Say the word "remake" and stand back for the chorus of groans. Every time Hollywood announces a "reimagining" (as the marketing types prefer), I'm rolling my eyes right along with much of America. But my reaction is different when it comes to books: I think, "Oh, goody," and grab it with both hands. Partly this is due to the source material - "The Longest Yard" and "The Dukes of Hazzard" vs. "Mrs. Dalloway" or "Pride and Prejudice" (possibly the most stolen plot of all time).
But it's mostly because the best ones showcase more creativity and imagination than a lot of today's original stories. Sena Jeter Naslund took one passage from "Moby Dick" and created a full-bodied portrait of "Ahab's Wife"; Peter Carey brilliantly pulled off a wholesale theft of Dickens, reprising "Great Expectations" through the eyes of escaped convict "Jack Maggs."
A new novel out this week amply justifies my faith in literary reworkings. Just chosen as a finalist for the Booker Prize, "On Beauty" is British author Zadie Smith's love letter to E.M. Forster. Ms. Smith became a literary sensation at 24 with her debut, "White Teeth." I liked her new one even better. From her opening line - "One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father" - she signals her homage to "Howards End."
But while the plot parallels Forster's history of two families of opposing political and cultural beliefs, Smith adds race and nationality into the mix, and stirs vigorously. Howard Belsey, a white Englishman living in Massachusetts, is a Rembrandt scholar who hates Rembrandt. He's carried his liberal academic sensibilities to such an extreme that he can't find anything to believe in anymore.
The heart of the novel belongs, thankfully, not to Howard, but to his African-American wife of 30 years. Whether they make it to 31 is an open question, since Kiki has recently learned of Howard's affair with a colleague. "It was the kind of marriage you couldn't get a handle on. He was bookish; she was not.... She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice."
Their oldest child, Jerome, has a brief romance with the daughter of Howard's rival, Monty Kipps, a conservative pundit. Then Kipps, family in tow, arrives at Howard's college to deliver a series of lectures on "Taking the Liberal out of 'Liberal Arts.' " While Monty and Howard bicker, Kiki forms a friendship with Carlene Kipps, Monty's wife. Like Mrs. Wilcox in "Howards End," Carlene appears to be gravely ill, but her family is too self-absorbed to notice. Finally, the Belsey's daughter, Zora, meets a young man from Roxbury and is determined to help him into the world of academia (shades of hapless clerk Leonard Bast).
"On Beauty" - with its blunt language and frank sexuality - will probably never be adapted by Merchant Ivory Productions. But Smith evokes Forster in more than just plot: She has a similarly forgiving attitude toward her characters (goodness knows Howard needs it, the creep), and she's also very funny. Take hip-hop-mad son Levi's attempt to keep it "street" - at a Mozart concert in Boston: "'This is toy-town. I was born in this country - trust me. You go into Roxbury, you go into the Bronx, you see America. That's street.'"
"'Levi, you don't live in Roxbury,' explained Zora slowly. 'You live in Wellington.... You've got your name ironed into your underwear.'"
One area, though, where Smith can't compare with Forster is the ending. Partly this is because she chooses to finish from Howard's perspective, and by this time, readers are far more interested in what Kiki has to say. And it's partly because a couple of vital characters have vanished from the narrative without a trace. But also, there's something about Forster's scene, with the hay being mown at "Howards End," that perfectly conveys a hard-won, albeit temporary, peace.