You’ve heard the wry pronouncement, “There are only two plots in the world: someone takes a journey, and a stranger comes to town.” And then someone inevitably replies “That’s the same story. It all depends upon the point of view.” If there are only two stories in the universe, and possibly only one, what makes the story special? And who does the story belong to?
A book I read recently (The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz) made me think about this question: if somebody told me a really great idea for a book that they were writing, and no one else knew about it, and then that person died … could I use it? Would I use it?
My first thought, instantly, was “absolutely not,” but then came, “well, why not? Who does it belong to?” Should that great idea simply vanish into the ether? Although I could not articulate the reason, it seemed vaguely wrong.
West Side Story, however, is Romeo and Juliet, and unabashedly so. The clever A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley, is the story of King Lear. Someone told me that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material stories are Milton’s Paradise Lost. I read them, voraciously, and didn’t realize it. Back to school for me, I guess. So what makes a classic story? And why does it seem, in some situations, that it’s not only acceptable but brilliant to riff on them?
Gregory Maguire’s genius Wicked takes the characters in The Wizard of Oz and tells us what happened before the book. It’s riveting and changes the way we think of the story forever. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen, we’re told, made us laugh at the audacity, and then devour it.
Some stories are timeless. Some plots are timeless. Certainly, emotions are timeless. Some stories become classics, but when we say “classic” do we mean beloved, relatable, delightfully debatable or endlessly fascinating? And if you change the point of view, the location, the century or the ethnicity, couldn’t that actually make the original story better? Not diminished, but enhanced?
For instance, how about these original takes on classics?