Last week, I discussed some fun new ways to enjoy the classics. One of the latest literary trends is for new writers to take a work of classic literature and to add new material from another genre. These “mashups” have become extremely popular. Seth Grahame-Smith scored a huge hit with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as evidenced by a prequel, a sequel, and now a film adaptation. With the huge success of Jane Austen’s horror hybrid, other mashups have followed.
My one experience with a mashup was last year when I read Android Karenina last year. Overall, I enjoyed this cyberpunk imagining of Tolstoy. The classic elements of the original are still in place but the setting is a world of robot servants, debutante balls where the dancers hover through the air, and cults that worship supreme alien beings. Although the purist in me wants to attack this version as the ultimate sacrilege, I actually enjoyed the science fiction elements created by novelist Ben H. Winters. The addition of dystopian elements actually enhanced the novel’s themes of individual psychology and the human capacity for control and manipulation. Russia exists in a totalitarian state that is guarded by a secret police. Atop the Moscow Tower of the Ministry, a “scanning eye” watches over all. Of course, a dystopia needs a resistance. A group a scientists known as UnConSciya (Union of Concerned Scientists) hope to take Russia into a new era of scientific enlightenment. Their means, however, are not without crossing certain ethical lines. Did I also mention there are aliens and time travel?
For me, the science fiction elements were more than just popcorn filler. The addition of the androids helped demonstrate Tolstoy’s gifts for exploring the human consciousness and our capacities for good and evil. Often, the androids replaced the humans for exploring the novel’s moral dilemmas. Every human being has a robot companion that stays through life. Later in the novel, these companions are taken away from their human masters, giving some interesting insight into what it means to love someone.
While literature purists may argue against mashups as nothing more than blasphemous abominations against the original authors, others would bring up the point that they draw a fresh crowd to the realm of classic literature. I’m actually reminded of an old episode of Cheers where the intellectual Dr. Frasier Crane attempts to teach the other barflies the merits of literature by reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Realizing his efforts are quickly falling onto deaf ears, he begins to add horror elements to the classic such as “a bloodthirsty clown who swallows children whole.” Seeing he has everyone hooked, Frasier continues each night to read a classic work by inserting elements from current pop culture. Although he later felt ashamed for his actions, perhaps Dr. Crane was ahead of his time. The idea of reading a nineteenth-century comedy of manners novel may seem boring to some, but throw in hungry zombies, and now you have a party.
Also, while we enjoy these science fiction and fantasy elements, maybe we are learning more about the original material and its themes. Perhaps these concepts help make the symbolism clearer, as it did for me with Anna Karenina.
Then again, sometimes mashups go off the rails. While browsing through our favorite bookstore last week, my wife and I encountered the novel Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition, an erotic edition of Ms. Austen’s most famous novel. Is this taking things too far? Seriously, if you browse the bookshelves of any bookstore long enough you will find all types of versions of Jane Austen’s works. I wonder what the great Jane Austen would think of her novels being “immortalized” in this way. Perhaps “immoralized” is the better word.
I’m willing to give another mashup a try at some point. I’m curious to hear your comments. How do you feel about crossing genres and altering original work? Is there a particular “mashup” you would recommend?