Thursday, July 5


by Ranulfo
Harper Teen 2006

On the surface Shakespeare's Hamlet contains all the elements necessary for great Young Adult fiction. There's a remarried mother, a devoted-yet-tragic girl, a sadistic vengeful boy, the haunting of the dead, meddling friends and families, in-jokes and meta-drama, double-crosses and, yes, even multiple premeditated murders. Perhaps the murder isn't a necessary element for YA when a good suicide will do (and Hamlet has one of those as well) but it does add a bit of spice to the mix.

But at it's core Hamlet is a tragedy, and one of the most tragic of all the Bard's works. In drama the tragedy concerns itself with an individual driven to self-destruction through their own fate or character flaws or some other overpowering force. Hamlet's father is dead, we later learn (from his father's ghost) murdered by his brother, Hamlet's mother remarries said brother, and the young prince is urged onto a mission of revenge against all parties. He 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 of is a necessary part of his single-minded determination. Hamlet correctly draws out the guilt of all parties and the bodies pile up as emotion grips the court. Hamlet pays for all this righteousness with his own life.

No such luck here with Joker, and if that counts as a spoiler then it should also serve as a warning that the book isn't so much an adaptation of Hamlet as it is a relatively bloodless variation on a loosely-based theme.

I think it's safe to say that wearing the skin of a bear does not make the person a bear, nor does it empower that person with any bear-like qualities. Wearing a necklace of shark's teeth neither gives the bearer the bite nor the ferocity of a killer. So 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, much less anything resembling great literature.

Particulars need to be rearranged for our modern age. Apparently we can teach school children the blood and guts of Hamlet but we could never tell the same story in a modern setting for fear of offending. We open 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 in this case is Matt's best friend Ray who died off-stage in an arson fire set at a 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 personal loss integral to the plot, Ranulfo has drained the story of it's potency.

In an attempt to bring out Matt's inner demons Ranulfo has created the character of the Joker, a demonic free spirit who, if removed entirely from the book, alters nothing. Serving as alter ego and as inner devil, the book's title character does little to convince us of Matt's internal suffering or of providing Matt much in the way of wayward guidance. At best Joker seems a literary contrivance aimed at convincing readers of some dark, sinister force at work behind the scenes. Sorry, no such luck.

Ophelia -- Leah -- is as much the clinging girlfriend as she is in Hamlet. Here a modern retelling 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 on and on it goes. Hamlet's journey abroad with Rosencranz and Guildenstern is a mere blip of self-exile at a trailer parked along the beach, with the messenger's bloodshed replaced by dropping out of society to join the circus. The play-within-a-play becomes 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 a king. Finally, where bodies should be piling up, Ranulfo has Matt running away to the big city for an encounter with anti-WTO protesters that leaves him feeling like he needs to return home.

Home to what? On the bus ride home Matt dream all his possible futures (well, a handful at least, and only the most extreme versions) but in the end comes back to Leah, to his senses, and mostly to the conclusion that love beats anger and vengeance any day.

And that's just not Hamlet.


Unknown said...

I've read "The Joker" about four times now... I love the book. But I see where you're coming from with your opinion: "That's just not 'Hamlet'." But I never quite understood whether or not you liked the book, meaning, "The Joker".

david elzey said...

i guess the short answer here is, no, i didn't like it. neither did i hate it. but it isn't something i'm likely to recommend to others.

you can't take on a work as iconic as hamlet and not expect comparison. to be fair, any author who sets out to update a classic work in any field shouldn't be compared directly with the work, but they should be held to answer the question: what have you added that either informs or expands on the original in a way that enriches them both.

with something like shakespeare, accessibility is certainly a factor as well, and the more visual interpretations (movies, theatre) tend to do this better than literature. richard iii with sir ian set during a fascist nazi-like occupation, baz luhrman's romeo+juliet, and the work of julie taymor amply prove this.

any literary adaptation of another literary work needs to be so strong that it can stand on its own and doesn't draw comparison. ranulfo's "the joker" fails in that light, and thus the review.