Not Based on a True Story


I keep having the (unintentional) experience of reading two (or more) books within a few days of one another which then become linked in my mind in some way.

A recent example: I read Ellen Potter’s middle-grade novel, The Humming Room and Patrice Kindl’s YA novel, Keeping the Castle. Each of these novels is based on a classic work of literature: The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, in the first case, and Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, in the second.

Both were well-written books, with good stories and fairly well-developed characters. Neither one was a slavish retelling of the original source material, but readers of the originals would have no trouble predicting what was coming next.

And that, of course, is both the positive and the negative of basing a story on another story. On the one hand, readers familiar with the original (and particularly those who like the original) can enjoy being back in its world, even if it is set in another time and place. They can feel immediately at home with the characters and comfortable with the plot, and even curious about what twist the modern author might put on that plot. On the other hand, the reader knows what’s coming, more or less, and may well judge the new work based on their connection with the older work.

Potter and Kindl took different approaches to bringing their stories to life for young readers. Potter placed her story in modern times (more or less–there really isn’t a lot that dates it other than a few references to speedboats and Jet Skis). By using a former tuberculosis sanitarium on an island  in the St. Lawrence as a stand-in for a huge old mansion on the Yorkshire moors, she was able to convey the sense of loneliness and isolation and remove Roo and the other characters from much contact with the outside world.

As you know, The Secret Garden was my favorite book as a child. I re-read it regularly, and I read it to you boys when you were little, so I’m really, really familiar with the story. Reading it as an adult, I can see some issues with Burnett’s mysticism and her preachiness, but none of that bothered me at all as a kid. That’s all pretty much gone from The Humming Room, although there is some of what today we would probably call magical realism (e.g., the humming). But in both cases, the book’s main plot involves the classic situation of “get rid of the parents so the kids can have center stage.”

And in both books, the garden is a metaphor for growing. Roo and Phillip, like Mary and Colin, come into their own through the medium of the garden. In both cases, they have some help, in the shape of the somewhat magical, slightly older boy (Jack/Dickon) and also the helpful young woman (Violet/Martha), not to mention a very knowing wild creature (squirrel/robin).

I actually liked some of the ways Potter streamlined the story. The last time I reread The Secret Garden I was a little annoyed with how long and drawn-out the whole meeting Colin and getting him into the garden thing was. Potter didn’t mess around: Roo found Phillip, they realized they were cousins, and pretty quickly thereafter they were in the garden.

All in all, I really liked this book, and hope it finds a strong readership.

Keeping the Castle takes a different approach. In fact, I would say it’s more an homage to Jane Austen than a retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Admittedly, it’s been longer since I read P&P, and I don’t know it as thoroughly as I know TSG, but my sense is that other than the central plot idea–young woman has her sights set on rich young nobleman, is annoyed by his supercilious friend, but ends up falling in love with the friend–it doesn’t follow the story of P&P too slavishly. As I recall, Elizabeth Bennett was one of five sisters, and her father was, if not rich, at least well-placed in the community. Althea’s father is dead and she is essentially penniless, hoping to marry well in order to save the family’s crumbling home for her younger half-brother’s inheritance.

Kindl’s novel, like Austen’s, is set in Regency England, and, being told in the first person by Althea, strives to use period-sounding language. I don’t know enough about the period to speak to the accuracy of her details, but at least nothing in particular jumped out at me as an anachronism. So in this case, instead of just retelling the story, Kindl sets it in the same world, has some similar characters and a basic plot line, but essentially tells her own story: a tale, as the subtitle says, “of romance, riches, and real estate.”

In some ways, I think this approach is more successful that the straight retelling. It invites less comparison with the original material, while still being filled with the characteristics that make people like the original. I can see this book encouraging teens to dip into Jane Austen. In fact, I think getting some familiarity with the manners and language through this book could help a teen be able to read and enjoy Jane Austen.

I don’t know that I really have much of a point here. I just find it interesting to look at the different ways that writers utilize the material of other writers. Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes tells us. In fact, within the last week I also read Ron Koertge’s Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses, a series of poems/essays based on classic fairy tales, which are a never-ending source for writers. (I liked some of the sections; thought others were just okay.)

Any thoughts about these two (or three) books or in general about books that are based on/retellings of/homages to/rip-offs of other books or stories?

– Mom



Filed under Books, Children, Teens

3 responses to “Not Based on a True Story

  1. KEEPING THE CASTLE was definitely inspired by Jane Austen, but does anybody (marketing materials, the author) actually claim that it’s based on or a re-telling of any of Austen’s specific novels? I think it’s instead homage, with a slightly modern and decidedly lighter twist.

    You’ve got the plot of P&P a little off, Sarah. Elizabeth never sets her sights on Bingley, because he is immediately taken with her beloved sister, Jane, although she does scorn Bingley’s dear friend, Darcy, before falling in love with him. And while her father is a gentleman, that fact alone is useless to all five daughters, because he hasn’t saved any money for them and the estate is set to pass to their distant cousin as soon as he dies. They will in fact be penniless if they don’t marry well. (Mrs. Bennet is often criticized for being a hysterical, mercenary, money-grubbing, silly woman, but her underlying anxiety is serious business.)

    Anyway, the slightly modern twist is the “real estate” part. It feels sort of contemporary to me that she wants to marry someone with enough money to make repairs to the castle. And the book doesn’t really reach down into the grave moment that each Austen story has: even when this thing she has been working for (the castle) erodes into the sea, there’s a lack of gravitas to that scene somehow, maybe because it’s paired with the moment of acknowledgment of their love (if I’m remembering correctly).

    I so appreciated this book as a palate cleanser after CODE NAME VERITY. It made me happy. And I agree that for teens it’s a brilliant gateway drug to the classics.

  2. Mark Flowers

    @ Beth – Yeah, I corrected some of Mom’s thoughts on P&P, and also placed KTC in a different category of adaptations in today’s post. We were thinking along the same lines.

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