“This is Not Shakespeare, Louie…”

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In a scene from the great movie comedy, Trading Places (surely you’ve seen it…what, you haven’t? Well, go rent it now and watch. I’ll be here when you get back. :-)), Louis Winthorp, the cultured character played by Dan Aykroyd, upon discovering the first name of Jamie Curtis’s character, says, “Ophelia?! You realize, of course, that that’s…” She interrupts him and says, “I know. Hamlet’s girlfriend. He goes crazy; she kills herself. This is not Shakespeare, Louie.” Remember that?

Anyway, I was somewhat reminded of it recently when I read Michelle Ray’s book, Falling for Hamlet, which is a contemporary-based retelling of the classic tale, with very few changes. The few changes are significant, though, and deal with the fate of at least one of the major characters. That’s as much of a spoiler as I’m going to give you. Read the book yourself if you’re interested.

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I, for one, found the book a pleasant diversion from what I normally read. The author wrote it with a young audience in mind, and it is told in the first person by the Ophelia character. The story is also framed around a criminal investigation and a talk show appearance by one of the major characters (how’s that for modernizing?). The author also includes some lengthy notes on how she came to write the book and also on her background with the play and Shakespeare. I admire her courage for taking on such an ambitious work, knowing in advance she would likely encounter ridicule or hostility from some “purist” quarters. Overall, I think she did a great job.

I enjoyed how she weaved the modern, technological world and its idioms to the story. We see the young characters text messaging each other (one of the texts reading “strnge things afoot @ the circle K” in a nod to the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which I chuckled at). We also get lines like “Horatio took his iPod out of his jacket and focused on untangling the wires.”. We learn the first names of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern when they are introduced to someone and say. “Billy Rosencrantz, Dave Gildenstern.” I also love that the young characters are fans of a rock band named “The Poor Yoricks” and that one of their favorite tv shows is a musical reality program called “Denmark Divas” (sounds a little similar to a show here on the Fox network, doesn’t it?).

Of course I’m no expert on what dialogue between teenagers should sound like these days, but I found it to be natural and credible. The narrative voice of Ophelia was strong and she made some good observations about her world. At one point, while she was kind of ‘on the run’ and had a clandestine meeting with Horatio at a coffee shop, upon watching the other customers file in and out she says, “It occurred to me that those decisions at the coffee shop about what flavor and how much foam might be the only element over which these people had any control for that entire day. Perhaps that was why everyone loved their latte-machiatto-double-shot-light-whipped whatevers.” Insightful AND humorous!

Has anyone else out there read this book? Or better yet, how do you feel in general about modern retellings of older, classic (dare I say sacred?) stories? I’m intrigued every time I see a title like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” but this is the first book I’ve read – at least recently – that falls into this category.

(below: Author Michelle Ray)

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8 Comments

  1. Alex said,

    September 20, 2011 at 7:08 am

    This sounds like it could become a great BBC mini-series! I only become a purist when I can sense that the author/screenwriter is not a real fan and is just piggybacking on someone else’s name (which doesn’t seem to be this case :)).

    Have you hear of Dorothy Dunnett’s The King Hereafter, a story based on Macbeth’s story?

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 20, 2011 at 5:25 pm

      Hi Alex,
      After reading the author’s comments, I’m reasonably certain that she’s a true Shakespeare devotee.

      I hadn’t heard of The King Hereafter, but I will check it out. Thanks form the tip!
      -Jay

      Like

  2. Megan said,

    September 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I love retellings of classic stories, particularly irreverent ones. For some reason I’m drawing a blank right now on any others, but the one that I can think of is “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff” by Christopher Moore. It’s basically a gospel of Jesus as told by his best childhood friend, Biff. It was funny and irreverent, but at the same time really well-written. I’ll have to see if I can remember others that I’ve enjoyed.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 20, 2011 at 5:26 pm

      Hi Megan,
      I’m a fan of irreverence too. 🙂
      Hadn’t heard of The Gospel According to Biff, but it sounds great. Thanks for the recommendation!
      -Jay

      Like

      • Dale said,

        September 24, 2011 at 4:15 pm

        I read The Gospel According to Biff, also. Very funny!! I will have to check out Falling for Hamlet. It depends on how well it’s done, but I seem to not mind retelling of classic stories – usually. We read The Story of Edgar Sawtell for our book group a while back. It was a Hamlet remake. There was Beastly, too (Beauty and the Beast). I liked both of those. But I guess there is a difference between “paying homage to” and “ripping off”.

        Like

      • Jay said,

        September 26, 2011 at 10:25 am

        Hi Dale,
        I’d forgotten that about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It didn’t “borrow” as significant a part of the storyline as others have, though.

        I’ve added The Gospel According to Biff to my “official” TBR list on
        Goodreads.

        -Jay

        Like

  3. Dave Young said,

    September 25, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    The Eclectic Pond Theatre presentation of “Romeo and Juliet” has completed it’s two week run at the Irvington Masonic Lodge building. There ia probably a more elegant name for the venue – it is in the same bldg that houses bookmama’s. I went because the director was a Barista in my neighborhood coffee shop. I did not expect much but was blown away by the professionalism of the cast and the production.
    I liked it so much that I went to see it again with someone who is much better read in Shakespeare and he was also pleasantly surprised. There were only about 25 paid, I assume, patrons at each of the two shows. The actors were primarily Butler and Purdue (who knew?) grads and some are thespians with the Children’s Museum. I think that the ECT’s goal is to get grant money to put on plays at public schools.
    I hope they succeed and I will look forward to their next production.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 26, 2011 at 10:33 am

      Hi Dave,

      I’d heard of that production (maybe from a visit to Lazy Daze) but regrettably didn’t catch it. I like how that little stretch of Johnson Ave. In Irvington is sort of a miniature oasis of “the arts.” I used to live just a couple blocks from there, on Audubon Road.

      I’ve been to a couple productions at another, smallish playhouse that you may already be aware of. It’s “The Epilogue Theater” at Alabama and 19th(?) Their seating capacity is probably around 75, but they put only tidy, professional little productions as well. I saw a great performance of To Kill a Mockingbird there not to long ago.

      -Jay

      Like


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