As I mentioned, when I was originally putting my application package together I had finished the spit and polish on my critical essay and went back to check and make sure I didn’t screw up the page length requirement. It seems a small thing, but I really didn’t want to look like a dingledork chowdermonkey: I got the page count right but the focus of the essay was all wrong, wrong wrong.
See I was supposed to talk about a book in relation to the craft of writing, an analysis piece that showed I knew how to pick the meat from the bones and examine the undercarriage. Under the gun with only four days before I had to send off my application materials I decided against rewriting the essay I’d just finished and took the college at its word when they said I could submit something previously written.
And that meant finding something suitable.
A cruise through the archives of the excelsior file dragged me back to a review I’d done for a YA title called Joker. I liked something about the tone of the piece, and that it allowed for a direct comparison with that fluffy playwright Bill Shakes, so with my nose to the whetstone I hacked it to bits and made it fit Cinderella’s slipper.
Herewith is the souped-up final draft.
A Portrait of the Dane as a Young Adult Character
by Ranulfo, HarperCollins 2006
Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains all the elements necessary for great Young Adult fiction. There’s a remarried mother, a devoted-yet-tragic girl, a sadistically vengeful boy, the haunting of the dead, meddling friends and families, in-jokes and meta-drama, double-crosses and, yes, even multiple murders both accidental and premeditated. Perhaps murder isn’t a necessary element for Young Adult fiction when a good suicide will do (and Hamlet also has one of those) though it does add an extra jolt of drama.
But at it’s core Hamlet is the tragedy of an individual driven to self-destruction. Hamlet’s father is dead, murdered we later learn (from his father’s ghost) by his brother, Hamlet’s mother remarries said brother, and the young prince is urged onto a mission of revenge against all parties. Hamlet plays at madness as part of his vengeful scheme and though it pains him on some fronts to take down innocents along the way, the collateral damage is a necessary part of his single-minded determination. Hamlet correctly draws out the guilt of all parties, the bodies pile up, and he pays for all this righteousness with his own life.
No such luck here with Ranulfo’s Joker, and if that counts as a plot spoiler then it should also serve as a warning that the book isn’t so much the self-proclaimed adaptation of Hamlet as it is a relatively bloodless variation on a loosely-based theme.
It’s safe to say that wearing the skin of a bear does not make the person a bear, nor does wearing a necklace of sharks teeth give the bearer the bite or the ferocity of a killer. Assuming the audience isn’t familiar with the original it follows that fashioning a costume of modern dress over the amateurishly assembled fossil remains of Shakespeare does not necessarily guarantee a fully engaging tale of teen angst or feigned madness. To a modern audience familiar with the source material it seems fair to expect an updated version would provide new insights and relevance, otherwise why retell the story? The exercise then becomes one of appropriation with little to show for itself.
Particulars appear to be rearranged for our modern age. We teach school children the blood and guts of the original Hamlet but it appears we could never tell the same story in a modern setting for fear of appearing gratuitously violent or histrionic. Ranulfo opens with Matt – our modern Hamlet – reeling from his parents divorce. No, his father is not dead, just drunk and broken from having been fool enough to let this cypher of a Gertrude slip away from him. The interloper in this case isn’t even a relative but some smooth-talker from the sales department at dad’s company. The dead party is Matt’s best friend Ray who died off-stage in an arson fire set at a youth hostel. Matt may be feeling some guilt over this because it was a holiday trip he backed out of, but his feelings are a bit muddied here. Already, by splitting up the death-and-remarriage, and by making that death a random act on another character rather than a closely personal loss integral to the plot, Ranulfo has drained the original story of it’s potency and emotional center.
In an attempt to compensate Ranulfo has created the character of Joker to bring out Matt’s inner demons, an evil trickster of a free spirit who, if removed entirely from the book, changes nothing. Serving as occasional alter ego, the book’s title character does little to convince us of Matt’s madness, internal suffering, or of providing Matt much in the way of guidance. At best Joker seems a literary contrivance aimed at convincing readers of some dark, sinister force at work behind the scenes.
Ophelia – Leah here – is as much the clinging girlfriend as she is in Hamlet. There’s a lost opportunity in this where Ranulfo might have shown us the greater reason for her devotion, or better mirrored what Hamlet/Matt was once like before the great tragedy came. There’s a fine line between undeveloped and under-developed being trod here, neither being a great position to take.
And it continues. Hamlet’s journey abroad with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern becomes a mere blip of self-exile at a trailer parked along the beach, with the messenger’s bloodshed replaced by their dropping out of society to join the circus. The play-within-a-play is translated as Matt’s attempt at social commentary through artistic expression — an abusive retelling of the musical South Pacific — and not the thing wherein he captures the conscience of the step-dad from sales, much less a king. Finally, where emotions should be driving everyone mad and bodies should be piling up, Ranulfo has Matt running away to the big city for an encounter with anti-World Trade Organization protesters that leaves him feeling like he needs to return home.
But home to what? On the bus ride home Matt dreams all his possible futures (well, a handful at least, and only the most extreme versions), back to Leah, to his senses, and mostly to the conclusion that love triumphs over anger and vengeance any day.
That makes for a tidy little ending, almost trite, and with so much source material to work with therein lies the tragedy.
When she read it my Suze thought I spent a little too much time talking about the original Hamlet, but I maintained (and still do) that this great tragedy, properly handled, could yield an amazing YA novel. I’m not saying I’m the one to do it, but I think it’s out there.