It is the Halloween season, readers, and what better time to think about why some texts from the past resonate with contemporary audiences? As readers of this blog know, I am particularly interested in how the nineteenth century lives on in the twentieth and twenty-first. Well, we have at hand one of the most specific examples I can think of, the perennial Halloween favorite Dracula. The novel was first published in the late 1890s, yet its descendants and remakes live on in movie after movie, costume after costume (including a notable recent one at my local CVS, which provided the genesis for this post), and vampires and vampire slayers in almost every reiteration one could name (think TV shows, mashups, fan fiction…and on and on).
Sure, Dracula shares the stage with Friday the 13th and its more contemporary ilk now. But the fact is, while many wildly popular English novelists of the same century have been eclipsed from public view, Dracula lives on. (Take, as a contrasting case, the mid nineteenth-century novels of Elizabeth Gaskell. They were well known and widely read at the time, yet if one were to tap random people on the street and say her name, it is likely that very few would recognize it. The recognition factor of Dracula would be near 100%.) Similarly, almost everyone would know Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865. She lives on in the story, in multiple movies, in a ballet, and most recently, in a fantastic iPad app.
Why do both Dracula and Alice have, to use the colloquialism, legs? Well, Dracula deals with fear of contagion by visitors from an Other land (Transylvania, but it’s a handy stand-in for any exotic and unknown) who can look completely normal, and with predatory social relations between lovers and friends, to name just two issues still with us. And Alice in Wonderland trades on images of childhood as wonderful and magical, a belief still holding major sway. Its metaphors of growing and shrinking in dizzying succession still represent childhood well.
In US writing, a similar dyad exists between the once well-known and now eclipsed and the once well-known and still with us. One might think of the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth; interesting, but few outside academe know them now. The Scarlet Letter, on the other hand, takes a contemporary form when adapted into movies like 2010’s Easy A. Hawthorne’s tale of adultery among the Puritans segues into a multilayered comic take: Hester Prynne’s contemporary descendent is ostracized by the religious group in her school, but, unlike The Scarlet Letter’s Hester, Easy A’s heroine is not actually having sex. (The plot doesn’t track exactly, of course; the references are the protagonist’s own references to her scarlet A. And too, the film’s makers are having fun with the fact that Hawthorne’s novel is one of the most read in US high schools.)
The resonant issue here is scrutiny of a woman’s sexuality and its attendant social shaming: still with us, still the subject of the gaze and gossip, with part of the joke being that her actual celibacy is as hidden as Hester’s affair once was.
I plan to talk about more puzzling adaptation phenomena soon, so stay tuned!