It was two years ago that Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby came out in cinemas. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel had already been turned into a movie a few times before that, most famously in 1974 by Francis Ford Coppola and director Jack Clayton – with Robert Redford in the role of Gatsby.
No sane individual would argue that Luhrmann’s version was unneeded on the basis that the seventies-incarnation still worked perfectly well for modern-day audience, or that the cinemas could just as well have screened the Clayton/Coppola version and expect the same turnout as the new one would get. No, remakes are natural for movies; but we have yet to see a single paper remake of the novel itself, even if reprints keep coming out, and since the copyright expired five years ago anyone would legally be able to make their own rewrite (with copyrights traditionally expiring seventy years after the death of the author).
There are other classics with expired copyrights that are still considered culturally relevant: Oscar Wilde‘s The Picture of Dorian Gray remains the favorite book to many, and was in fact recently adapted into a movie, in 2009 – a heavily distorted version, by the way, where Dorian’s main fault is in that he lets his friend, Lord Henry, trick him into visiting a brothel, where the two of them get high on opium and then enter an orgy, on a night when they should be attending the theater where Dorian‘s fiancee is performing on stage. The filmmakers might just as well have released their own book version as well, with how much they changed of the story. And yet they didn’t.
Wilde died in 1900 and so there has been plenty of time for rewrites of his work to come out – granted, there have been comic book versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but let’s leave those aside since that’s practically a separate medium. Then of course there’s always fan-fiction, but those tend to be more like spin-offs rather than remakes in the way that films get remade. The closest thing to remakes of classics that I can think of are those mash-up books where utter surrealism is thrown into the mixture, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters – which indicates that a classic cannot be remade without completely changing the spirit and the theme of the original story.
Yet it isn’t hard to imagine the circumstances where literary remakes would become a trend. All it would take would be for one piece of fan fiction that stayed loyal enough to the original work to constitute a remake rather than a spin-off to become a hit, and with that we would be sure to get hordes of writers jumping on the bandwagon and big publishers following suit.
Even so, I’m doubtful that it will ever come to that, for the simple reason that it’s such an inherent part of the charm of books that they are essentially source material – whatever else they may be. Once you’ve pealed away the layers of remakes and adaptations and you’ve reached the paper core, you shouldn’t be able to go any deeper down than that. Even books that have come out after the film versions still have that aura of originality to them, like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, where certain parts of the story can (in my opinion) only be understood properly through reading the book.
Anyway, for anyone who doesn’t share my skepticism and wants to get straight down to following which books are presently becoming free of their copyright to then go to work on them, the rights for Mein Kampf should have expired in April this year – incidentally, please check out my previous post on attracting the right kind of readers to your writing.