I saw an Instagram clip of Emma Portner and her partner dancing to Bob Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” I decided I wanted to do something like that, so I wrote a pretty bad poem with the intention of dancing to it. Of course it was undanceable so then I added music in the background. It wasn’t quite anything, but the deadline for having something to show for the piece was approaching so one night when I was so deliriously tired I couldn’t see straight I got out of the shower, sat on my bed, and did a one-take riffing on the poem I’d written to turn it into a personal essay. It wasn’t too bad at that point so I started choreographing, what my dance partner says isn't really dancing because it's sign language (it's not). Now I’m almost done with that too except I keep hitting roadblocks because I’m not a poet, nonfiction writer or choreographer, and I like to pretend I am sometimes. Anyhow I went back to the original piece that inspired me, hoping for more, and really paid attention to Bob Dylan’s words and realized that it’s a tribute to his mentor. It reminds me of that time in my video essay class when the assignment was to make a visual poem and the instructor said it was fine to use someone else’s poem. I started out with my own, knowing what I wanted to do, but the words felt inadequate so I went online and found a better version of my words. I can imagine a time when I might want to write a tribute to a person's life, when I want to eulogize them and share what made them special to me, and I guess this is all just to say that I don't think it's too much to ask that on that day I’ll find words as piercing as “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.”
Confession time: I watched the Dirty Dancing remake and I liked it. Specifically, I liked the screenplay. I could have done without the wooden acting; the "spontaneous" singing from everyone, all the time; the unnecessary melodrama in the delivery of certain lines. However, it was inspiring to see not-size-zero Abigail Breslin get the same treatment that Jennifer Grey did. And though the guy who plays Johnny (Colt Prattes) has super dead eyes most of the time, being able to act through dancing is not an insignificant talent – and both he and Breslin are really good at that.
But back to the screenplay: Written by Jessica Sharzer, this version of Dirty Dancing doesn't do what so many remakes before it have done – namely, a literal beat-for-beat recreation of the source material. (See: Beauty and the Beast.) Originally written by Eleanor Bergstein, Sharzer rewrote the movie with added depth. Her screenplay explores story lines hinted at in the original: Baby's mother (Debra Messing) is a frustrated housewife contemplating divorce. Kellerman's son (Trevor Einhorn) tries to impress Baby with knowledge of The Feminine Mystique. Robbie (Shane Harper) really is a dirtbag, like, salt in the wound uber-dirtbag. (But yeah – didn't really find it necessary for Baby's sister (Sarah Hyland) to become a Hairspray-style checkerboard chick who sings Bob Dylan, or for Johnny to be a dyslexic ex-con.)
Sharzer's working with the material means that she recognized and respected the audience's familiarity with the original movie. Obviously the people watching her remake would know the 1987 version by heart, and any lines lifted directly from it would feel disassociated and hollow. It's like a cover of a classic rock song where the singer knows her voice isn't as good, but by looking for new meaning in the piece she can bring something else to the table.
Watching the 2017 Dirty Dancing feels like a commentary on the original 1987 Dirty Dancing. Adaptation is a tricky process, and I love when it's done in a new and original way.
I felt the same watching Syfy's television show, The Magicians (2015-present). Now two seasons in, it's an adaptation of the book series by Lev Grossman. Take some young angsty millennials in modern times and have them learn that magic exists, along with their versions of Narnia and Hogwarts -- Fillory and Brakebills, respectively. The antagonist is a sadistic creature called The Beast. Another character informs students that she's been using time warps to figure out what the students can do to finally defeat The Beast in the present. In all honesty, I stopped reading the series after the first book, but my friend liked it so much that I got the sequel for us both to read. The sequel is when protagonist Quentin goes to Fillory and boy, does it pick up speed there. It's also where Quentin's best friend from childhood, Julia, gets her story told. The third book was even better, the best in my opinion.
