When Is It Okay to Mess with the Classics?

An upcoming retelling of Jane Eyre seems, at the very least, ill-advised. But why? Just because of our prejudices?

Four or five years ago, I read about a little Twitter dust-up over S. E. Hinton’s YA classic, The Outsiders. The story is about gang warfare in an Oklahoma town, with blue-collar “Greasers” pitted against white-collar “Socials,” or Socs. Protagonist Ponyboy Curtis is the youngest member of the Greasers, Johnny Cade is Ponyboy’s best friend, and Dallas “Dally” Winston is a gang brother who brushed up his tough-guy cred on the streets of NYC. As in West Side Story, violence escalates eye for eye until two kids are dead.

Though published in 1967, when S. E. Hinton was only 18, The Outsiders has an active fan base that interacts with the author. Trouble ensued when a fan asked if Johnny might have had romantic feelings for Dally. Hinton asked where that idea came from, and the fan replied, “I just think it’s cute.”

S.E.Hinton: Ask anyone in the 60s how “cute” it was to be gay.  I have many friends I love & do not want to sleep with.

This led to hurt feelings and other fans jumping in. One belligerently asked, “Why would you reject young gay kids interpreting your characters in a way that makes them feel safe?  This is trash.”  To which Hinton replied, “Young gay kids can identify with the book without me saying the characters are gay. I never ever set out to make anyone feel safe.” 

That controversy came to mind when I came across this cringe-inducing announcement in the Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf newsletter.

Carolina Ortiz at HarperCollins has acquired L.L. McKinney’s Escaping Mr. Rochester, a YA reimagining of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel that asks: what if the real villain of Jane Eyre was actually Mr. Rochester? In this queer romance, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason—Mr. Rochester’s wife, whom he’s imprisoned within the house for years—must save each other from the horrifying machinations of Mr. Rochester. Publication is planned for winter 2022; Victoria Marini at Irene Goodman Literary Agency negotiated the deal for world rights.

Well, what if???

What if  Fern was Wilbur the pig’s exploiter rather than savior (making him a pet, of all things)? What if Long John Silver was a symbol of freedom and self-determination, contrasted to Jim Hawkins’ boring morality? What if Judas Iscariot was actually the hero of the story, rather than the villain?

Once a novel is published or a movie released, the creator relinquishes most rights to the content. Text is copyrighted, and plot to some extent (although it’s very hard to prove a plot was “stolen”). Characters are up for grabs. Fans who form deep spiritual connections with the story are free to imagine its characters in further adventures, and even to give their imagination free reign on fan-fiction websites. This may be squirmy for the author, but obviously not illegal and maybe even okay.

But is it okay to tamper with classic works, especially in the manner proposed by Escaping Mr. Rochester? Fictional “updates” are a YA staple, as in the many modern versions of Pride and Prejudice. A “gender-flipped, near-future, feminist re-telling of The Great Gatsby” is due next spring. Fairy tales are routinely brushed up and trotted out in new costumes, like Matt Phelan’s graphic novel version of Snow White (which we liked).

It’s one thing to update a traditional tale, or re-imagine a classic story with characters who imitate the originals while becoming themselves. For example: Lizzie Bennett, a low-income scholarship student in Prom and Prejudice, shares some characteristics with Elizabeth Bennett, and her romance with Will Darcy follows the same tortuous path, but because the story takes place in a modern setting she’s also herself.

But it’s another thing to hijack a story for the purpose of a contemporary agenda. The premise of Escaping Mr. Rochester puts me in mind of pirates boarding a sailing vessel that was minding its own business, running up the colors and having their way with the innocent passengers. And who are those passengers?

Jane Eyre, the plain little governess, has integrity–not only in the sense of moral uprightness but in the sense of being fully realized. In spite of her difficult past and uncertain future, she has made deliberate choices about how she will live her life. We see where she’s coming from and how she uses her experience with Edward Rochester (and the often-overlooked St. John Rivers) to grow in character.   

Mr. Rochester has serious flaws: pride, severity, and a cruel streak. But over time we see where he’s coming from as well, and we resonate with his redemption. As for Bertha Mason, maybe she was dominated by men all her life, and madness is her way of acting out. But the woman has issues of her own and a full background that we are not privy to. It could be that she is weak in character as well as exploited. Like many women. And men.  

Allowing for the fact that I haven’t read it—because it’s a year and a half from publication–Escaping Mr. Rochester sounds like more like an uptelling than an updating: It grabs the original by the collar and shakes until it’s woke. The scenario reduces all the major characters to contemporary stereotypes in order to ballast a contemporary narrative.  It won’t disturb Jane Eyre’s enduring relevance, any more than Tiger Lily shook up Peter Pan.

But it strikes me as a low blow, or worse: a cheap trick.

Also at Redeemed Reader:

  • See our thoughts on Jane Eyre from a few years ago, in response to the latest movie version.
  • And though it’s fine to re-tell fairy tales, it’s less so to Invade Fairyland.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Adrianna on May 12, 2020 at 11:55 pm

    I’ve read Jane Eyre more than once, and increasingly came to realize how Calvinistic she was. I’m horrified at the thought of a retelling of this beautiful story.
    If someone has the imagination to retell a story, seems to me she/he would have ideas enough to write a completely new and different novel.

    • Janie Cheaney on May 13, 2020 at 4:19 am

      I agree, Adrianna. I think this is almost entirely agenda-driven, which makes for bad fiction, if nothing else.

  2. Becky on May 14, 2020 at 7:18 am

    I don’t mind retellings when there’s a reasonable twist. Like I can’t say I loved Longbourne, but I enjoyed seeing elements of Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of one of the Bennets’ servants, because it was a new perspective on Austen’s time periods. I haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea yet (a prequel/retelling of Jane Eyre through the eyes of Mr. Rochester’s wife), but am interested for many of the same reasons that I read Longbourne. I don’t mind retellings in more modern/futuristic settings either. For example, I thought Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles were a lot of fun. But this Jane Eyre retelling just screams agenda-driven fanfic. I wish authors would just make original characters instead of trying to twist classics for their own ends, in that case.

    • Janie Cheaney on May 14, 2020 at 12:02 pm

      That pretty much matches my thoughts, Becky. I’ve been interested in reading Wild Sargasso Sea, even though it apparently makes Bertha Mason a victim and Rochester a villain. Maybe I’ll get around to it some day.

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