On Giving Old Stories a Fresh Spin

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Today, classic film network TCM is showing eight movies based on the Robin Hood legend.  Among them is the legendary 1938 Errol Flynn version, The Adventures of Robin Hood, jumbled alongside films like Red River Robin Hood (1943), The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936), and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), which sound as though they have nothing to do with Sherwood Forest.

via amazon.com – © BBC

It seems that one cannot make a Robin Hood movie or television series without reimagining part of it.  Even adaptations that have kept the medieval setting have branched away from idea of an outlaw stealing from the rich to help the poor, focusing on other aspects of the story.  In the 1976, there was Robin and Marian, which showed the couple in the later years of their life.  The 2010 film Robin Hood with Russell Crowe is an origin story.  There’s even a TV movie called Princess of Thieves, which follows Robin’s daughter.  Even the basic story of Robin Hood has undergone transformations.  Maid Marian wasn’t introduced until the fourteenth century, and then by the 2010 film, she actually disguises herself and rides off into battle.  Similarly, it has now become customary to include some kind of Turkish character, which 2006 BBC Robin Hood series even made a woman.

The story of Robin Hood has been around for so long and has become embedded in people’s minds that it only makes sense for revisionist interpretations to exist.  Fairly tales have also been given the same treatment – just look at ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm, not to mention this year’s rival Snow White movies Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. 

via amazon.com – © Syfy

But even relatively newer stories, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have undergone similar treatment.  The span of months between late 2009 and early 2010 saw two markedly different versions of the story: the Syfy’s television miniseries Alice and Tim Burton’s blockbuster film Alice in Wonderland.  In Alice, a wholly liberal adaptation, the heroine is not an innocent blonde seven-year-old, but a brunette twenty-something martial arts instructor.  When she falls into Wonderland (or Underland, as it is now known), people ask if she’s the “Alice of legend.”  Tim Burton’s adaptation also sets the story in the future, but this time, Alice is the same Alice – and for whatever reason, she can’t remember ever having gone to Wonderland.  The aforementioned Once Upon a Time even transports the Mad Hatter to the same fairy tale land that houses Snow White and Rumpelstilskin.

via amazon.com – © BBC

While not as extreme as what has been happening to other works, the plays of Shakespeare, when they’re not inspiring countless other stories, seem to never keep their proper settings nowadays, as a current trend performs the Bard’s plays using modern costumes and sets.  Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) famously updated the play to the modern world.  I’ve seen live or televised Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra all done like so.  The version of Hamlet was so modern-looking that Hamlet himself was sporting a muscle t-shirt at one point.  And the whole action of Macbeth was transplanted to something resembling Soviet Russia.

With all of these stories, there exists a “been there, done that” feel.  Everyone knows that Robin Hood steals from the rich, gives to the poor, and falls in love with Maid Marian along the way.  Similarly, everyone is familiar with Alice, the Queen of Hearts, Snow White, and Romeo and Juliet.  No one wants to compete with the image of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood or the Alice of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.  And Shakespeare’s plays have been performed countless times.  So instead of staid adaptations, we have all of these revisionist interpretations.  I admit that I enjoy the creativity of what Once Upon a Time does with fairy tales and what the Alice miniseries did to Carroll’s stories.  But with Shakespeare, I just want to see his works performed as they were written.  Is it too much to ask to see a Macbeth that takes place in eleventh century Scotland?

How to you feel about updating classic stories?  Is there a point where you draw the line?

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