Writing Week 5: All Change
It’s only been a short while that we’ve been woke to questions of gender and already the complaints have started from certain male critics. The BBC’s new version of ‘War of the Worlds’ has a pregnant female lead living sinfully in Woking as the Martians arrive. And why not? Wells was always a bit thin on the ground when it came to interesting characters (except perhaps for ‘The History of Mr Polly’), but critics are complaining about the effort of veracity that’s gone into a recreation of the Edwardian Thames Valley when a too-modern main character has been added.
When I rewrote the book for Paramount’s videogame version I set it in 1951 for very specific reasons – sandwiching it between two wars just as the original had been to benefit from the recent horrors of battle and pending fears of future invasion. The story is so familiar that it becomes a template upon which revisions can be made. It’s the kind of story you can have a little fun with. I kept genders the same because they were largely ciphers and there was no obvious need to change them.
In ‘& Juliet’ Anne Hathaway complains that her husband Will has been unfair to women in his plays, especially Juliet. ‘Why would she kill herself after only knowing Romeo for four days? He was her first boyfriend!’ So she writes Romeo out, demotes Shakespeare to a walk-on role as a coach-driver and continues Juliet’s story, adding a gay best friend. If we reimagine a creative work it doesn’t damage the original but exists beside it, not on the same shelf perhaps, but in the same library.
If you believe Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, writing is largely the act of pouring new wine into old bottles. Critics will complain that an SF novel is derivative while cheerfully ignoring the fact that boy-meets-girl is the most derivative story of all.
Yet there are stories that fit no template. I could add a list here that include Borges, Sebald etc (although not the pretentious Italo Calvino) and I can’t think of any other novel like, say, ‘Boxer/Beetle’ or ‘A High Wind in Jamaica’ or ‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’ or ‘In Transit’ but these columns are aimed at creating talking points, not being inclusive, and besides, I’m allocated an hour a morning on the blog before each day’s work starts.
A good writing exercise would be to take a worn-out plot template and radically change it – I’ve done this numerous times, even rewriting ‘Cinderella’ as ‘The Ash-Boy’ for an anthology of revisionist fairy tales (I’ll run it here if there’s any interest).
Originality of outlook is always the writer’s key weapon. But if you adapt your writing with the times you can stay a little fresher. The alternative is becoming someone like, say, Frederick Forsyth, doomed to tell the same stories over and over.