Reinventing a classic

If I ever make it on desert island discs the one question I already know my answer to is the book I would choose. I first read Jane Eyre when I was 11 and auditioning for the part of Adele in a local, amateur dramatic production. I love it and clearly I am not alone! There seems to be an almost annual reworking of this classic for either the small or big screen and decent audiences are practically guaranteed.

It has got me thinking about what makes some tales worth re-telling over and over again. In the case of Jane Eyre it is a gripping yarn that‘s utterly compelling on first read. Yet I don’t believe that in itself ensures such enduring prominence and affection. The characters are fascinating due to the intrigue in their backstories. They are richly drawn by an author who elicits our loyalty for these complex personalities which encompass light and shade, honour and shame. However, I think it is the universality of the themes that really mark this work of literature out as a genuine classic. Obviously it is a love story. But then there are plenty of those that have long since been eclipsed by racier offerings! Essentially, I see it as a tale about the search for identity and how true personhood finds fulfillment in equal, honest and mutually affirming relationships.

I have always wondered what would be revealed about the changing nature of a society’s values and concerns by comparing and contrasting different productions of the same classic text over time. For example, in the most contemporary versions of Jane Eyre you do not see the same emphasis given to the idea of redemption from wrong-doing by surviving fire that is strongly evident in the original and there are a lot more overt physical expressions of love than Charlotte Bronte ever included! This is where the culture is reinterpreting the narrative to enforce prevailing attitudes about what is important and behaviours that are socially acceptable and appropriate. The process is essential if a book set in a very definite historical context is still able to articulate something meaningful about what it is to be human in the 21st century.

So what about another great, epic story of love, salvation and self discovery from long ago – that contained in the Bible? How can it be creatively reframed so once again it speaks afresh down the ages about the value and purpose of humanity? If it could be retold imaginatively and provocatively what new insights might be discovered that address the culture’s present preoccupations? What can we learn from such popular and attractive presentations of historic fables to make the story that we are actually a part of live again and inform our contemporary experience of life, love and relationship? Or perhaps our sacred text is just too precious and we cannot afford to mess with it! Yet didn’t Jesus in Luke 4:18-21, for example, take the classic lines from Isaiah and radically reinterpret them for his time by applying them to himself?

My fear is if we don’t take some risks and subversively re-engage with communicating the message of hope we enflesh for popular consumption as a matter of urgency, it might fade so far from the public consciousness it will be consigned to literary obscurity once and for all. What a tragedy if the Jane Eyre remakes continue unabated but the greatest story ever told sinks without trace! It requires us to know the culture, while being continually remade by the narrative that defines us. As we make room for greater artistic expression and experimentation we might just hit upon the parallel contemporary parables that will attract people to the Light, interest them in the Word and unite them with the Source of everything. It has been the challenge for every generation and now it’s over to us to find the innovative routes for the Gospel that will positively impact our contemporary existence.

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