Traditional period dramas are beloved for their accurate historical costumes and otherworldly setting of different manners and perspectives. However, when you take their literary sources and transplant it into a world that’s familiar, do they lose their power?
Not always. If these adaptations are anything to go by, sometimes a classic text is as comfortable in the 90s and 2000s as it is in its own setting of corsets, letters and no electricity. Here’s the best and why they work…
Transferring Jane Austen’s Emma into a Beverly Hills high school, many people misjudge this film for shallow, when it’s actually as self-aware and smart as Austen’s original text. It’s quite a tight adaptation, following the expected plot points as popular girl Cher (Emma) decides to give a makeover to naive stoner chick Tai (Harriet). Miscommunications ensure and egos are given a dose of reality, just as in the novel.
What really makes this adaptation exceptional is the whip-smart writing by director and writer Amy Heckerling. Although it doesn’t take lines from Austen’s novel, it embodies her wry wit as it satirises the narrow perspectives of the MTV generation – importantly without ever criticising them. Although the characters are all as clueless as the film’s title, they learn valuable lessons and stay likeable to the very end. A sample of the best lines?
‘I’d like to see you have a little direction.’
‘I have direction!’
‘Yeah, towards the mall.’
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Shakespeare has had many modern adaptations but this one exploded for how it resonated with the younger generation, not least due to the presence of a teen idol – Leonardo DiCaprio, whose fame skyrocketed after this film. It’s a slick and confident production, using flash, spark and music to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s lines.
Impressively, this was only Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s second feature film. His style is so confident and unique that it’s no surprise that he’s held a distinctive place in Hollywood since, more recently bringing another classic adaptation in the form of The Great Gatsby, also featuring DiCaprio.
Sherlock (2010 – )
Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat and actor Mark Gatiss revived a Victorian icon when they turned to the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle in 2010 to create the BBC’s Sherlock. Modern London is a significant character in the film, featuring heavily in everything from the opening credits to dramatic panning shots. Like the original texts, it pays homage to that home of industry.
This contemporary adaptation not only made a star out of Benedict Cumberbatch’s chiseled cheekbones but it created one of the largest fandoms seen in recent years. In fact, the founder of this website may have bought a replica of the full length tweed jacket that Sherlock whisks around London and it’s actually turned into a winter staple. It’s also a fantastic interpretation that is much closer to the book that its setting would suggest, adapting and borrowing lines with fanatical glee.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Another Shakespeare adaptation and another interpretation set in a high school. What is it about American high school that make such excellent settings for classic texts? Whatever it is, it definitely works. 10 Things I Hate About You is a loose adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew, casting the contrasting sisters as tomboy Kat and prissy Bianca.
This film does acknowledge its roots, going as far to have Kat’s best friend as a devoted Shakespeare fangirl. At times, characters burst into lines from the play, such as when Joseph Gorden Levitt’s Cameron cries out ‘I burn, I pine, I perish’ at the sight of Bianca. To which his cynical friend replies ‘Of course you do.’
From a non-adaptation point of view, it’s also totally worth it for the scene in which Heath Ledger recruits the school band to serenade Julie Stiles’ Kat with a rendition of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’.
Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
Jane Austen’s novels are perfectly formed for modern interpretations, with iconic characters that we can still recognise in those around us today. It also allows them to be adapted very loosely, as is the case with Bridget Jones’ Diary, which simply handles the relationship between Lizzie and Darcy, as well as Wickham’s scoundrel nature.
In the film, Lizzie is Bridget (Renee Zellweger), Wickham is Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) and Darcy is Mark Darcy, played by Colin Firth in a fun nod to the role that made him an icon amongst period drama fans. As a standalone film, it’s a complete classic in its own right- hilarious, loveable and utterly romantic. It’s also very easy to fall in love with Bridget, easily one of the screen icons of the early 21st century. When it takes Austen’s lines too, it adapts them in the best way possible. Case in point:
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as one part of your life starts looking up, another part falls spectacularly to pieces.’
So there they are. Classic novels don’t need to have their period setting to be reawakened and enjoyed all over again, often by a new audience. What makes these interpretations special is how they’ve respected and embodied the spirit of their sources, as well as offering the little fan-specific joys of seeing Fitzwilliam Darcy in a business suit or Sherlock Holmes using a mobile phone.