Monday, October 25, 2021

Short Story and Movie Remakes with a Pandemic Twist

For whatever reason, Hollywood goes bonkers over producing remakes of old films. Maybe they imagine that, "We did it before, we can do it again" is a good formula? Fan reactions are often mixed with more flops than not, but the producers keep trying.

Well, I've been thinking that in this era of never-ending masks and lockdowns, there are some century-old short stories that might actually be fun to resurrect with a Covid twist. The first is The Bet, Anton Chekhov (1899). It's on my short list of favorite short stories. A second, also related to isolation, is Joseph Conrad's The Lagoon. 

Anton Chekhov was a keen observer of human nature. His stories are like swift sketches that reveal much in a compact, concise package. Here are opening paragraphs of the story, a perfect setup for a rewarding read:

It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations. Among other things they had talked of capital punishment. The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life. "I don't agree with you," said their host the banker. "I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?"

"Both are equally immoral," observed one of the guests, "for they both have the same object - to take away life. The State is not God. It has not the right to take away what it cannot restore when it wants to."

Among the guests was a young lawyer, a young man of five-and-twenty. When he was asked his opinion, he said: "The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all."

A lively discussion arose. The banker, who was younger and more nervous in those days, was suddenly carried away by excitement; he struck the table with his fist and shouted at the young man: "It's not true! I'll bet you two million you wouldn't stay in solitary confinement for five years."

"If you mean that in earnest," said the young man, "I'll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years."

"Fifteen? Done!" cried the banker. "Gentlemen, I stake two million!"

* * * 

Photo by Heather Gill on Unsplash
Well, what do you think? It definitely makes you want to keep turning the pages. Or at least it did for me.

NOW, what if we take this 1890s story and place at the end of 2020. It's a banker's Christmas party in some setting that requires masks. The topic of lockdowns comes up, how in some third world countries people can't leave their homes without a government pass. A young fellow states that confinement in a one room home is no big deal. 

They exchange words. The banker says, "What if this pandemic went on for five years and people were confined like that? I'll bet two million you couldn't be in lockdown for five  years." 

The young man says, "I'll take that bet, not for five, but fifteen years." (He probably had a couple drinks too many at this point.)

To give it a contemporary feel we'd want to maybe throw in electronic devices, perhaps some clues about global events that foreshadow the banker's future misfortunes. The younger fellow would be released in 2035, so some hints of the changes taking place might be in order. What do you think?

You can read the rest of Chekhov's story here.  

* * * 

This is another story from the late 19th century. I found Conrad's stories compelling when I was young and hoping to make a name for myself as a short story writer. I was impressed by their authentic detail, and even more impressed that English was his third language.

In the story a doctor named Tuan goes to visit an old friend, Arsat. who lives in a hut on an inland river of isolated island in the South Pacific. His wife, Diamelen, is dying. That night, Arsat tells his story. There's a sense in which this burden must be confessed, though it isn't so explicitly explained as such. Here's what happened. 

Arsat was in love with Diamelen, who was a servant to the Rajah. Arsat and his brother come up with a plan to kidnap Diamelen and start a new life elsewhere. The plot involves fleeing in a boat under cover of darkness. As I recall it they come to a narrow strip of land where they can abandon the escape craft and get away on a boat on the other side of this land barrier. This would keep block the Rajah from following. 

Arsat and Diamelen run across the promontory to the fisherman's boat they plan to escape in. Arsat's brother has a rifle and will slow the approaching craft enough to come rushing across to where Arsat is launching. 

Tragically, Arsat's fears overpower his intentions and he propels the boat away from the shore. Aways from the shore he sees his brother killed by the Rajah's men.

In my modern retelling, the story takes place at a hospital. Arsat and Tuan were friends at an Ivy League school. Their lives went different directions and Tuan became a famous doctor. When the pandemic strikes and he sees all these people dying alone on ventilators, he vows to get in touch with all his old friends.

When he discovers that Arsat is only an hour from Princeton, he goes to see him in the hospital where his Diamelen is on a ventilator. Tuan listens to Arsat's heartbreaking story as Diamelen dies.

[EdNote: OK, not exactly a fun movie, but entertaining to noodle an idea a bit and see what happens.]

* * *

OK, probably too depressing for a Hollywood movie. Then again, you know how they flip the endings sometimes. The Natural didn't have a happy ending in the book. 

Speaking of The Natural, what about a 2020 version of the remake with cardboard fans in the stands to make it look like there's a crowd? 

Or better, Field of Dreams where Shoeless Joe and the Chicago Black Sox come back and everyone in the stands is wearing masks? 

I'll bet the writers of Airplane could have fun with this. 

That's enough. Any other filmland remakes that could fit into the Covid era with masks, Zoom and social distancing? What about a teenaged girl from Kansas who runs away from home with her dog and gets carried off by a tornado to a strange land somewhere over the rainbow?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks Ed, you made me like Anton Tchekov before, I like his sense of humour!

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