With Little Women and David Copperfield, has re-inventing literary classics become a new Hollywood norm?

Over the years we have seen numerous remakes and adaptations of the same works. Audiences have been treated to numerous takes on the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and many more in the pantheon of classic authors. In the past year or so we have been treated to new adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women which has been adapted for television, radio and film over the years. We have also seen fresh takes on Jane Austen’s Emma and Dicken’s David Copperfield.

Following on from the 1994 version of Little Women starring Winona Ryder and 2017 BBC miniseries, acclaimed director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) took on the unenviable task of modernising the classic tale of the four March Sisters, choosing a non-linear approach to adapt the story.  The cast won acclaim with particular attention going to Saoirse Ronan’s turn as Jo and Florence Pugh’s universally praised turn as a more sympathetic Amy than we have seen in previous takes on the story. Some have questioned the timeframe jumps of the film, however, overall, it seems this take on Little Women has won over both fans of the novel and made an array of new ones. This version of Little Women proved to be a big win at the box office, grossing over $200 million off a budget of 40, perhaps vindicating further adaptations of classics.

Arnando Iannucci has had a remarkably varied film and television career over the past 3 decades from his work creating some landmark British comedy series in the shape of The Thick Of It and Alan Partridge, in addition to a fine directorial career which has comprised of The Thick Of It film In The Loop and 2017’s Death Of Stalin. Iannucci’s latest is the freshest take on Charles Dickens rags to riches tale David Copperfield. One of the major aspects that differentiates this adaptation from previous period features is its decision to have a colour-blind cast, with Dev Patel in the lead role and Benedict Wong in a supporting role. This is quite a radical approach to a tried and tested genre, though given its positive response in the UK, will perhaps lead to further diverse takes on classic works.  Iannucci’s Copperfield also boasts a significantly lighter tone than previously exhibited, perhaps skewing closer to Dicken’s source material.

Netflix has lent its weight behind a slew of fresh adaptations of acclaimed works. Netflix will lead adaptations of all 7 books in CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series which has of course been subject to major adaptations on both big and small screen over the years with a Hollywood film series between 2005-2010 and a BBC series in the 1990s, The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, in particular, is no stranger to adaptations.  In addition to acquiring the rights to the Narnia series, Netflix is also set to try its hand at adapting many of Roald Dahl’s classics including Charlie & The Chocolate Factory with the involvement of Taika Waititi, of course, adapted previously with Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp.  This is particularly interesting as so many of Dahl’s tales have had the big-screen treatment with notable examples including Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox & Steven Spielberg’s BFG.

An adaptation to look out for later this year also from Netflix is mercurial director Ben Wheatley’s (High Rise, Free Fire) take on the Daphne Du Maurier classic Rebecca, which was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest pictures.  This fresh take on the De Winters boasts a stellar cast with Lily James, Kristen Scott Thomas and Armie Hammer in leading roles. Hammer has spoken of this being a modern take on the novel so it should feel substantially different from Hitchock’s 1940 version.

There appears to be no slowing down in fresh takes on old favourites with new versions of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi opus Dune boasting an all-star cast, one of the years most anticipated releases.  Kenneth Branagh will once again don the moustache of Hercule Poirot in yet another take on one of Agatha Christie’s best-known works Death On The Nile, this, of course, follows his successful version of Murder On The Orient Express in 2017 and will likely spawn further sequels should it prove a hit.

While there are doubtless benefits of fresh adaptations of literary classics and in some cases the film versions, most notably, Rebecca would struggle to engage younger audiences, it is hard to think that we need fresh takes on the likes of CS Lewis, Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl when these have been done countless times before. The colour-blind approach of David Copperfield does open up possibilities for this avenue to be explored further and on the flipside auteur directors like Ben Wheatley, Great Gerwig and Taika Waititi will ensure fresh takes on iconic tales boast uniqueness not found in earlier spins on the tale.

Words by Chris Connor

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