Five of the Best: Novels Based On Fiction

One Thousand Acres

Jane Smiley (1991)

1. Willa Cather. “There are only two orthree human stories,” Willa Catherine wrote. “King Lear” was based on the Leir story from Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th-century historian of the Kings of Britain. Jane Smiley retells the story in “A Thousand Acres.” Larry is a tyrant that rules over a large empire. In this case, it’s a 1,000-acre Iowa farm. This novel tells the story of America’s farmlands today, made rich by chemical fertilizers and turned into huge agribusinesses. Ginny, Rose and Larry are elated when he tells them that he plans to incorporate the farm and divide it among his three daughters. Larry’s third child, Caroline, is skeptical. This angers him and causes him to decide to disinherit Caroline. Larry’s family is destroyed. He flees into the night in a fit of anger.

The Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker (2018)

2 Pat Barker rewrote an old story from the feminist perspective. It’s nothing but “The Iliad,” which is a male adventure story where the women, often stunningly beautiful stick figures are, are torn back and forth among the warriors. Briseis, Ms. Barker’s main character, sees Achilles kill her father and brother. He then gives her away as a war reward. After seeing their families killed by men, what did the women of the Trojan wars do? Ms. Barker had Briseis tell her: “I do the same thing that many women before me have been forced into doing. “I spread my legs.” This author has been criticised for making anachronisms in her attempts to give women in such an epic an inner life. Ms. Barker retells “The Iliad” from the perspective of the women and enriches the story by making it relevant to today.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys (1966)

3. Jane Eyre discovers in Charlotte Bronte’s novel that Rochester has an insane wife, Bertha. Bertha is held in the attic. Jean Rhys’ prequel novel doesn’t hide her efforts to explore female sexuality. Bertha is the unloved and troubled child of a poor Creole Jamaican family. She marries Rochester, her stepfather. He isn’t mentioned in the novel. Bertha’s awakening sexuality prompts him to marry her. It becomes repulsive for him eventually. He says, “I was thirsty to her,” but that is not love. Rochester suspects she is part black. This causes him hate Rochester for the passion she incites in him.

Red Autobiography

By Anne Carson (1998)

4. Anne Carson’s novel-in verse is loosely inspired by the depiction of Herakles’ 10th labor by Stesichorus. It turns this image on its head. Only fragments of the Stesichorus poetry remain. Ms. Carson, poet and classicist mimics the fragmentary form of the Stesichorus poem, with its leaps from one image to another. It is a strangely powerful effect. Stesichorus’ version has Herakles stealing Geryon’s cattle and killing him. Ms. Carson makes Geryon sympathetic, making him a shy gay teenage boy. Geryon, unlike the mythical figure, falls for Herakles, a gay man who spurns Geryon and breaks his heart. While the original fable ended in violence, “Autobiography of Red,” ends with reconciliation. Geryon meets Herakles, his lover, one day and they stand together peacefully, “with arms touching and immortality on their faces.”

The Hours

By Michael Cunningham (1998)

5. This novel is an offshoot from Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway is a metafiction that features scenes of Woolf struggling with the first sentence of her novel. She ends up going insane and then killing herself. Michael Cunningham’s prose is delicate and elliptical, much like Woolf’s. Dalloway, “The Hours” is told through inner monologues and is set over one day. While Mrs. Dalloway was struggling with her sexuality in the original, Clarissa in “The Hours”, is a fully-realized lesbian living with her partner, Sally. Clarissa, Mrs. Dalloway has given her first name, and Clarissa is getting ready to go to a party for Richie, her ex-lovee and gay poet who has won a literary award. It is more than a tale about a genteel, upper-class woman. “The Hours,” the story’s dark center, is about the AIDS epidemic. Richie is suffering from the syndrome. Clarissa visits Richie in his apartment. In a shocking scene, he leaps from the window to commit suicide right in front of her eyes. Richie’s mother, an elderly woman he hates for abandoning him, arrives at Clarissa’s house and Clarissa, Sally and her husband offer food for the party. “Come in, Mrs. Brown,” Clarissa tells her. “Everything’s ready.”

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