Hamlet by any other name

Someone lent me this book: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and when I returned it I said: I love modern adaptations of Shakespeare. Said friend looked blank. I said: It’s Hamlet. She looked even blanker…sigh. Obviously schools aren’t  doing their bit to keep the Bard alive and well. And no, I am not being old and crusty. One of my most surprising experiences in teaching was constantly finding that kids LOVE Shakespeare. Juniors and Seniors. Boys and girls. Especially with all the wonderful film versions around today. Who could fail to fall in love with Leonardo di Caprio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet? Who could fail to thrill to Ian McKellen’s Richard the Third. A good story is a good story is a good story.

But to get back to the book: Edgar Sawtelle is recommended by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. Normally this wouldn’t do much to impress me, but I was reading the other day on Wikipedia that Oprah Winfrey is considered by some to be a serious American academic intellectual because of her book club’s impact on the reading public. She is gauged to have up to 100 times more power to sell books than any other media personality. How Wikipedia manages to confuse intellectual grunt with media clout and marketing ability is beyond me (It’s my own fault for reading Wikipedia in the first place.)

But Edgar Sawtelle is an entertaining version of the timeless tale of a bloke who can’t decide what to do, transplanted into 1960s heartland America. Edgar is a young man who can’t speak. His parents aren’t royal, but they are famous for the dogs they breed – Sawtelle dogs. It’s a happy nuclear family, until Uncle Claude arrives in his Impala. Ha – any good story needs a villain. Except no-one knows exactly how villainous Claude is, until Edgar sees his father’s ghost appear in the rain to show him he was murdered, not felled by a brain aneurysm as everyone thought.

Edgar then spends a lot of time trying to decide what to do. But it is even harder for him than Hamlet, because he is only a child. Luckily there is no Ophelia to confuse him. And it takes another death, by his own hand, to force his hand and drive him out into the wilderness. The real wilderness, not the fevered brain of the adult Hamlet. 

My friend said she was disappointed that Edgar dies at the end. But as I pointed out, a Shakespearean tragedy can end no other way. See, if you know your Shakespeare, you don’t get upset at the ending. I knew there was a point to learning that stuff.

4 thoughts on “Hamlet by any other name

  1. jane 7 August 2009 / 11:02 am

    Is anyone else out there feeling bad that they like Oprah Winfrey’s recommendations, but also alas, missed the connection to Hamlet?

  2. jingle grrl 7 August 2009 / 11:07 am

    I missed the Hamlet connection as well.

    I do keep an eye on Oprah’s recommendations, just as I do with other recommendations from media personalities as well – whether they are book-y people or not.

    Any plug for a book should be viewed as a good thing shouldn’t it? Anything that gets folks talking about books and authors and stories is a good way to raise the debate of good vs. not-so-good vs just plain terrible writing is always a positive in my view.

  3. Helen 7 August 2009 / 12:32 pm

    I think it can be really interesting when we make these connections, but let’s not get distressed if we miss them! Otherwise I’d have to feel really dumb for missing the Pride and Prejudice connection with Bridget Jones. I mean, what kind of an English lit. graduate, am I?
    Enjoyed the post immensely, thanks paskj!

  4. clurbee 7 August 2009 / 2:45 pm

    Has anyone read “The last family in England” by Matt Haig? That was supposed to be a re-working of Henry IV p1, but I thought I’d studied that at school and didn’t recognise it at all (and its written from the point of view of a dog Zac). But whole scenes from “My own private Idaho” that were taken from the same play jumped out immeditely

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