How to Adapt the Classics: 6 Tips

My kids watched The Lion King a while ago. Afterward, my seven-year-old said, “The Lion King is really Hamlet.” I don’t know how he knew that, but he was right. Who’d have thought anyone could turn Hamlet into a  Disney movie?

Many successful books, movies, and TV shows are classics reworked. Here are a few examples I’ve noticed lately:

·         The movie You’ve Got Mail is adapted from The Shop Around the Corner, a classic movie that starred Jimmy Stewart.

·         Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is also a version of Jane Eyre.

·         The TV show Castle’s 100th episode is based on the movie Rear Window, also starring Jimmy Stewart.

Writing an adapted classic seems like a cop-out, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Since I’ve spent the last few years adapting Jane Austen’s classics into contemporary LDS fiction, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned. 

Here are six tips for adapting the classics:

1.      Keep the Emotions. The classics are still around because they touch people emotionally. We feel for Hamlet, Jane Eyre, and Elizabeth Bennett. Your goal in adapting the classic should be to create the same range of emotions with new characters and settings.

2.      Twist the Events. If you market your novel as an adaptation, as I do, you’ll need to mirror the events of the classic. However, you also have to avoid predictability. The events in your novel should seem natural to the setting you choose. When Scar kills Mufasa in The Lion King, he doesn’t pour poison in his ear as Hamlet’s uncle did; he kills him with a stampede.

3.      Remember the Movie too.  Many of the people who like retellings are more familiar with the movie versions than the book. Therefore, you must create a twist on the events in both the book and the movie versions. Also, pay attention to the way movies portray the characters.

4.      Make the Characters Real. You want the reader to be so invested in your characters that they forget they’re reading an adaptation. To do this, you must give your character an original back-story, quirks, and traits. Make sure each chapter reveals something new about your main characters’ personalities.

5.      Watch the Dialogue. A common complaint I hear about contemporary adaptations of classic novels is that the dialogue seems old-fashioned. The author has spent so much time reading the classics that antiquated dialogue seems natural to her. An easy remedy for this problem is to read your dialogue out loud, asking yourself if it seems like something you'd actually say.

6.      Pick up the Pace. Not to be rude, but classic novels tend to be . . . well, a little slow. If you want your retelling to compete in the modern world, you have to write a modern story. That means that you'll need a tighter plot that uses fewer words and has more action (even if it's only emotional action.) In other words, skip over the boring parts.

That about sums up what I've learned over the years, but I'd love to hear your suggestions. What do you look for in a retelling?


  1. Your seven year old knows about Hamlet? Always knew you had super smart kids :)

  2. Who would've thought that The Lion King is adapted from Hamlet. Your kid is brilliant. And I agree with you on movies adapted from novels or movies like You've Got Mail from The Shop Around the Corner. Maybe one reason they do this is that writers are running out of ideas, or they just want to give stories a different twist that would cater to modern day viewers.


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