The Challenges of Modernizing a Classic Novel (Alternatively titled, “Jane, Jane, & Jane”)

Re JanePatricia Park’s Re Janea contemporary Korean American retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre–had been collecting dust on my virtual “To Be Read” shelf for quite some time. Something always stopped me from reading it. The source of that reluctance is difficult to describe, except to say that it stems from my ambivalence about modern adaptations of classic novels. That ambivalence is hard to defend considering that (1) I am the author of a  modern “courtroom drama” retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and (2) I’ve certainly enjoyed several adaptations in the past.

However, almost all of my favorite adaptations are based on Jane Austen novels, which are challenging to adapt to modern times but perhaps not quite as challenging as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

So, Re Jane sat on my TBR list until I finally got the nudge I needed to read it from Jenna, who hosted a “Take Back Your Shelves” Readathon last weekend (#TBYSreadathon).

I finished the book, and the verdict is… well, I’m still sorting through how I feel about it. :-/

Park’s novel has confirmed how challenging it is to modernize a beloved classic (and I certainly don’t presume that I succeeded in doing it myself!). Modern authors who want to adapt a classic novel have the daunting task of having to decide what to keep from the classic and what to add to it.

Almost a year before I’d ever contemplated attempting to update a classic myself, I read Margot Livesey’s adaption of Jane Eyre, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which made me think carefully about the merits of modern adaptations.  In “Covering” The Classics: An Homage or a Rip-Off, I wrote:

I left this novel [The Flight of Gemma Hardy]  feeling very ambivalent about the merits of adaptations like this one.  Part of the writing process is building a story from scratch, scene by scene, and it feels like cheating when a writer simply borrows a blueprint for a story that someone else developed 150 years ago.

Ideally, the modern author brings something new to the novel that justifies the reader’s time and money. With my update to Persuasion, I tried to remain true to the romantic elements of Jane Austen’s original novel while fleshing out the loss of the sensible matriarch. In my modern version, her death not only leaves three daughters with their “conceited, silly” father but also results in a lawsuit that is unlike anything Jane Austen would have known in her time.

With Re Jane, Patricia Park’s added elements are the best parts. What is wonderful about the book is its portrayal of bi-racial identity, of being “Asian-ish,” of not quite belonging anywhere. These are feelings I can identify with as a multi-racial person of predominantly South Asian and Irish American ancestry.

What didn’t quite work for me were the parallels to Jane Eyre, a Victorian novel that presents adapters with quite a few obstacles, including:

  • How to translate the Rochester-Jane relationship to a modern time that has quite a different sense of employer-employee sexual harassment. Is Rochester a predator or a flawed but sympathetic character?
  • How to present the reason Rochester cannot marry (or in modern parlance, “get with”) Jane when divorce law is quite different now; and
  • How to address what’s “wrong” with the modern version of Rochester’s wife (if she exists in the modern story) when what Charlotte Bronte described in the original would be insensitive and cruel today.

One of the problematic parallels in Re Jane is Park’s portrayal of the wife, known as Beth Mazer. Jane Re interacts with her from the very beginning, though her original counterpart has no idea that her employer is married. While Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Mason is locked away in the attic because of her mental illness–something that does not translate well to modern times–Beth Mazer’s “insanity” is simply that she’s a controlling feminist stereotype with hairy armpits. Ugh.

If I could’ve excised Jane Eyre from Re Jane, I would’ve loved the book. The parts centered around Jane Re’s Korean American community, her trip to Korea, and her bi-racial identity are certainly worth reading.


    1. Yes, I was hinting at that problem when I wrote: “Jane Re interacts with[Beth] from the very beginning, though her original counterpart has no idea that her employer is married.”

      In my opinion, the book is better if you skip over everything related to the Jane/Ed relationship. The parallels to Jane Eyre just don’t work for anyone who loves the original (there’s a huge risk in rewriting any classic!). I wish Re Jane hadn’t been so overtly written and advertised as an adaptation. The parts about biracial identity were great, though, and I don’t often see those characters in fiction. I would’ve liked to read about that when I was younger and struggling with my own identity (who am I kidding? I still struggle with it!).

  1. Yuck. The part about the wife sound so stereotypical. I do have Jane Steele hanging out and waiting for a read, so we will have to compare notes about Jane Eyre retellings!

    I wonder if the best thing about adapting a classic for modern time is the ability to focus on certain new aspects, because you already know the basic storyline.

    1. I agree that the best adaptations add exciting new aspects to the basic storylines. I think Park succeeds in doing that. Anyone who is really looking for Jane Eyre in Re Jane is going to be disappointed, though. There are lots of references to the original, but this Jane is very different from the original Jane in ways that are troubling for Bronte fans.

  2. Interesting – sounds like this author might be better off daring to write from her own imagination right from the start (does she have other books?). I don’t like retellings or sequels (I can bear retellings in film, oddly enough), and I probably won’t go to your own book for that reason, but it sounds like you’ve done a good thing in adding your own specialism and twist to the original. I hope that’s come across correctly – it’s meant to be positive!

    1. Thanks! I enjoyed adding a lawsuit to Persuasion. The reason for the breakdown of the modern Anne/Frederick’s relationship is also different. It’s not for everyone, though (no book is!). 🙂

    2. I forgot to mention: Re Jane is Park’s debut novel. I’m not sure if she’s published anything since then. I would definitely be interested in reading more from her, even though I didn’t love her adaptation of Jane Eyre.

  3. This has also been on my TBR shelf for some time, too. I am a former Rochester fan, so I’m curious about retellings, but not so much that I jump at every chance… Hmmm…

    1. Re Jane is worth reading. There were parts I really liked, just not the parts drawn from Jane Eyre (and I’m a huge a Jane Eyre fan!).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I confess your book is still on my TBR shelf, but this makes me want to get to it more. I suspect my reluctance arises from my love of Persuasion as one of my favorites. I promise I’ll get to it, and will now probably look at Re Jane too but only after I’ve done Amelia Elkins Elkins!

    1. It’s very kind of you to consider reading Amelia (thank you!), but please don’t feel any pressure to do it. I hope readers enjoy it, but it isn’t for everyone (no book is!). So far, I’ve heard positive comments about the book from people love Persuasion as much as I do, but I’m always a little nervous about how Persuasion-lovers will react to the parts that come from my own imagination.

  5. Great review, you easily sum up some of my mixed feelings about retellings, though I’m a sucker for them. I’ll likely check this one out at some point… but more importantly I’ll definitely check out your book! I’m not as familiar with Persuasion as I am some of Austen’s other works, so this really appeals to me. 🙂 – ashley

    1. There is a lot to like about Park’s Re Jane. I hope you enjoy it. Also, thank you for considering Amelia! It was fun to write something that combines my love of Jane Austen’s novels with my legal experience.

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