Emma Stone in ‘Easy A’/Image © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
You know the feeling. It’s the night before the first day of school and you have four more chapters of summer reading to get through, but it’s so late — and there goes the alarm. What a relief! Just that old nightmare again.
It’s the end of summer, and this time of year always evokes memories of new notebooks and shoes — and of trying to finish that killer last book from the stack of assigned reading. (The book that almost defeated us? Billy Budd.) That combo brings us to one of our favorite film genres: teen adaptations of classic literature.
When done well, there’s something appealing about watching a beloved story, with all its characters and plot points, transplanted into an updated setting; think “Apocalypse Now,” the Vietnam-era Heart of Darkness, or, more recently, “Trishna,” Michael Winterbottom’s Indian re-imagining of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. And when the modernization includes teenagers, there’s just that extra dimension of energy — from their youthful ensemble casts to their fashion-forward clothes to their cutting-edge soundtracks — to renew that classic work of literature for audiences.
Here are some of our favorite teen adaptations.
“Valley Girl” (1983)
Loosely inspired by Romeo and Juliet, this cult romantic comedy stars Deborah Foreman and Nicolas Cage as a valley girl and a punk (from “six grody bus rides” away) who fall in love — to the disgust of their radically different social circles. Like “Clueless,” this is as equally enjoyable as a time capsule of contemporary fashion, slang (“tripendicular!”), and especially music, with its impeccable L.A. new wave soundtrack.
“Big Man on Campus” (1989)
If you ever wondered how to update The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, wonder no more. As rewritten by star Allan Katz, Victor Hugo’s book becomes a comedy about a hunchback (who names himself Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga) living in a clock tower of a college (weirdly, not Notre Dame). Taken up by a psychology professor (Tom Skerritt) and two students, Bob attempts to assimilate into campus life and hijinks ensue.
One of the best Jane Austen films, Amy Heckerling’s instant classic modernizes Emma for 1990s Beverly Hills. Well-meaning rich girl Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) attempts to transform new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy) into the school’s most popular girl, while dealing with sarcastic ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd). Faithful to the novel’s plot and themes, the film is a parade of eye-catching fashion and endlessly quotable dialogue (“She’s a Monet … from far away, it’s okay, but up close, it’s a big old mess”).
“Cruel Intentions” (1999)
Rich teens, this time in Manhattan, are also at the center of this popular version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Philippe star as step-siblings who play manipulative games to exploit their peers, among them Reese Witherspoon. Like the similar “Gossip Girl” a decade later, this is pure trashy, bitchy fun.
“10 Things I Hate About You” (1999)
This Seattle-set Taming of the Shrew features several now-established actors. Cameron James (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls for Bianca Stratford, only to learn she can’t date until her sharp-tongued older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does. James enlists rebel Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to win Kat over. The title might put some off, but it’s a smart and witty retelling. (And worth seeing for the famous scene of Ledger performing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”)
“Paranoid Park” (2007)
Gus Van Sant adapted Blake Nelson’s Paranoid Park, itself a suburban take on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Hinging on the death of a security guard, the story follows Alex, a teenage skater in Portland. Van Sant’s “Elephant” by way of Camus’ Stranger, the movie makes use of fractured, oblique narrative and dreamy cinematography to reflect Alex’s alienation and confusion.
“The Beautiful Person” / “La Belle Personne” (2008)
Fittingly for a French curriculum staple, La Princesse de Clèves, Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 historical novel about the court of Henri II, gets relocated to a modern Parisian high school. Starring Léa Seydoux (“Midnight in Paris”) and Louis Garrel (“The Dreamers”), this adaptation, soundtracked by Nick Drake songs, chronicles the tragedy that unfolds when a student and a young teacher fall for the same new girl.
“Easy A” (2010)
The Scarlet Letter, another unlikely candidate for a teen comedy, inspired this hit film. In her first lead role, Emma Stone plays Olive, whose lie about losing her virginity leads to school-wide rumors of promiscuity. Embracing notoriety (she wears a red “A”), she uses her reputation to help unpopular boys earn social cred. Fresh and funny, this film also features an ensemble cast that includes Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, and Lisa Kudrow.