While Quentin is often perceived as depressive and whiny - getting by mostly on his intellect and willingness to try anything - Julia doesn't get that luxury. In the books, she is rejected from Brakebills. The memory wipe of her entrance exam doesn't work, though, so she picks herself up and figures out how to become a hedge witch instead, learning magic outside of the clean and safe academia. Her story is tragic and it details the sacrifices she has to make to get what Quentin is handed on a silver platter.
When the Syfy series began, it was clear from the pilot that we weren't going to have to wait around for Fillory like we did in the books. Neither, as it turned out, did we have to wait for Julia (Stella Maeve). Quentin (Jason Ralph) gets in to Brakebills as he does in the books, and Julia's story parallels his from there. The series, however, works the material even further: Julia's rejection from Brakebills is not arbitrary in the series. Her rejection isn't because she's not smart enough or talented enough, because clearly she is. She proves herself more resilient and powerful than many of the successful students. Instead, in all of the previous time warps used to calculate The Beast (Charles Mesure), she was a student at Brakebills. She was happy and learning and not abused. The difference in the present time warp was that she was rejected and thus had to go on her journey to learn her magic on the streets, bargain for it, work for it, and therefore be able to defeat him this time around. Her pain is given more meaning in this version of events.
Instead of repeating the material over, Syfy's series - the creation of which Grossman is extremely involved in, by the way - works the material in a new way to create a new experience. It's building on the books and the story they tell. Remakes don't have to be nostalgic revisits of old stories. In both the Dirty Dancing remake and The Magicians, I felt that through the adaptation process the writers were able to enrich the original story with a commentary.
In my experience, there are two ways to go about genre writing: The one where you go into the writing process having made the decision to write genre fiction, and the one where you realize after the fact that you have been writing genre fiction.
There are certain perks to writing genre fiction. Since it is essentially formulaic, there are formulaic solutions to the issues that might arise. If the reader is having trouble connecting with characters, say, or the tension isn't there, or the plot has become inconsequential, returning to the basic tenants of the genre can be helpful. Take romance novels, for instance. My sister, the genre-spanning Batya Ungar-Sargon, told me that every good romance novel needs three things: a hero to fall in love with, a heroine you can root for, and a world you can disappear into. With a formula, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can play within the expectations of the reader or surpass them. Whatever you decide to do within that structure, your decisions are based on the structure's existence.
On the other hand, there is the case where you create genre fiction by accident. The story you're in the process of writing happens to have the formula of a specific genre. Or your story has a couple of devices in common with a specific genre, but not all – and those devices you aren't using are the reason your story isn't working.
I've been writing my novel for over two years, a story about best friends and unrequited love and jealousy. One day after the workshop of an excerpt, a fellow classmate approached me and told me, with no malice or intent to insult, how my work reminded her of Emily Griffin's Something Borrowed and its retelling, Something Blue. I was stunned. Chick lit? She thought I was writing chick lit? Those books you pick up in the airport when your mind can't handle something of more consequence? I had refused to entertain the notion up until then. Once I heard it, though, I came to understand. Much as I – and the rest of my classmates – would have liked, I am not currently in a position to create something new. I don't have the skills or maturity to do that. So naturally, my work will be following a certain path, a path well-trodden by others who came before me.
Near the end of my MFA career, I accidentally caused someone going through a similar realization. During a critique of her work, I casually mentioned to the writer that I had watched a Nicholas Sparks movie the night before and that her story reminded me of it. Though I had hated the movie, her work was much better and actually accomplished the act of transferring the protagonist's yearning and emotion to the reader. Our professor, the wonderful Juan Martinez, after a kind and gentle preface, took the opportunity to point out that my classmate's lovely, intelligent prose might do well on the romance market. I recognized the look of chagrin that crossed her face. The unexpected understanding that our work, what we thought had fallen under unique and original criteria, was the reiteration of a genre on which we had long looked down and with which we never thought we'd be associated.
Nonetheless, with that understanding comes acceptance. Despite the instinctual horror, once there is a name for what you're writing, you are no longer alone. You have a blueprint for that which you couldn't name. And now you have something to follow, where once you might have stumbled in the dark.
And if I'm going to be writing chick lit, then it will be the most earnest, highbrow chick lit I'm capable of.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.