[I]n an eminently self-conscious age, when every hero sings his own epic. — John Oliver Hobbes
(This post started off as a response to Michelle’s post “The Votes are in…and…Shakespeare’s The Man” until I realized it was too long and spoke to exactly what I planned to discuss this week!) I would like to answer more to the question you pose, Michelle, regarding whether or not we have to remix and modernize every old or classic piece of literature for students to relate to and enjoy the material.
The original pieces yield important historical relativities, which help students understand the origin of ideas and how they have changed over time; teaching them that little of what they think is unique is in fact so. However, the present day is equally as important in the classroom and the issues plaguing our society often go unnoticed when history is constantly discussed. How many times are high school and university students promised a long chapter about the 21st century only to be given a point form run through of the important events from 1960 to 2001? This happened in countless classes that I have taken.
This brings me to why I believe the adaptations of original works are often severely lacking and not even beneficial to the average student–other than as glossy, easy to swallow companions to Shakespeare.
Where are the adaptations that take on classical materials in the modern day and still manage to capture modern concerns? There are a couple. One modern adaptation I can think of is Romeo + Juliet (1996), but this example is fraught. Romeo + Juliet (1996) uses Old English and the depth it does have (commenting on the family vs. family wars that occur in many countries in South America) is subtle and possibly not even intentional. She’s The Man has been discussed. It at least addresses the “tomboy” social stratification. Yet, the blend of comedy and tragedy, bordering on satire, that Shakespeare accomplishes so brilliantly is missing. So what is the point of the adaptation? Sure, it aids learning the original text, but it still does not encompass the hard hitting material–the parts of Shakespeare that stay with you for so long that you actually want to watch various versions of one play. She’s the Man would most likely be a popular go-to aid for Shakespeare in the high school classroom, but isn’t Bend it Like Beckham (2002) a better soccer comedy with a female protagonist? It happens to include more comments about our society, along with many of Shakespeare’s themes.
When an adaptation doesn’t do its job of representing the complexities of the original, the complexities that make it so powerful today, isn’t the adaptation nullified as an adaptation and just another sensational, lacklustre art form?
I think these questions have resonance with what Lessig is describing in terms of our fear of plagiarizing and collaboration. But I won’t restate his position too much since this has been discussed in the post Too Much of One Thing…. An example before we part then.
After I saw Les Misérables for the first time I was in awe, but mostly, very mentally tiered. Yes, mentally tiered is redundant, but I mean it in a way that says: I am sick of seeing the male hero sing his own epic and people being in awe of this. However, presenting a feminist twist on Les Misérables is not the answer because it is the wrong frame for the problem at hand. The question is not what perspective can we apply that will modernize this art, rather it must be: I have just witnessed Les Misérables and am inspired to write something that speaks to humanity. In other words, when we focus on which modern-day adjective describes “an adaptation” we are limiting ourselves–we are still thinking with the exclusive hero narrative, the one that breeds individual, privileged thought and opinion and not collaboration; the one that stays in the past and forgets the present and future.
(A video that might be of interest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyM-2_5cmkA.)
Antagonize that which is familiar, is what is best in my opinion. But, not simply for the sake of antagonizing. Let it reflect the present day. We’d all be smarter for paying more attention to the modern day truest’s (misused with the aim of highlighting how unsubstantial and fluid our “truths” are).
And…John Oliver Hobbes (JOH)
All of the above is what working with John Oliver Hobbes and her work has highlighted for me. From what I read of her work as I annotated, JOH always concludes with a philosophical observation about humanity. It does not come down to how much of one author she was influenced by, or which scholar spoke to her the most. The influences on her writing are made apparent by her allusions. Ultimately, her work is the product of observations. Her philosophies come out of observing certain personalities in environments that constituted her day-to-day life (for instance, time period, country, gender, and privilege). Reading her work through the collaborative framework of annotation has reminded me to observe more. To look for the ultimate humanity in the closest truest–my moment.