I’m super happy to have author Claire LaZebnik on the blog today. Claire is the author of several YA, women’s literature, and parenting books. I had the pleasure of reading her first YA book Epic Fail, a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, back in late 2011 and remember being so impressed with her ability to keep Austen’s works fresh and alive for a new audience. Claire’s latest book, The Trouble With Flirting, is a modern adaptation of Mansfield Park. Please join me in welcoming her as she discusses the joys and perils of adapting Jane Austen!
I’ve had the great honor and pleasure of loosely adapting and modernizing three Austen novels for a young adult readership. I found different challenges in each book—plot twists or character traits that felt out-of-place in today’s world, and which I had to reimagine—but the romances and the emotions ring as true today as they ever did. (Which makes me think of Elizabeth Bennet’s line about Darcy: “In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was.” Applies to human nature, too.)
Epic Fail is my update of Pride and Prejudice: I set it at a Los Angeles high school, and most of it felt right at home there. Take for example Lizzie Bennet’s refusal to swoon over Darcy like the other girls, just because he’s rich and attractive, a stance which leads her instead to believe the worst about him.
Jumping to unfair conclusions about someone you barely know? Yeah, I think we can all admit to doing that at least once or a thousand times back in high school.
Equally relatable is Elizabeth’s horror when her family embarrasses her out in public. We’ve all been there. There’s a reason we used to jump quickly in the car when our mother or father came to pick us up—we were hoping to close the door before they could actually say anything our friends might hear.
But some parts of P&P didn’t update so well. The first was the horror of Wickham and Lydia’s running away together. Let’s face it: an unmarried young man and young woman spending time alone (presumably having sex) isn’t quite the earthshattering event it was back in Austen’s day. I had to find something sleazy and disturbing and high school appropriate for Wickham to do that wasn’t that. My other challenge was finding a way to make Darcy a target of excessive attention and fawning: we don’t have the same kind of class system in America now that England did in the early 19th century.
In the end, I solved both problems at once: I realized that in modern-day Los Angeles, no one gets fawned on (or hounded) as much as celebrities and their children. The Darcy character became the son of two movie stars, and the Wickham character became someone determined to exploit that family’s fame—in some very icky ways.
When I turned my attention to Mansfield Park, I found a very different challenge. The storyline totally worked in today’s world—what teenage girl hasn’t at some point felt overlooked and underappreciated by the object of her affection?—especially when I set it at a summer acting program where the main character has to work while everyone else gets to act and play.
But while Elizabeth Bennet feels very much like a girl who would be at home in today’s world, Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price most decidedly does not. She’s long-suffering, quiet, patient, faithful, weak, devout . . .
I’m sorry—I do honestly love little Fanny. Whenever I reread the novel, I root for her to be noticed and appreciated with every fiber of my being, and I wanted my own readers to feel equally passionate about my Franny (I added an “r”). But for that to happen, I felt like I had to make some changes.
The original Fanny lived in a world where a poor girl’s only power came in attracting the right suitors and rejecting the wrong ones. I think we can all agree that times have—thankfully—changed. In my novel, Franny is very much a modern woman: strong, funny, self-sufficient, and capable of forging her own destiny.
What I didn’t realize was that changing her personality would also force me to alter the ending of my novel, which originally followed Austen’s closely. I don’t want to ruin The Trouble with Flirting for anyone who hasn’t read it, so I’ll just say that I couldn’t let Franny end up with someone who took too long to appreciate her.
Most recently, I finished up my third Austen-based YA novel, a tribute to Persuasion, tentatively titled The Last Best Kiss (due out from HarperTeen in summer, 2014). Ironically, this wistful novel about regret and lost youth was in many ways the easiest Austen to translate into today’s high school world. After all, who feels more pressure from her peers to go out with the “right” kind of guy than a teenager? And, while Anne Elliot may, like Fanny Price, watch helplessly from the sidelines as the man she loves chases after someone else, she’s also a very smart woman with a good head in a crisis. She actively redeems herself, while Fanny just waits. And waits . . . So that, too, made this adaptation easier than the previous one.
It’s been fascinating to see which aspects of Austen’s novels transcend time and which ones don’t. Communication has changed drastically in the last two hundred years: we no longer have to wait days for precious information. We entertain ourselves differently: no more balls, with their elaborate rules and customs; instead we group ourselves around a computer and watch YouTube videos. We don’t defer to our “superiors” in wealth and class—in fact, we’ll fight anyone who would even dare to call himself our superior. And women’s control over their destinies is no longer limited to whom they choose to marry.
But when it comes to our emotional lives—to the ways in which we fall in love, experience regret, feel embarrassed and also cherished by our families, and nurture hope for our futures—in those, we are in essentials, very much what we ever were.
Claire LaZebnik has written two novels for HarperTeen, Epic Fail and The Trouble with Flirting, with a third (tentatively titled The Last Best Kiss) due out summer 2014. She has also written five novels for adults, including Knitting under the Influence and The Smart One and the Pretty One. With Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel, she co-wrote the nonfiction books Overcoming Autism and Growing up on the Spectrum. She contributed to an anthology play called Motherhood Out Loud, and has been published in The New York Times, Self, Vogue and other magazines. She currently lives in the Pacific Palisades with her husband Rob, who’s a co-executive producer for The Simpsons, and their four kids. Her website is www.clairelazebnik.com.