Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” once wrote T. S. Eliot, before qualifying: “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

The same could be said of all writing. In fact, ask any author and they'll freely reel off a list of books that inspired their latest work. But sometimes great writers don't just look for inspiration in their favourite novels, but retell them to create something new.

Whether that's to imagine what happened next, fill in a mysterious gap in the story or re-spin a classic tale into an allegory for modern life, some of the most famous novels ever written are based on other novels. Here's a selection of the best.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991)

We all know the story of King Lear: an old king obsessed with the loss of power can't decide which of his three squabbling daughters to pass his kingdom on to, so he manipulates them into a game of who-loves-daddy-more.

You know the plot, but chances are you don't know it like Jane Smiley knows it. This Pulitzer-winning novel turns Lear into Larry, Goneril into Ginny, Regan into Rose, and Cordelia into Caroline, and time-bounces them all from ancient Britain to a farm in Iowa. Only, for Smiley, Lear was “always a blowhard”.

“I didn’t understand the female characters in King Lear at all,” she told Big Think in 2011. “So I set about correcting my friend William Shakespeare – something no sane adult would attempt. I gave the royal family a background and a milieu. I gave the daughters a rationale for their apparently cruel behaviour.”

Shakespeare would probably have approved... he was, lest we forget, probably the greatest story-borrower of all time.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

"One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father," begins Zadie Smith's portrait of two families bound together by professional jealousy, female kinship and class conflict. E. M. Forster's 1910 drama Howard's End begins like this: “One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister".

The similarities run through each story like the DNA of non-identical twins: they don't quite look the same, but they grew from the same seed. Both books concern the entanglement of two families bound together by clashing values (liberal vs. conservative, modern vs. traditional, high class vs. low class), alongside many other correlations that weave between each book.

In fact, Smith went so far as to call her book a “homage” to Forster in her preface, "to whom all my fiction is indebted." “It was pretty conscious," she told the New Zealand Herald in 2005. "The idea for the book came before but once I started writing it, I knew what I wanted to do. It kind of fades in and out and there is no final murder or anything like that. It's more like a fable."

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

Who, really, was Mrs Rochester, Charlotte Bronte's “madwoman in the attic” in Jane Eyre? A raving, wild-haired monster, as Mr Rochester paints her, or a just a terminally gaslighted wife in need of a good therapist? For Jean Rhys, Mrs Rochester (née Antoinette Cosway) was the real underdog, not "poor, obscure, plain and little" Jane.

Wide Sargasso Sea tells her story, from her childhood in Jamaica to meeting Edward Rochester to her sad descent into mental infirmity upstairs at Thornfield Hall.

“She seemed such a poor ghost, I thought I'd like to write her a life”, Rhys once said. Far from the brooding Byronic dreamboat depicted by Charlotte Bronte, Rhys' Rochester is a cruel and philandering bully who travels to Jamaica in search of a fortune, finds Antoinette, changes her name to Bertha, drags her to England, steals her money and then locks her in his attic to live his own Best Life.

But more than just a reimagining of one of literature's most famous novels, Rhys used the story to devastatingly explore racism and sexual exploitation at the heart of post-colonial civilisation and literature.

The Innocents by Francesca Segal (2012)

In 2012, Francesca Segal won the Costa Debut Novel award, among others, for this story of a devastating love triangle in the tight-knit Jewish community of northwest London. It follows soon-to-weds Adam Newman and Rachel Gilbert, childhood sweethearts whose lives and upper-crust families have been enmeshed for years... until Rachel's wild-child cousin arrives from America, activating Adam's loins and forcing him into an impossible choice.

Anybody who's read Edith Wharton's Pulitzer-winning 1920 novel The Age of Innocence will know the plot – it's pretty much the same but set in New York about 100 years earlier.

“I chose to adapt the Wharton novel to contemporary north-west London because the central themes and ideas seemed so immediate and relevant,” Segal told the Jewish Book Council in 2012. “I recognised the social climate of her novel – conformity versus freedom; independence at a cost of support and security. My message is slightly different from hers, however.”

Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

It doesn't take a genius to work this one out – the clue screams itself hoarse in the title. Joyce's epic portrait of a day in the lives of three Dubliners – Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly and Stephen Dedalus – inverts Homer's The Odyssey almost to the letter.

It pretty much follows Homer's plot points, mirrors his characters and each of his 18 chapters are named after an episode in The Odyssey. The main difference: it doesn't follow a musclebound hero on an epic adventure that lasts years, but a farty, degenerate ad salesman as he wanders through Dublin across a single day.

But far more than just a pastiche, Joyce had a point: epic journeys aren't just for Greek heroes. Actually, he wants you to know, we're all heroes in our own life stories, only our odysseys happen mostly inside our heads. Joyce wanted to lasso Homer's masterpiece and drag it back down to earth.

Foe by J.M. Coetzee (1986)

This is not so much a pastiche, or a retelling or even a response to Daniel Defoe's 1719 castaway classic Robinson Crusoe. It's a radical reinvention, a bit like a fancy restaurant's deconstructed shepherd's pie – the ingredients are all the same, they've just been taken apart and the mash is now chips and something punchy's been added to the gravy.

The lead in J.M. Coetzee's story is a woman, thrust headlong into Defoe's world of men. In short, it's about a young English widow who finds herself marooned on a desert island thanks to a band of Portuguese mutineers, only to find that a man called Cruso (sic) is already there with a tongueless man-friend named Friday.

They live the island life for a while, until they're rescued, Cruso dies on the way back to England, and our heroine seeks out a writer named Daniel Foe to tell the story. Only, with Cruso dead and Friday mute, she struggles to remember what's true and what's not, as facts and fiction begin to blur. 

This masterful retelling was cited by judges as a major influence in Coetzee's 2003 Nobel Prize. 

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