Classroom Takeover: Alterations, Rewrites, and Inspirations

Welcome to July’s installment of Classroom Takeover, a monthly feature here at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog! Every month, a new blogger creates an ideal college class featuring a subject, author, or genre that they think doesn’t get enough attention in mainstream college classes.

This month’s classroom takeover comes from Brooke of Books Distilled. Brooke is currently getting her MFA degree through Fairfield University’s low residency program and is working on a novel. She also lives in Long Island, NY, and I’m totally jealous. SO. JEALOUS. Let’s move on before I smash something:

Alterations, Rewrites, and Inspirations


If someone gave me control over the syllabus of a college English class, I’d rub my hands together and cackle wickedly. (Which I did when I started writing this post.) Then I realized I had to put some actual thought into crafting a class that would be interesting, fun, warrant close reading and encourage great discussion.

I thought back to some of my favorite English classes in college, and they had something important in common. All three were loosely grouped by a larger theme, and pulled books from a broad range of styles, author nationalities, content, and time periods. I took a class on Gothic literature my freshman year, and we read classic Gothic novels (The Castle of Otranto, Northanger Abbey), as well as more modern books like Rebecca. We also watched Rosemary’s Baby and Scream (and I didn’t sleep for a night or two).

One of my all-time favorite classes was Urban Literature, which was cross-listed as an Urban Studies class. We spent the first half of the semester reading urban theory (which, in my dorkiness, I completely loved) and the second half reading novels that represented excellent writing about urban space: Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (Chicago and New York at the turn of the 20th century), Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Richard Wright’s Native Son. Good stuff.

I decided I’d keep with the tradition of using a broad range of media and time periods to examine a specific topic. Since imitation is the highest form of flattery, I’m interested in books and media that imitate, rewrite, draw on, and are inspired by older works. I think it’s important to read both the original work and the rewritten work, so that’s the angle we’ll take in this class.

Welcome to Alterations, Rewrites, and Inspirations.

Reading List

Milton’s Paradise Lost and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). Pullman capitalizes on many concepts that are only briefly touched upon in Paradise Lost: the existence of multiple parallel worlds, the title of the trilogy, the physicality and potential homosexuality of angels. I must confess that I’ve never read all of Paradise Lost, but the class would likely focus on important sections (parts of the fall from Book 1; the section from Book 2 where the series gets its name). Pullman’s trilogy is epic, original, and draws on other popular sources, from the Bible to the Lord of the Rings.

Jane Austen’s Emma and the 90’s cult classic movie Clueless. The first time I read Emma I realized around page 75 that Clueless was based on it, and knew how it would end, and I loved it even more because of that. Emma is one of my favorite Austen novels. I really like her character development and growth throughout the novel. In the same way, Clueless seems like a chick flick on the surface–and I won’t deny that it is–but it has a deeper interior if you look closely (comparable to Emma’s growth as we get to know her). Movie viewing will be a homework assignment on your own time.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and The Hours movie. The most interesting thing about these three works of art are the interior lives of women that appear to be “fine” on the outside, while suffering from existential despair on the inside. Questions to consider: how does Clarice in The Hours mirror, and depart from, the real Mrs. Dalloway? In what ways does the character of Virginia Woolf reflect both the Mrs. Dalloway that the historical figure Woolf wrote, and Clarice’s character?

The book of Genesis (King James version) and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Kingsolver’s novel is by no means a rewriting of the Bible, but Kingsolver herself has said she could not have written it without steeping herself in the King James language of the Bible every day for the years it took her to write this book. The language and metaphor and situations of Scripture permeate every aspect of this novel. We’ll study the first book of the KJV Bible and examine some of Kingsovler’s jumping-off points. How do Nathan Price’s fiery sermons reflect a false understanding of the God depicted in Genesis? How do his daughters’ and wife’s understanding of God differ from his?

Final Paper

Choose any two of these topic groupings and compare and contrast the ways in which the newer works rewrite and depart from the works on which they were based. How do these principles of adaptation and inspiration differ across the topics? How do they inform our understanding or one another?

Thanks for hosting this Classroom Takeover, Brooke!

I love how she included Clueless in the syllabus– it’s one of my favorite movies, and I love how secretly smart it actually is. What adaptations would you like to see in this class?

If you’d like to create your own Classroom Takeover post, there are still free spots available for August-December! If YOU’D been wanting to create your own class, please check out this post here and then get to emailing me quick!

8 thoughts on “Classroom Takeover: Alterations, Rewrites, and Inspirations”

  1. What a great class! I did something a little like this, actually, in college — it was called Victorian Adaptations and it was all about musical adaptations of Victorian works (Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, etc.). It was a very cool class and yours sounds even cooler!

  2. Wonderful post. I love the idea behind this feature. If this were a class offered at my university I would definitely take it. I think I will definitely be e-mailing you to reserve a spot in the near future. I actually want to be a teacher so this is something that I’ll eventually be doing in the near future – so why not give it a shot now?

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