend the boundaries of genre, the generation divide, or the language barrier. With their recognisable characters and relatable themes, they translate into any language be it linguistic, generic, or whatever and continue to engage, entertain, and inspire audiences wherever they happen to be!
Did I miss your favourite? Share it below!