Friday, September 3, 2010

It's Hard to Follow the Original

I just finished Ophelia by Lisa Klein. I liked it well enough, but as I was reading, it struck me how hard it must be to try to write something that's based on someone else's work. Or even to write something based on historical fact, as A Northern Light was loosely based on the murder of Grace Brown (which was also the basis of Drieser's An American Tragedy).

Klein did well, in my opinion, of taking the sketchy character of Ophelia from Shakespeare's play and putting credible flesh on her.  Ophelia's tale blended reasonably well with Hamlet's tale, although at times I found myself thinking the timeline seemed sort of bizarre. Of course, it's hard to tell from Hamlet what amount of time expired between Hamlet's encounter with the ghost and the eventual gory fencing match. In re-reading the play, I thought it might have been a period of even weeks, which would be one reason Hamlet berates himself so for failing to carry out the revenge his father's ghost demands.  In Klein's book, everything seems to happen in a matter of days, or at most, a couple of weeks.  It strained my suspension of disbelief a little that all those events - from Shakespeare's original and from Klein's story - could have been compacted into such a brief time.

The thing that bothered me most, though, was the character of Hamlet in Klein's work. He was faithful to Shakespeare's conception of the character, no doubt. But it seemed to me that he was missing some soul. He just seemed sort of flat in Klein's re-telling.  In Shakespeare's play, I found Hamlet quite appealing (does that make me weird?) - he's witty, with a sharp and wicked sense of sarcasm that depends on word play and nuance of language (I guess I am weird, if that's what I found appealing!). He's passionate, and yet he's detached; he's paralyzed by indecision, and yet he acts forcefully. He's disdainful of women, and yet that disdain seems to spring from a deep sense of being let down by a woman who mattered.  I'm still not convinced he was mad; not to get into Shakespearan criticism here, but Hamlet seems to be the poster boy for what happens when one is re-active rather than proactive.  Anyway, his character was very much alive and vital in the play, in every sense of that word.

In Klein's book, Ophelia naturally was the strongest character, since we're seeing the story from her viewpoint. I'm ok with that. I liked what Klein did with her. But I was disappointed in Klein's Hamlet.  He just didn't seem exciting enough to inspire Ophelia to be so caught up in him. Maybe that's part of the point. Maybe Ophelia didn't really love Hamlet, but the idea of Hamlet - the handsome, witty prince who is forbidden to her. Lots of girls fall for the equivalent of Hamlet and overlook the Horatios who would be infinitely better for them. I suppose since Hamlet was going to be killed anyway - and we all knew THAT was going to happen - Klein didn't want to waste a lot of narrative energy on him.  Or maybe she was hesistant to develop him too much beyond what we already knew from Shakespeare - the perils of using someone else's well-known character.

Another peril exists in trying to speculate beyond the bounds of the original story. Klein's method of having Ophelia escape was definitely in keeping with the spirit of Shakespeare's works. Once Ophelia was safely lodged in the nunnery, though, the story seemed to me to take a weird turn and sort of amble off on a side road filled with deep psychological and religious brambles that try to explicate the sources of all Ophelia's perceived failings at Elsinore.  Although it turned out ok, it was just "ok."

To get back to my original premise, it must be hard to take someone else's work and expand it (as Klein did) or link to it in your own story (as Donnelly did with A Northern Light). On the one hand (Klein), there's a risk that audiences won't agree with your interpretations of the original events and characters, and that they won't like your additions. On the other hand (Donnelly), there's the possibility that the original story will seem sort of "tacked on" without enough relevance to the story at hand (I really felt Donnelly could have told the story of A Northern Light without trying to drag Grace Brown back in every few chapters - the link seemed really contrived to me). It must be much harder than trying to create an original story, where you have complete control over everything.

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