In college, I got consumed by a trend I saw in literature to retell iconic tales from a perspective sympathetic to the traditional antagonist, and read a bunch of books that fit the trend. In honor of the Angelina Jolie CGI extravaganza “Maleficent,” I thought I’d share my incomplete list, in case it captures you the way it captured me.
- “Hamlet” by Wm. Shakespeare/”Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard
When I think about it, the trend began for me in high school, when I saw the film adaptation of Stoppard’s brilliant play. It’s a bit of a stretch to call Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the antagonists of “Hamlet,” but you can put these minor characters on the side of the King and Queen, and that’s definitely the wrong side. I learned so much about Hamlet (my favorite Shakespeare play) by seeing it this way, and I can’t recommend the film highly enough. Do what I did and watch it until you can recite the whole thing from memory. You won’t regret it.
- “King Lear” by Wm. Shakespeare/A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
I actually read these in reverse order. I went to college in Iowa, a few years after A Thousand Acres was published. It’s not surprising that this Lear adaptation set on an Iowa farm was on the required reading lists of several of the required classes for my English major. In it, Smiley finds ample reason for the Goneril and Regan characters to ostracize and punish their father. So much so that when I finally saw Lear, my sense of him was colored. A performance of Lear that I saw at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis with my Shakespeare class will always be my favorite experience of either story, though I saw an one-man version that involved hand puppets at a small theater just after college that also has stuck oddly with me.
- The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum/Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Of course I was terrified by and then enamored by the classic movie with Judy Garland. But The Wizard of Oz really came to life for me when I read it in my high school American history class. My AP American History teacher taught us The Wizard of Oz as an allegory for late 19th century American politics, especially related to the gold standard. It’s a pretty controversial theory that the author himself denied, but my teacher made a compelling case for it, and I think Baum’s denial could make sense, given the pointed satire of the allegory. Then I read Wicked for pleasure. My experience of these two books is pretty different, but the experience of reading them and exploring the contrast was so enjoyable that it really got me to thinking about why. Maguire took this trend-ball and ran with it, but my limited experience of his books and my conversations with people who’ve read many more of them suggests that it never got better than this.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson/Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin
The movie version of “Mary Reilly” with Julia Roberts came out while I was in college and, as a Julia Roberts devotee, I saw it. I realized that it (mostly) fit the pattern, so I read the book and Stevenson’s classic. I liked Mary Reilly better than I liked the original, but once I realized that I was not going to write my Master’s thesis on this topic, I got rid of them to make room for books about which I’m more passionate. They’re the only set I don’t still have. Kind of tells you something. This doesn’t entirely fit the pattern because Mary Reilly isn’t a character in the original, so there’s a fundamental alteration, plus she’s not the antagonist of the original, and though Hyde is portrayed more sympathetically, he’s not fundamentally redeemed.
- “Beowulf“/Grendel by John Gardner
I’ve totally cheated on this one. Despite several attempts, I have lacked the motivation to get through “Beowulf,” though I know the gist. Can’t even make myself watch the movie. But I enjoyed Grendel, when I discovered it, the summer after college. I promised myself I’d buckle down and read Beowulf when I started on my thesis. My thesis adviser wouldn’t let me write my thesis on this because he thought something much more personal and painful would be appropriate. So I didn’t have to read Beowulf, but I did have to do the emotional equivalent of operating on my own intestines. Trade-offs.
- Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer/The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer
I know, I know— one of these sets is not like the others. But it’s interesting to see this trend done by a single author. It’s not a perfect fit—Bree isn’t a primary antagonist, in Eclipse. It’s slightly more like R&G Are Dead, in that it offers a minor character’s perspective on a larger tale.
- “Sleeping Beauty”/”Maleficent” Disney
There’s no way to really talk about this without spoilers, beyond saying that this fits the pattern of a misunderstood antagonist finally being allowed to show their side. Interesting. Excessive with the CGI, but some interesting twists on the iconic tale.
Have you ever read books that fit this trend/pattern? Help me round out my list.