Last weekend I went to see an all new stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. P&P must be the hardest work of fiction to adapt in any new way of any book that has been written. It’s a story so many people know so well, yes. More than that, the miniseries version that was made several years back with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth was just so iconic and definitive that I pity anyone who tries to play those characters now. Not just the characters of Darcy and Lizzy, but the portrayal of Mrs. Bennett in particular was so good that I can’t imagine anyone doing better.
So why would anyone attempt to revisit a story that has already been portrayed so masterfully?
I feel like we could all ask that same question of anyone who writes genre fiction. I mean, you hear the criticism all the time. All romance novels are the same plot rehashed again and again, and really, can anyone do it as well as Jane Austen? Or the Bronte sisters? Or Georgette Heyer? Every single romance novel follows the same pattern of boy meets girl, boy and girl are at odds, boy eventually wins girl. It’s been done before and it’s been done well, so why bother to do it again?
My answer to that all too common question is that it doesn’t matter what is being done again, it’s the how it’s done that matters. I can’t even count the number of romance novels I’ve read. Yes, each one ends up with the hero and heroine getting together at the end in spite of the odds and living happily ever after. That’s the genre. It has indeed been done before. But it isn’t the originality of the plot that keeps me and countless readers coming back. In fact, the very sameness of the outcome is what appeals to me about the romance genre.
On a technical level, romance novels are character-driven stories. They are not plot-driven, like mysteries or thrillers tend to be. The meat of the book revolves around the relationships between the main characters, and, at least in my opinion, between the main and secondary characters. No matter how similar plotlines for romance novels may be, every individual in a really good romance novel is its own unique character. I personally like watching how these individual characters navigate the common pathways of romance novel plots.
It’s a lot like this play, actually. Pride and Prejudice has been done before. It has been done brilliantly. The performance I went to was sold out. What made all those people pay money to sit through a story that they already knew inside and out? The comfort of watching a beloved story unfold is one thing, but for me the most fascinating part of the production was the staging. I’d never seen the same story with those same characters choreographed quite that way before. The director arranged the whole thing, the interplay between characters and shifts from one scene to another, like one big dance. It worked so well because the very nature of the story is one long dance.
Millions of women throughout the world pick up millions of romance novels every year not only because they take comfort in hearing the same story with its happy ending told over and over, but because they enjoy marking the steps of the dance. You may know the steps, but you never know how the dance will unfold or what kind of conversation you’ll have with your partner.
So there are reasons why it’s okay to tell the same sort of story, even if it’s been done before, just like there are reasons to mount another production of a show that has become iconic. It’s not just true for romance, by the way. I personally feel like Sci-Fi tells a similar story over and over—Man v. Nature on a galactic level—and even epic fantasy is a rehashing of the classic hero journey. We love hearing the same stories. They cement what we know of the universe and how we feel about it. That’s why there will always be a place for romance novels, just like there will always be a sell-out for a really well done adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
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