Tips for Adapting a Classic, by Trevor J. Robinson

2016 was a big year for me. I self-published my young-adult horror novel The Good Fight in the summer, and married the love of my life in October. By the time we got back from our honeymoon and recovered from the hustle and bustle of Christmas, it was 2017 and I was looking for a new creative project. Crucially, the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie had also been out for a little while.

I’d been aware of PP&Z already, but as I (perhaps ironically) don’t like reading zombie stories, I’d never given it a try. Still, the fact that it existed got me thinking. Soon I found out there was an entire genre of “mash-up” novels that took classic stories from the public domain and re-imagined them with genre twists, like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters or Android Karenina, and the hamster in my head started running on his little wheel.


There on my bookshelf, as I thought of classic novels I could adapt, sat The Count of Monte Cristo staring me right in the face. Inspiration hit. I went to Wikipedia to refresh my memory about the plot, and started making notes to see if it would work. Two years of hard work and near-hermitry later, The Mummy of Monte Cristo was finished.

Mind you, it wasn’t nearly as easy as I assumed it would be when I started. I’d initially figured it would take a few months, tops. There are a few things to keep in mind when adapting a classic story:


THE AUTHOR AND THEIR AUDIENCE

I’m not ashamed to admit it: I was bored stiff watching Casablanca. There, I said it.

It’s the same with a lot of other older movies I’ve tried - not all, but a lot. The pace of the plot is entirely different to what I’ve grown up watching, and makes the movie feel about twelve times longer than it needs to be. It doesn’t mean the movie is bad, it’s just that I’m not part of the audience it was made for. And if you’re adapting a story that’s old enough to be in the public domain, you’ve got to keep those changes in mind when deciding what to keep and what to cut.


Alexandre Dumas first published The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844, only 30 years after the story itself begins. Back then, most normal people couldn’t just plan a sightseeing trip to another country; if a baker in Paris wanted to see Rome, he’d have to read about Rome and use his imagination.

One of the many genres Dumas wrote was travel books for exactly that purpose, which is why in the original there are so many loving and detailed descriptions of locations. There’s nothing wrong with those beautiful passages… but it’s the 21st century now, and we can look up photos of Rome anytime we want. Abbreviating passages like that can create room to dive deeper into the characters, or to provide more historical context (more on that later).


Speaking of abbreviation, The Count of Monte Cristo was originally released as a serial in a newspaper rather than as a complete novel. That newspaper also happened to be paying Dumas by the line. When writing your own adaptation, understanding the context in which the author wrote it can really help you to decide how much to trim and where to either make room for your own work, or just for brevity’s sake.

(If you take a look at my page count compared to Dumas’, you can probably guess which route I chose.)

HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL CONTEXT


Dumas’ audience was primarily French, and would have been very familiar with Napoleon’s rise and fall as recent history. I first read the book in Canada in the 21st century having never studied French history. Napoleon returning from exile early in the book (spoiler alert for a historical event over 200 years ago) caught me by complete surprise.

My edition of The Count of Monte Cristo has footnote markers every couple of pages with explanations of the historical context at the end of each chapter, from things as small as the money used to how Napoleon was exiled in the first place. Those footnotes were an incredible help to me in understanding the story when I first read it, but probably wouldn’t be appropriate in a modern novel.


Any story old enough to be in the public domain is going to have historical context that you may not be familiar with, unless you’ve already been studying that time period, in which case you’re probably better qualified to write this section of the blog post than I am. As the adapting author, you’re going to need to understand that context well enough to convey it to the reader in a way that helps them appreciate the setting and characters.

For The Mummy of Monte Cristo, I did a lot of research about Napoleon’s rise to power just so that I’d be able to explain why he was in exile, why his return was such a big deal, and the power struggle between the Royalists and the Bonapartists. That also led to a bunch of research into the French Revolution which, for the most part, I replaced with the Dead Plague and ravenous zombies terrorizing Europe for a decade. (At this point, I don’t entirely remember how much of what I know about Napoleon is real versus something I invented.) But that research was important, because what I learned allowed me to build my plot in a satisfying way that paid homage to the real history.


There may also be some social context you need to brush up on and convey to your readers. The Count of Monte Cristo describes the Catalans as people who live just outside of Marseille; having no pre-existing knowledge of Europe, I made the mistake of thinking Dumas was talking about a very small community confined to that one place. Thankfully, the Catalan Independence Referendum made the news not long after I started the project and corrected that misconception before I accidentally turned over seven million people into wizards.


THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT


You don’t just have to look to the past when making an adaptation, you also have to plan ahead. If you introduce a major zombie uprising in chapter 1, what kind of changes will that have in chapter 2, or chapter 38? You’ve made this character a serial killer; how will that change their arc?

I completely cut the characters of Heloise and Edouard from the original work, because I couldn’t make their subplots different enough from the original to be interesting. With that one decision, entire plotlines disappeared from the book. I actually lost a really cool funeral scene, where the cadavers were ritualistically flensed to the bone and those bones stacked in neat little crypt drawers, to show how the French treated their dead in a post-zombie world. On the other hand, it meant I had a lot more room to expand other plotlines to fill the void.


Another thing that adding the Dead Plague let me do was echo a real-world phenomenon that didn’t happen until World War 2. That war took so many able-bodied men away from their homes and jobs that their wives had no choice but to take their places in the workforce. It seemed logical to me that an event with such a catastrophic death toll as a zombie plague would have the same effect. This let me get the women in the story more actively involved in the plot.

Of course, that doesn’t even begin to touch how many changes I made, large and small, to the final act of The Mummy of Monte Cristo to build an ending that will surprise fans of the original while still keeping in harmony with Dumas’ work.


CLOSING TIPS


With all that said, I just have a few more tips for you to get started on writing your own adaptation of a classic book:


First, you need a book that’s in the public domain. It can be hard to determine whether that’s the case with books that aren’t already 200 years old, but there’s a good rule of thumb: if the original book is younger than Mickey Mouse (created in 1928) you’re probably out of luck. Copyright law has a curious tendency to get amended whenever Mickey gets close to entering public domain. So unfortunately, my mash-up of The Fountainhead with Frankenstein will only ever be fanfiction. If you don’t have a book in mind already, consider searching for lists of “the top 100 classic novels” as a starting point.


Second, have a clear idea of what unique spin you want to put on the story. When I looked back at The Count of Monte Cristo in 2017, I noticed that Dumas had a man wrongfully imprisoned without diving very deep into the government corruption that let it happen, and a focus on fabulously wealthy characters without any real discussion of economics. Being a little bit of a geek in both those areas, I saw an opportunity to have some fun shining light on them in my adaptation. Pick what you’re passionate about and use the story to tell the world why they should care.


Third, once you’ve got your source material and spin sorted out, decide what genre elements will best suit the new story you want to tell. Whether it’s sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or anything else, what you pick needs to jive with the source material. Could I have made The Wolfman of Monte Cristo just as easily? Probably, but a werewolf would have lacked a certain thematic connection with the original book. When revenge and treasure are such big focuses of the story, the only monster that seemed perfectly suited to the job was a mummy.


Fourth, when it’s time to publish, try social media pitch events! #PitMad is what got my manuscript in front of the right eyes here at Immortal Works, and without that The Mummy of Monte Cristo wouldn’t have been published on October 20th. Don’t get discouraged if your first pitch doesn’t get results; keep refining it and don’t give up.

I hope this advice on adapting a classic story and making it your own entry into the wild and wacky world of the mash-up genre has been helpful. One last tip: if you ever look at your notes and think “no, that’s just too weird and it will never work,” you tell that little voice to can it and keep going. In stories like these, weird works!


Meet the Author: When J Trevor was young, he received a well-worn stack of mystery and horror novels from his older brother, and it instilled in him a lifelong desire to be an author. Heavily influenced by Stephen King's scares, Jim Butcher's action scenes, and the larger-than-life characters in Ayn Rand's books, he blended those influences with classic literature and pulp horror to write his Immortal Works debut THE MUMMY OF MONTE CRISTO. He has also self-published a young-adult horror novel THE GOOD FIGHT, and was published in the Amazon #1 bestselling horror anthology SECRET STAIRS as the sole romance story in the collection. He lives in Toronto Canada keeping the redhead gene alive with his wife and newborn daughter, born Friday the 13th.


Books by J Trevor Robinson

In the aftermath of a brutal plague that swept across 19th-century Europe, Edmond Dantes is framed for treason by jealous rivals and a zealous prosecutor. He is left to rot in prison without trial or sentence. Edmond's cellmate, thought to be a madman, tells him of a great treasure and dark power hidden away on the Island of Monte Cristo, waiting for someone to come and take them. Without these gifts, Edmond stands no chance of delivering justice to the men who stole his life, his liberty, and his happiness. But with them, does he have any hope of retaining his humanity? And in a world of magic and monsters, could he bear to join the ranks of the foulest monsters of all: the undead?

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